1967: The Last Good Year by Pierre Berton
(Doubleday Canada Ltd., 1997, 391 pp., $36.95)
In July 1967, Gen. Charles de Gaulle stood on the balcony of the Montreal City Hall and said what the separatist crowd below wanted to hear: Vive, le Québec libre! (Long live a free Quebec.) In December 1967, Pierre Trudeau told the House of Commons, “There is no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” The then-president of France and soon-to-be Prime Minister of Canada spoke with malice aforethought. Their words still echo across Canada. For 30 years the most consequential issues in Canadian politics have been the threat of Quebec separatism and the legal entrenchment of the sexual revolution.
The most consequential year in modern Canadian history was 1967. “It was a special year-a vintage year. Writes Pierre Berton, “It was a turning-point year. An aging political establishment was about to fade away to be succeeded by a younger, more vibrant one. Canadians talked about economic nationalism, women's place in society, the outmoded divorce laws, national unity, the drug culture ... All these diverse subjects reached a kind of realization in 1967.”
Berton has been Canada's best-selling popular historian for decades, writing a shelf-full of books on everything from the greed of the Klondike gold rush to the gallantry of Canadian soldiers at Vimy Ridge. He turns his attention now to 1967, Canada's centennial year, when euphoria reigned over the national birthday party and its centerpiece, Montreal Expo '67.
Written in his familiar breezy style, 1967 reads like a magazine article. The analysis is not deep; it is more reminiscence that reportage, and the reader gets what the septuagenarian Berton remembers of that year. What Berton remembers most clearly is that 1967 was the year that modern liberalism took hold of the Canadian body politic. A charter member of the Canadian liberal establishment, Berton looks upon 1967 as a very good year indeed.
It was the year various challenges to traditional cultural norms reached critical mass. “The End of the Dark Ages” is how Berton characterizes the revolution that liberalized divorce, sodomy, and abortion laws. It was the “dawn of women's lib” and “the seeds of gay pride,” a revolution in morals was underway and Berton positively gushes. Not everything was achieved of course; Berton laments that it wasn't until 1997 that women had the right to go topless on Ontario streets.
Berton relishes the role of the old liberal, chiding those cretins who have never understood how hip he has always been. There is not an issue in the book—whether economic protectionism or native Canadian grievances-on which Berton does not stand bravely with the herd of progressive thinkers that rule over Canadian politics. A self-congratulatory tone dominates, inviting the reader's gratitude that sensible folk such as Berton were around in 1967. And where problems still fester-most obviously the question of Quebec separation-Berton winks and nods that everything would have been just fine if only the country was as accommodating as he has always been.
Berton's smugness sustains itself only by ignoring history—an odd approach for a historian. The explosion in social pathologies since 1967 is never mentioned. While Berton has a good laugh detailing the shenanigans couples staged to get a divorce pre-1967, he does not reflect upon the vast numbers of divorced and never-married mothers living in poverty today. He gives ample time to 1967's homosexual cause célèbre: a man sentenced to life imprisonment for homosexual liaisons that classified him as a repeat sexual offender. (The case provided the impetus for repealing the sodomy laws.) Yet he says not a peep about the death sentence of AIDS that has cut like a scythe through Canada's homosexual community.
Berton might be excused for wrong-headed optimism in 1967. Yet 30 years is enough time to repent of mistakes in the face of evidence that the developments he celebrates have caused a great deal of suffering. There are thinkers of his ilk that have adjusted their views to take account of reality; so many indeed, that they invented the label “neoconservative.”
It is not necessary to defend the injustices of 1967 to find Berton guilty of an injustice to history since 1967. A neoconservative is a liberal who was mugged by reality, but Berton is just a liberal who mugged history to avoid reality. He is not a scholar but a socialist.
Berton notes that the euphoria of 1967 seems to have produced a 30-year hangover. He speculates as to why. Canadians are better off materially than in 1967, so he concludes it is not economics that ails us. He thinks it might be in part the burden of higher taxes and cutbacks in government services. What was called the “global village” then, and “globalization” now, means competition instead of international brotherhood. The constant anxiety over Quebec separation gets most of the blame. Berton does not acknowledge that his preferred approach of accommodating Québécois nationalism while chastising English-Canadians for their lack of generosity toward Quebec has not solved the problem.
Yet he remains willfully blind to the possibility that many of the stresses and strains of contemporary life have their roots in the breakdown of family life. The old liberal still remembers how glorious it was supposed to be. “In 1967, a better world seemed to beckon—a world no longer uptight, where marriage ceased to be slavery, where birth-control was everybody's right,” writes a wistful Berton, “a more tolerant world that treated women and minorities with respect, in which everybody could do his own thing without attracting the attention of the police.”
The emergence from “The Dark Ages” has not been for Canadian families a time of sunshine and light. For many Canadians living in the wake of all that 1967 represents, Berton's social and political revolutions have ensured that it was the last good year.
Raymond de Souza is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.