1968 in Canada: A Year and Its Legacies. University of Ottawa Press (purchase at Amazon.ca) , and
1968 in Canada is, like 2020, a good reminder of just how much can happen in a year. The book offers a usefully granular look at a decisive year in Canada’s past and adds thought-provoking detail to some well- and lesser-known events from 1968, each of which influenced the nation’s future in its own way. This finely focused lens may overwhelm casual readers of history, but for researchers of Canadian history it provides unusually detailed assessments of projects, policies, and figures from Canada’s 1960s—though, one cannot help but wish the book addressed more topical and diverse issues.
The sixteen chapters of this book cover a range of events: US/Canada tensions, public reactions to progressive investigations and commissions, the evolution of Canadian media, Quebec cultural life, and so forth. Arguably, the best part of this book could have been more effectively signposted: its fascinating attention to the ways in which mainstream media reacted—in both helpful and unhelpful ways—to various political figures, movements, or events. In histories with broader temporal markers, there is rarely such dedicated attention to public reactions and media as in 1968 in Canada. Each chapter typically presents a “ground-floor” view of events and what feels like, in many cases, a refreshing perspective on long-discussed topics.
That being said, while individual chapters feel comprehensive, the book itself has glaring absences. Indeed, familiar discourses on media, publishing, Trudeaumania, Vietnam, and US/Canada relations receive disproportionately more attention than issues more representative of Canada’s diversity: the FLQ is barely mentioned; there is one strong article on Indigenous issues, but the book nevertheless feels quite uninterested in the Red Power movement (for which 1968 was a big year: recall, for instance, Harold Cardinal’s momentous election as leader of the Indian Association of Alberta); and there is an especially noticeable inattention to Canada’s Black communities (the founding of the Black United Front on the East Coast in November 1968 certainly fits very well within the book’s parameters). It also struck me as odd that the book says nothing (at the very least, certainly nothing I can recall) about the dramatic unfolding of homosexuality’s decriminalization from 1967 to 1969.
To be fair, I generally think it is poor form to critique a book on the basis of “it should have included X.” But in this case, such criticism has merit. If a text presents itself as an exploration of “a nation in the process of remaking itself” (4), then it obligates itself to include fuller discussions of the marginalized groups that play the biggest roles in this remaking, instead of focusing predominantly on the life and times of those in positions of power. The absence or elusiveness of such discussions becomes increasingly distracting as the book goes on. In the introduction, the editors “recognize the importance” of subjects they do not address and express their wish to “leave those discussions for other scholars to pursue” (7). But this acknowledgement rings quite hollow, given the insufficiently minor (or completely absent) mention of numerous important sexual revolutions and cultural groups that would permit readers to move on from the fairly traditional and well-mapped territory of Trudeaumania, political shuffles, Canadian media, book publishing, international relations, and the like. These are all worthy topics of discussion, but it is disappointing to see them so divorced from the other issues that I mention in this review. Some chapters (especially those from Jane Arscott and Andrew Gemmell) help alleviate my concern to one degree or another, but the book as a whole struggles to do so.
Another issue worth noting is the frequent feeling of disconnection within the book itself, marked by missed opportunities for discussions amongst the authors: Graham Fraser’s article on language debates, for instance, could easily have replied to Paul Litt’s representation of Canada’s “progressive” image in the media during the Trudeau era, just as Andrea Chandler’s article about the “Prague Spring” might have responded to Stephen Azzi’s contention that Anglo-Canadian political energies in the 1960s focused primarily on reducing “American influence—especially economic influence—in Canada” (71). There are, admittedly, some quick references to other chapters (in David Wright and Sasha Mullally’s piece, for instance), but these are, to be sure, very quick. 1968 in Canada seeds intriguing debates amongst its authors, yet these never meaningfully materialize; if they had, the book would enjoy a much stronger feeling of coherence. This issue is most noticeable with the book’s final chapter—an otherwise strong contribution by Will Smith that minutely attends to David Helwig’s writing (in lieu of a conclusion that ties the many threads of the book together).
Perhaps my criticisms of the book’s editorial approach give a false impression of the individual contributions, so I wish to be clear that the individual chapters offer fresh, intriguing perspectives on some of the debates, figures, and events that have preoccupied Canadian historians for the last fifty years. There are extraordinary entries in 1968 that offer enjoyable, in-depth explorations of many major and minor historical personages: Walter Gordon, Mel Watkins, Kahn-Tineta Horn, Laura Sabia, André Laurendeau, Jack McClelland, F. R. Scott, Paul Sauvé, and others. What limits the book, however, are its disjointed “case-study” structure and its inattention to events from the late 1960s that speak more directly to the cultural debates and discussions that define today’s political moment and that will, arguably, guide the sociopolitical discussions of our country for still quite some time. There are many more legacies of 1968 to explore, and hopefully the other scholars to whom the editors of 1968 allude will explore them in fuller dialogue with each other.
Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.