New Horizons for Canada: In Retrospect, It Was a Golden Age (the Seventies)

By Smith, Doug | Compass: A Jesuit Journal, March-April 1997 | Go to article overview

New Horizons for Canada: In Retrospect, It Was a Golden Age (the Seventies)


Smith, Doug, Compass: A Jesuit Journal


A past that most readers have lived through need not be narrated. A simple listing will do the trick: October 1970, the Waffle, the Committee for an Independent Canada, PetroCan, blue-eyed sheiks, wage and price controls, Anne Murray, "These Eyes," Morgentaler, November 1976, Trudeau. For those of us who were there, each phrase is redolent with meaning, a mental tripwire that sets a thousand synapses firing. And everyone has a different list. Having been there allows us to assert our own interpretation of the memories that each of these words triggers--"No, no, the pivotal event wasn't the October Crisis, it was really the pilots' strike." But we also remember, sometimes with a touch of anxiety or hard-earned humility, the way we misinterpreted events at the time.

If I might engage in reckless generalization (always a temptation in this sort of article), as I lived through the 1970s they seemed to languish in the shadow of the mighty sixties. Coming to maturity in the seventies, I always felt that I was living in a bit of an aftermath. Everything had been tried and everything had failed. Youth culture had brought about a consumer revolution, not a cultural revolution. Radical politics had dissolved into smaller and smaller sects with ever more grandiose titles. The expansive ambitions of the sixties simply existed to mock the illusory nature of any dreams of transcending a world mired in corruption and co-option. There was always Quebec--but to someone growing up in Winnipeg, Quebec was another country.

In retrospect, however, it seems that the seventies were a golden age. You truly don't know what you've got until it's gone. Or maybe it's just that (to engage in more reckless and unverifiable generalization) the sixties did not come to Canada until the seventies. The Conservative deux nations policy may have fallen flat on its face (remember Robert Stanfield and Marcel Faribault?), but the seventies were a period when it seemed that two nations might well be able to flourish north of the forty-ninth parallel. And it appeared that Canada might evolve into a North American social democracy. The 1970s were the golden age of nationalism and social democracy in Canada. And the fact that Canadian nationalism and Canadian social democracy have never really known what to make of each other is at least one reason why both of them have undergone such a beating in recent times.

The Golden Age of Social Democracy

At one point in the decade the New Democratic Party held power in three provincial capitals and controlled the balance of power in Ottawa. The Parti Quebecois that came to power in 1976 was the most social democratic of all PQ governments (although it wasn't long before labour lawyer Robert Burns left the caucus). Even oil-rich Alberta ended up with a vastly expanded social sector. If it weren't for Peter Lougheed's expansiveness in the seventies, Ralph Klein would have had nothing to cut. And it was Ontario's 1970s Tory premier Bill Davis, not Bob Rae, who created the social safety net that Mike Harris is taking the axe to. During the 1970s when an Ontario premier stole ideas from his opponents he was moving to the left.

There was a role for government in creating jobs, stimulating the economy and addressing social problems. Human rights, rent controls, occupational safety and health agencies, regional development programs, community development--these all became part of the common political coin of the 1970s. This was also a golden age for feminism. The injustices seemed so plain while an expanding economy appeared to offer the chance to eliminate them painlessly.

I remember speaking with Saskatchewan's deputy labour minister, Robert Sass, about his vision for occupational health and safety. In a reflective moment Sass said, "Maybe all these studies about carcinogenic chemicals are wrong. Maybe repetitive work isn't harmful. So what? I want to know what is wrong with trying to make work pleasant. …

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