The sesquicentennial celebrations marking Canada’s 150 years as a nation on Saturday will feature the biggest birthday bash on Parliament Hill since the centennial in 1967. It will be a great party – and, with a budget of $2.5 million, it should be.
But no matter how splendid the weather, how spectacular the entertainment, how dramatic the air show, or how eloquent the speeches, this year’s event will not hold a candle to the bash 50 years ago.
Fifty years? Can it be?
Although I have tried to con my children into believing that I, like the late Jack Benny, am a mere 39 years old, I must confess I was there on Parliament Hill on that day, July 1, 1967, 50 years ago, covering the event for the Globe and Mail.
The Queen was there. So was the new governor general, Roland Michener, and the soon-to-retire prime minister, Lester Pearson. Although I don’t remember a word any of them said that day, I do remember the Queen cutting the gigantic birthday cake, which rose to height of 30 feet (the metric system not having come to Canada yet). I remember the bright new Canadian flag fluttering atop the Peace Tower and the centennial flame burning brightly in front of the Centre Block.
But mostly I remember the crowd, both for its size – there had to be at least 100,000 people from every corner of Canada on the Hill that day – and for its excitement. There was a powerful sense that they were taking part in a historic moment in the life of their country.
Historians would say later that 1967 was a watershed year, the year Canada emerged as a modern nation, the year we shed the vestiges of a colonial past and realized we had become a grownup independent country.
It was an emotional year – the year Bobby Gimby’s “CA-NA-DA” became our unofficial anthem, the year that Expo brought the world to our shores, and the year our prime minister sent the president of France, Charles de Gaulle, packing, telling him he was not welcome in Canada after he shouted the separatist slogan, “Vive the Québec libre,” from a balcony at Montreal City Hall.
Trouble in Quebec was on the horizon in 1967. Terrorist bombings had begun the year before and five bombs went off on New Year`s Day, 1967. Before the year was over, Rene Lévesque, a charismatic former journalist, would leave the Quebec Liberals to form his own sovereignist party. Within three years, the Front de libération du Québec would kidnap British Trade Commissioner James Cross and murder Quebec’s Labour Minister Pierre Laporte, and the War Measures Act would be invoked in Quebec. Six years after that, Lévesque and his separatist Parti Québécois would be elected in Quebec.
The year 1967 was also the year when the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. It would be the last Stanley for the Leafs for 50 years, and counting, although the crowd on Parliament Hill on that July 1 had no way of foreseeing this dismal fact.
The mood that day 50 years ago was one of optimism and enthusiasm. There was a sense that anything was possible, that a new era was dawning. In terms of political leadership, it was true. Two months after the bash on the Hill, the Progressive Conservatives dumped their leader and former prime minister, John Diefenbaker, and replaced him with Robert Stanfield, the premier of Nova Scotia. Nine months after that, Pearson was gone and in his place the Liberals chose Pierre Trudeau, a swinging bachelor who made lady voters swoon and their significant others fume.
He immediately called an election and swept to victory in June 1968. The “Trudeaumania election,” as it became known, was the most exciting election I ever covered. Yes I was there, on the planes and press busses, and one day I’ll tell my grandchildren all about it, even though I am still only 39.