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1967: The Last Good Year

by Pierre Berton

Despite the bitter nostalgia of its title, reading Pierre Berton’s 42nd book is an exhilarating experience. 1967: The Last Good Year captures the coast-to-coast orgy of celebration that marked Canada’s 100th birthday. True to his take-you-there journalism, Berton spends no time arguing his point, or even hinting at why 1967 may have been the last good year for Canada. His eye for the telling anecdote brings to life the mood and style of that extraordinary year.

Festivities began on Dec. 31, 1966, with a blaze of burning outhouses in Bowsman, Manitoba, where a new sewage treatment plant had recently opened. As a joke, a local councillor had suggested the townspeople gather the obsolete biffies and burn them. Emboldened by instant national publicity via CBC, they did it – three hours before midnight, so local children could be there and still get to bed at a reasonable hour. What better image for a country leaping from rural isolation to international acclaim than a humorous, scatological purification ritual, staged with proper common sense and concern for future generations?

It’s all there: the populist ground swell of 2,860 federally funded Centennial projects, and the extraordinary egos who made headlines, including Jean Drapeau, Charles de Gaulle, Secretary of State Judy LaMarsh, as well as the naysayers who had to be dragged to the party – chief among them Prime Minister Lester Pearson. They hardly deserved each other, Judy and the PM. Her devotion to the diplomatic demands of playing hostess to the world cost her health, love, and serious money: the Prime Minister refused to accept her wardrobe as a business expense, probably a fraction of his cabinet’s collective bar bills. 1967 was a bandwagon that launched thousands of careers and for a time, at least, put Canada on the world map.

Alongside the hoopla, it was also a year that saw the beginning of debates on significant social issues, leading to ideas and structures that would profoundly change Canadian society. That year, the CBC continued its habit of confusing boring with good, and cancelled the controversial current affairs program This Hour Has Seven Days. Meanwhile, a countervailing spirit of nation-building prompted federal legislation commanding the public broadcaster to express Canadian identity.

The first volume of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism hit the headlines that year, and Liberal maverick René Lévesque stunned the country by introducing a resolution at his party’s convention calling for a sovereign Quebec. Hugh Hefner opened the first Canadian Playboy Club in (surprise, surprise) Montreal, and the feds set up a Royal Commission on the Status of Women.

In 1997, Canadians are, as Berton points out, statistically healthier and richer than in 1967, though the coast-to-coast mood is, to put it mildly, anti-euphoric. Was 1967 Canada’s last hurrah, or simply the last good year for Pierre Berton’s folksy dream of razzle-dazzle, 19th-century nationhood? Maybe 1997 is about incubation. Maybe future generations will see the Centennial as the first great year, when demons worth a good fight went public. In the meantime, it’s a great read, this 77-year-old scribe’s guided tour through an indisputably memorable year.