Lara Campbell, Dominique Clement, and Gregory S. Kealey, eds. Debating Dissent: Canada and the Sixties.
We are now as distant from the 1960s as that decade was from the First World War, but the past is always present. Indisputably, the tumultuous 1960s were culturally transformative. In the trope of Debating Dissent, "the Sixties" were more than a decade; they were an idea and a phenomenon that transcended a fixed period. They expressed temperaments that went against the grain of conventional wisdom, challenging the nostrums of established authority and refusing to defer. This collection of 13 essays with an introduction by two of the editors is the latest book in the Canadian Social History Series under the general editorship of labour historian Gregory S. Kealey. The contributors do not so much debate as they document dissent.
Some of the authors lived through the events they dissect (although some veterans of the drug-induced flower power counterculture claim that if you can remember the Sixties, you were not there). The younger authors are intrigued by the era's permissiveness; the Sixties spawned much of the contemporary academic discourse in which they engage on subjects such as the environment, Aboriginals, race, and gender. Some of the chapters are case studies--the 1969 and 1971 riots at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University and Vancouver's Gastown, and the confrontations involving Blacks in Nova Scotia. Other chapters offer broader surveys --of wildcat strikes, English Canadian and Quebec nationalisms, the drug culture, the women's movement, and the rise of faculty power at universities.
This last story, stretching for two decades beginning in the early 1950s, speaks to the elasticity of the Sixties as an epoch. So too do the photographs that preface each chapter. Of the 13 images, five are from either the 1950s or the 1970s. The cover illustration of a longhaired protester forcibly thrown into a paddy wagon by police officers has two children relaxing on the street curb less than five feet away, their attention directed elsewhere.
Students of ethnicity will find thin gruel in these studies. Unless their interest is Canada's Blacks (West Indian and Nova Scotian), Aboriginals, or Quebecois, they will encounter only a gratuitous mention of the Jewishness of an American draft dodger and a brief reference to the assistance extended to Halifax's Africville residents by the Jewish Labour Committee. I would have welcomed a chapter that detailed the rise of multicultural discourse, triggered by the hearings of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. What was termed the "third force" in Canada spoke out. Largely located in western Canada, it was composed mainly of second--and third-generation Europeans who considered their cultural heritages denigrated by the assumptive title of the Commission. There is a cursory reference (236) to this attitude and a more glancing acknowledgment of the protests of St. Leonards unspecified "immigrants"--they were largely Italian--in Matthew Hayday's chapter on the conflicting language regimes of Ottawa and Quebec City.
Stephen Azzi's engaging canvass of English Canada's "nationalist moment" has it peaking by the mid-1970s, when nationalist public opinion was at its height. By then, the NDP's left-wing Waffle was dead and the Liberals and the mainstream media had picked up the nationalist baton. Canada's economic weakness subsequently diverted public attention to unemployment and inflation. The references to the United States and Americans--Stokely Carmichael, Timothy Leary, the Vietnam War, the U.S. Institute of Food Technologists, Jerry Rubin and the Yippies, among many others--reveal America's heft as a cultural behemoth. Many American influences, such as the New Left and Black Power, provided templates for many Canadians. Canadians also had some impact on American sensibilities: Pat Nixon asked Winnipeg's Guess Who not to play their chart-topping "American Woman," widely perceived as anti-American, at their White House concert.
Jose Iguarta's concluding chapter on the Sixties in Quebec is a story many authors have covered in many places, although he mines some interesting archival clips from Radio-Canada. "Discrimination against blacks (and now Latinos, Muslims, Arabs, and Orientals) seems to have increased in proportion to the increase in their numbers" (267), is his only hint that there are allophones in Quebec. This assertion appears conspicuously questionable, especially after we learn from James W. St. G. Walker that New France had 1,400 African slaves (173).
Most of the era's rebels were coopted, most of its revolutionaries marginalized, and most established institutions survived the Sixties very well. Herbert Marcuse makes a cameo appearance (219). What is not mentioned in this book is Marcuse's prediction in his 1965 essay, dedicated to his students, on repressive tolerance. The spirit of that era has long abated. Perhaps, as Marcuse wrote, this book recalls some "historical possibilities which seem to have become utopian possibilities."
Beware: the refreshing material in this book may trigger flashbacks for its older readers. Younger ones will learn or be reminded of how dramatically different their life situation is compared to that of those who lived through those heady days.
Department of Political Science, University of Toronto
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|Publication:||Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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