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Putting the Centennial in Sesquicentennial Illustration by Ian Turner.

Putting the Centennial in Sesquicentennial

Reflecting on the last time we took comfort in ecstatic nationalism.

On new year’s day 1967, the CBC broadcasted “100 Years Young,” a variety special meant to kick off that year’s Centennial celebrations. Among the performers was a young Gordon Lightfoot, who debuted his “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” a sweeping epic that the CBC had specially commissioned for the show. Lightfoot, wearing a collared shirt, tie and vest, wore his acoustic guitar high on his chest and sang directly to the camera. Reaching the crescendo of his seven-minute epic, he crooned:

Oh, the song of the future has been sung
All the battles have been won
O’er the mountain tops we stand
All the world at our command

Behind him, singing railroad workers came to life, raining synchronised sledgehammer blows upon mock rail tracks; in front of him, a live studio audience—and, beyond, the audience tuning in over radio and TV. 

Kicking off the year’s Centennial celebrations, Lightfoot’s rich baritone wove a vision of national promise and achievement for viewers across the country. As the spry and muscular chorus of navvies pranced around, Lightfoot gazed beyond the horizon, aloof yet focused. He earnestly reminded his audience about a time “long before the white man, and long before the wheel, when the green dark forest was too silent to be real.” Complementing the tone of the celebrations, the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” assured listeners that Canada at one hundred was a settled nation—the story of the railroad, the colonization of the country, the taming of the mountains and wilderness was a romantic epic, a song to sing in praise and memory. 

Few years cast longer shadows across Canadian culture than 1967. The Centennial celebrations, which coincided with Montreal’s World’s Expo, occurred during a period of what Gillian Mitchell, in her book The North American Folk Music Revival, described as “euphoric nationalism,” when young and old alike came together to celebrate our distinct sense of nationhood and its assuredly bright future. Under the Centennial Commission, celebrations, activities and events of all kinds were funded to project images of national promise and historic greatness. The lighting of Parliament Hill’s gas-powered Centennial Flame by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson at midnight on December 31, 1966, ignited a mood of national optimism. Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” along with other music and sporting events, were promoted, while the Confederation Train—a diesel locomotive with specially crafted coach cars filled with exhibits on Canadian history and culture—trekked from coast to coast, stopping in sixty-three cities over the course of the year. 

Fifty years later, Canadians are again marking a major anniversary of confederation. The federal government will spend half a billion dollars on Canada 150, supporting everything from year-long free admission to national parks and historic sites to a “Parliament Hill party” headlined by Carly Rae Jepsen. In 2016, the Liberal Party announced the driving themes underpinning these celebrations: diversity and inclusion, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, the environment, and youth—a marked contrast to the “Strong,” “Proud” and “Free” of the Conservative Party’s unrealized plans for Canada 150. In the wake of Stephen Harper’s infamous attempts to use Canadian history to promote a militaristic identity—2012’s look back at the war of 1812, for example—the Liberals’ tone emphasizes, instead, self-congratulatory pluralism, a view of Canada articulated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he told the New York Times Magazine that Canada has “no core identity, no mainstream.” 

The problem, however, is that these types of national celebrations largely pave over the complexities of the Canadian social landscape, both present and past, rather than engaging with them head-on. Echoing the Centennial, Canada 150 “demonstrates what is possible,” according to CBC/Radio-Canada, the Community Foundations of Canada, and VIA Rail, who encourage Canadians to draw inspiration from past celebrations.

The Centennial occurred in the midst of an impassioned negotiation regarding Canada’s sense of identity, fuelled by a generational conflict over the place of Britain in the nation. The conflict generated by the establishment of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1963, the introduction of a new flag in 1965, and the rise of an increasingly assertive nationalist Quebec provoked anxiety among Canadians whose “Britishness” formed an integral aspect of their identity. The 1967 celebrations transcended national infighting by presenting an image of Canada believed to have pan-Canadian appeal—public historian and journalist Pierre Berton, for example, wrote that while partaking in the festivities he “fell captive to an unexpected emotion… nationalism unabashed.” Canada was depicted simultaneously as a confident, pluralistic nation ready for a place on the world stage, and as a nation firmly rooted in its cultural traditions. The projects and products of the Centennial, like Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” helped ease that tension by keeping a foot in each camp. “My grandpa and I didn’t have a lot in common,” reflects London Free Press columnist Larry Cornies, “but in that moment... I think we shared a realization—he as a senior, I as a teen—that this country was a place with a promising future in a world racked by trouble.”

The “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” was successful because it articulated a vision of Canada that appealed to older Canadians’ sense of Britishness while simultaneously validating younger Canadians’ self-confidence. The ballad is one of the few to be consecrated as an unofficial national anthem, regularly appearing on lists of “most essential” Canadian songs. In it, Lightfoot celebrated a Canada which had been built by the first wave of hearty immigrants from the United Kingdom who “sailed upon her waterways” and “walked the forests tall,” labouring to build “the mines, mills and the factories for the good of us all.” With its promise of a limitless future, it appealed to Canadians skeptical of Britain’s place in their society even as it looked to the past—Lightfoot allowed young and old to meet in the middle. 

Gordon Lightfoot was a smart choice for the CBC. By the mid-sixties, he’d established himself as a popular singer-songwriter with a fan base that transcended age. His countercultural image appealed to the young, while his generally safe, unchallenging lyrics made his work palatable to older Canadians. By combining his cross-market appeal with a sense of nationalism that simultaneously expressed nostalgia and a longing for greatness, Lightfoot, along with the Centennial, created a cultural common ground for Anglo Canadians during a period of immense change. It proved a potent cocktail. Writing for the Globe and Mail in 1970, journalist Jack Batten contended that Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” faithfully retold a “great event in our history,” and that Lightfoot was “supremely effective as a historian.” Lightfoot, Batten observed, had plumbed the period’s nationalist spirit with a song that made “you proud to be Canadian.” 

Today, Canada is again undergoing a period of fundamental change. According to Statistics Canada, as of 2011, Canada’s population was 20.6 percent foreign-born, the highest proportion among the G8 countries, and thirteen different ethnic origins had surpassed the one-million mark. A nation with colonialism written into its DNA, Canada has become multicultural, to the point where it has been described, perhaps most notably by author and Sir John A. MacDonald biographer Richard Gwyn, as the world’s first postmodern nation. Immigration and birth patterns have changed the face of Canada, bringing diasporas and immigrants who have their own difficult pasts with British colonialism. Our history has been re-evaluated by scholars interested in topics outside of the traditional nation-building mould, while the recent release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report have precluded any honest attempt to view our history through rose-coloured glasses. 

For the most part, the Liberals are, at least on the surface, vocally supportive of the changing face of Canada. But through the colonial echoes of Canada 150, they’re offering a nationalistic balm to those haven’t reacted well to ongoing societal changes—those for whom colonial myths provide a sense of identity and security in the face of unstoppable progress. 

This March, the CBC kicked off its Canada 150 programming by debuting Canada: The Story of Us, a ten-part docudrama series. Instead of using history as an “instrument of colonization,” executive producer Julie Bristow told the Canadian Press that the series is intended to be “history for a new generation.” On-screen, however, the series echoes not only the pluralist idealism of the Liberal Party’s Canada 150 themes, but also the colonial overtones of cultural products like Lightfoot’s “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” Any attempts at critical discussion beyond tokenistic inclusion were sacrificed in favor of a triumphalist narrative focused on the achievements and hardships of European settlers. In an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail, four scholars point out that, in the first episode of Canada: The Story of Us, “12,000 years of aboriginal history are condensed into a few minutes” and “the French are depicted as vicious, treacherous, and persistently dirty.” Writer and educator Hayden King, a contributor to The Story of Us, “tried to frame Champlain as the asshole that he was” but ended up arguing with producers for most of his interview, according to what he tweeted after the episode aired. 

For all of our rhetoric about inclusion, Canada still holds dear our collection of myths and symbols. The Liberals know that, as in 1967, these myths provide a sense of security to many Canadians during periods of political and social instability. With Canada 150, the Liberals are attempting, again, to bridge the growing divide between celebrating our colonial past and promoting our stated contemporary values of pluralism and reconciliation. 

In 1961, according to the Department of Justice, over 40 percent of all Canadians were of British descent. Appeals to a glorious British past wrapped in progressive, forward-looking language worked well with the country’s populace. But Canada has changed a great deal since then. Statistics Canada projects that as of 2017 approximately one in five Canadians will be foreign-born. This would be the highest level of immigration observed since the turn of the twentieth century, a period when many of these colonial myths were being incubated and refined—yet unlike the previous century, Europeans will make up a low percentage of newcomers. Sustained immigration has increased Canada’s visible minority population from 5 percent in 1981 to an estimated 20 percent as of 2017. By 2031, that figure could be as high as a third of the country’s population.

Canada 150, then, offers an opportunity to engage in a difficult but necessary conversation about where we have come from and where we are going, giving full voice to the complexities of our past. Relying upon traditional icons can only ever be selective celebration, and conceptualizing Canada’s growth as a tale of adventure where diversity flourishes into understanding neatly tidies up social fracture, dissent and resistance, which are very much a part of Canada’s past, present, and future. Without the inclusion of voices critical of the apotheosis of colonial heroes or a recognition of Canada’s changing face, Canada 150 is an unaffected reworking of themes from 1967, and will fail at its stated goals of reconciliation and inclusion.