Youth Activism in the 1960s and Today: Canadian Dimension Asked Me to Provide a Comparison of the Canadian Youth Movement Now and in the 1960s, Based on My Experience. Here It Is. I Am Grateful to Brigette DePape and Martin Lukacs for Their Thoughtful Comments on a Draft. Errors, of Course, Are Mine

Article excerpt

FROM TIME IMMEMORIAL, youth have provided the catalytic energy and risk-taking behaviour for any social movement worth its name. When triggering events occur for the movement, it is invariably young people who are the first responders, pouring into the streets and demanding change.



The Canada of the 196os was very different than today. Following World War II, there had been a massive expansion of the university education system and tuition was inexpensive. It was a time of economic boom and an expanding middle class, and young people did not worry, generally, about finding work or supporting themselves. What we did worry about was the nuclear bomb, war and economic inequality. We were the children of people who had fought in World War II and we were inculcated with the values our parents thought they had fought for: freedom, democracy, justice, peace. Our mothers--forced out of the workforce after the war--poured their longing for relevance into us, and we thought we had a mission to rebuild the world.

In the summer of 1965, I was working as a researcher for the Organizing Committee of the Company of Young Canadians in Ottawa. Sent out to interview executive directors of national voluntary agencies like the YMCA about what they thought young Canadians should do, I soon found myself in the offices of the Student Union for Peace Action (SUPA) in Toronto talking to Arthur Pape. SUPA was at the time the centre of Canadian student organizing against the war in Vietnam (like SDS in the US). Formed in 1964 out of the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarm-ament (CUCND), it had three key thrusts to its work: mobilizing against the war, organizing in communities left out of the prosperous society, and consciousness raising. I fell in love with the movement and all it stood for: participatory democracy, racial equality, Third World liberation, peace and social justice. After a SUPA gathering at St. Calixte, Quebec, in September 1965, a weekend of intense political discussion, training in community organizing and youthful exuberance, I quit the CYC and went to work with the SUPA-sponsored Kingston Community Project (KCP) as a community organizer. My real education began.


The KCP had been started by 10 Queen's University students in spring 1965, but they were graduating and most were leaving Kingston. Dennis McDermott, Myrna Wood and I replaced them. Building on their contacts, we set out to know the community by knocking on doors and listening to problems. Over the next few years, the Project became a project of Kingston youth and their allies, who set up a number of youth drop-in centres and a community information service (which predated legal clinics). We organized with low-income tenants and later with other tenant organizations around the province (where we achieved reforms to the Landlord-Tenant Act and rent control), and we published our own newspaper, This Paper Belongs to the People. The KCP continued into the early 3.97os.

It was a tumultuous time. The language of freedom, self-determination, social justice galvanized people all over the world in many interrelated movements and activities: an end to the war in Vietnam, ban the bomb, prisoners rights, free universities, free schools, Quebec sovereignty, racial equality, free Love. Research into power structures grew apace, as we all struggled to understand "the system" that benefited from the misery of others. Within a few short years, the movement had gained substantial public support.


As a result, by 1973 the US was being forced out of the war in Vietnam, and the Paris Peace Accord was signed; the war continued on the ground until 1975, ending with the taking of Saigon by the North Vietnamese.

But other forces were also at play. Many of the organizations we started were institutionalized as charitable organizations with professional staff and clients instead of participants. …