The Decade of the 1960s in Canada

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Histories are often written, it has been said, to celebrate the historians who write them rather than the times depicted.  That may be true of the history called Canada’s 1960’s by Professor Bryan D. Palmer.

The 1960s made up a decade (some of us remember) full of complex, contested, courageous, sometimes trivial matters that might well attract someone attempting to characterize the people who engaged in them: Canadians in the 1960s.

Recall some of the high-lights of the time:  there was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 (between the USA and Soviet Russia) when prime minister John Diefenbaker refused U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s request to put all Canadian forces on High Alert … and someone went behind Diefenbaker’s back and did it anyway.  The truth of “who” did it has not, I believe, ever been fully told.

Remember the 1961 creation of the New Democratic Party (from the CCF and Union interest in a meaningful Social Democratic Left). Remember the 1963 Canadian federal election when the J.F. Kennedy forces loaned the Liberals an “Election Advisor” in order to help defeat the Diefenbaker Conservatives. And, also in 1963, there was the creation of one of Canada’s largest unions (by merger) the Canadian Union of Public Employees that had both a sobering and strengthening effect upon Canadian unionism. Remember the 1962 eclat when (in Saskatchewan) ‘Medicare’ was introduced, fought against by a Doctors’ Strike which was supported by the U.S. Medical Association …. And then in 1968  ‘Medicare’ was made a national Canadian program.

And remember … the middle Sixties introduced what would be High Drama and massive public manipulation with the founding of the FLQ in Quebec.

Remember the decade may fairly also be called a decade of activities to cut back and to back off U.S. ownership, control, influence and pressure upon Canada … and to release Canadian imagination and energy in the work and play of Canadian life: in the universities … and all education; in the unions; in the economy; in the arts and letters, even in activism.

Remember The Action Committee of the The Status of Women, and ‘The Canadian Liberation Movement’, the latter a Maoist action group headquartered in Toronto … that became so present it was awarded the contract to produce the catalogue for the large Chinese Exhibition staged at the Royal Ontario Museum.

(None of the above is mentioned in Professor Palmer’s ‘history’ of the 1960s … except the Cuban Missile Crisis and the FLQ.)

Remember, in 1964, the final defeat of the Canadian Seaman’s Union (founded on the Great Lakes in 1936) came about, battling against an ‘imported’ U.S. criminal (Hal Banks) leading opposition to the preservation of a Canadian union AND a Canadian Merchant Marine. The thugs of Hal Banks, supported by Canadian government, joined with members of the RCMP to battle Canadian unionists on the docks … the long battle tying up, as well, for a time, the British port of Liverpool and a port in Australia… before thuggery won. And in 1964 thuggery ended the Canadian union as well as beginning the erasure (pleasing to U.S. interests) of an internationally operating Canadian Merchant Fleet (the fourth largest in the world).

To erase the disgrace of that painful patch of Canadian history, “acceptable” Canadian writers who mention the Canadian Seaman’s Union always (as Professor Palmer does) tag the CSU as “Communist led”.  The editor of the CSU newspaper and others close to the union described (to me) that tag as a slander intended to cover up for the people following U.S. thug orders to destroy the union. 

In a more ‘staid’ area of ‘take back Canada’… remember Walter Gordon’s 1950s books on the Canadian economy … and then his forced resignation (as Liberal Canadian Finance Minister in 1963) for budgeting a “takeover tax” on foreign (read U.S.) takeovers of Canadian corporations. Remember his (in fact) appointment (1967) of The Task Force on Foreign Ownership and the Structure of Canadian Investment, headed by Mel Watkins – which produced the famous (1968) “Watkins Report”. (That major event of the 1960s is not mentioned by Professor Palmer). Remember Walter Gordon’s assistance in forming the lively Committee for an Independent Canada which was a good-natured co-force on “independence” beside the Waffle Movement in the NDP – “independence and socialism” (tossed out of the NDP in 1974 at a meeting in the Orange Hall in Orillia, Ontario, when U.S. Union appointed delegates marched into the Hall to help vote the Waffle Movement OUT of the NDP.)

An extraordinary matter in the book, Canada’s 1960s by Professor Bryan Palmer is what, fairly, might be called his unprofessional (however subtle) attack on historical figures of importance he apparently dislikes. Throughout the book Professor Palmer denigrates Walter Gordon, naming him an anti-American … repeatedly.  I knew Gordon quite well, and discussed politics with him.

Walter Gordon was not an anti-American.  He considered anti-Americanism an infantile disorder. But Professor Bryan D. Palmer has written him down … throughout his book … for those who will believe it … as an anti-American. False. And sad.

In addition, Professor Palmer introduces a quotation into his text naming Madeleine Parent, textile union organizer in Quebec and then supporter of the Confederation of Canadian Unions, a “red witch” … clearly meaning a Communist … and Professor Palmer does not correct the allegation in the quotation.  I knew Madeleine Parent very well … and discussed unionism and Communism in Canada with her at length.  Madeleine Parent was never a communist … but she is written down as one by Professor Bryan D. Palmer to do her (and Walter Gordon) injustice as long as the book is read).

For Shame.

The 1960s in Canada were years of development and excitement, conflict and good humour.  Remember Trudeaumania … and the marriage of prime minister Pierre Trudeau to a woman less than half his age, Margaret Sinclair. Their relation was tempestuous … exploding until it exploded apart. When it began with marriage, John Diefenbaker remarked, drily, that Trudeau had a problem … whether to marry Margaret Sinclair … or to adopt her.

The years also produced the FLQ in Quebec, the Liberation Front … involving many youth determined to find a new future for the Province. Professor Bryan D. Palmer reproduces the story of the FLQ according to the accepted recipe of those in power in Canada ... when a very different story needs to be told … and will be told … here.