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Canada’s 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era

by Bryan D. Palmer

As Canadian baby boomers enter their senior years, we seem to have missed out on the U.S.’s apparently recession-proof cottage industry of books on the 1960s. Trent University professor and author Bryan D. Palmer attempts to remedy that dearth with this hefty tome, exploring some of the major events and trends that dominated Canada during history’s grooviest decade.

Beginning with the idea that a traditional, conservative sense of Canadian national identity was thoroughly disrupted, if not destroyed, by the social movements of the era, Palmer attempts to spread his thesis across a broad swath of territory. By book’s end, he manages to incorporate detailed history and analysis of Canada’s student and anti-war movements, the rise of women’s liberation, wildcat labour agitation, and Quebec’s independence struggle.

It’s a daunting task, marked by the attributes of a typical northern Canadian portage: areas of tough slogging followed by free-flowing ease and enjoyment. Palmer is a good writer who knows his material well, but his style is uneven, ranging from the rigidly academic (complete with rough patches of Marxist terminology) to good old-fashioned storytelling.

Palmer posits that the effects of the 1960s remain very much with us, and readers may well find that his text provides an interesting window on contemporary events. This is especially true in his exploration of Cold War Canada – a lengthy period of minority governments, endless political scandals, and neverending discussions about Quebec’s role in Confederation – as well as his analysis of Trudeaumania, a political euphoria that embraced style over substance and swept this nation four decades before Obama became a household name.

Palmer’s book is a useful reality check for a country that, despite failures in multiculturalism, increasing social inequality, and some fairly unsavoury political dealings, continues to promote itself as a WASPy, self-effacing, honest innocent on the world stage.