Moving beyond the Long Sixties: A Time to Think about Frameworks, Themes, and Core Concepts to help understand late-Twentieth Century Canada

April 26, 2021

Image: Expo Centre, August 1986, Ernie Reksten. Reference code: AM1551-S1-: 2010-006.440. Source: City of Vancouver Archives, https://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/expo-centre.

Written by guest blogger Matthew Hayday, Co-Editor, Canadian Historical Review

In its June 2019 issue, the Canadian Historical Review (CHR) published a Historical Perspectives feature section entitled “Reconsidering 1969: A Turning Point for Canada?” This was an unusual Historical Perspectives section. These feature sections in the CHR normally bring together a few articles that focus on a broad theme in Canadian history, such as international history, Indigenous history, or the history of the First World War, in which contributors reflect on various dimensions of the field from different perspectives. For this section on 1969, though, the invited authors were asked to consider whether this year marked a turning point, of some sort, for their field of study. For many countries around the world, the year 1968 is often pointed to as a crucible year filled with dramatic events, while this was less notably so for Canada. In contrast, there were many high profile key political, social and cultural events in the following year. But did those events add up to a “turning point”?

As is so often the case with historians, the answer was not clear cut. Each contributor to this section, reflecting on issues related to language rights and English-French relations, reproductive justice, Indigenous rights, and the history of sexuality and state regulation, pointed to ways in which the events of this year mattered. But they all also emphasized longer term continuities, with developments preceding these dates, or ways in which the formal, legal policies enacted in 1969 did not lead to the anticipated long-term political and social changes that were sought or desired, at least not in the short-to-medium term.

A common theme that connected all of these contributions, though, was the need for a greater engagement with the histories of the decades that followed 1969, covering the last third of the twentieth century. They noted the limited extent of scholarship on Canada of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, particularly when compared to the state of historical research in other countries. While much attention has been paid to the “Long Sixties”, there remain huge gaps in our understanding of so many aspects of the decades that followed, to say nothing of overarching theories and frameworks that might synthesize these periods and pull diverse threads together.

It is not entirely clear why the volume of post-1970s historical scholarship has been relatively limited in Canada. Access to archival sources might partially account for this in certain sub-fields. Many historians are also a bit skittish about studying periods for which they have clear personal memories – and with limited tenure-track hirings, there aren’t very many Canadian history professors (although there are many graduate students) who were born in the 1980s and 1990s, who might be less prone to these concerns. Whatever the reason though, most of the students we teach in our undergraduate Canadian history courses were born in the twenty-first century. For them, the late-twentieth century is clearly history, and we need good historical research that we can draw on to teach them, and that they can use to study this important period.

Before this CHR issue even came out, and partly by coincidence, a group of historians who do work on these later decades had engaged in a vigorous and fun exchange over Twitter, lamenting the fact that more work hadn’t been done on this period. They (and I was part of this group) pondered whether the time had come to pull together an event to allow those of us who work on it to share our work, and perhaps to think about some of these bigger themes and concepts that might structure how we teach, research, and write about late-twentieth century Canada.

The CHR issue with the section on 1969 was released just prior to the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association, held at the University of British Columbia. Knowing that the issue was about to come out, and with a keen interest in this period myself, I’d already co-organized a panel on issues of 1970s and 1980s Canadian history. My co-panelists – Nancy Janovicek, Dimitry Anastakis, Jenny Ellison – and I had already started to think that our panel might help serve as a springboard to a stand-alone conference. And so, in the weeks ahead of the annual meeting, we put out the word that we’d like to meet with others about the idea of a larger event. At a post-panel dinner and drinks in Vancouver with a larger group, we decided to take the plunge and organize a conference for 2021. We were delighted that additional members agreed to join our planning committee – Sarah Nickel, Ben Bradley, Petra Dolata, and Kevin Brushett. It is perhaps not surprising that all of us are part of Generation X or Millennials – these are the decades when we grew up.

We certainly didn’t predict a pandemic would intervene when we sent out the call for papers! But there was nonetheless a very enthusiastic response to the idea of broader academic conversations about post-1969 Canada. The conference, “Between Postwar and Present Day: Canada 1970-2000, Local, National, Global“ will be held online from May 6th-8th. Our retro dance party event will, alas, have to be deferred until later, but we’re very excited by the breadth of what will be covered over several keynote panels and events, and a series of over twenty panels, involving over eighty scholars, including many graduate students, working on this period.

The connections to the CHR’s special Historical Perspectives feature on 1969 are extensive, starting with its core themes. All of the authors who were part of that issue are participating in the conference in various capacities. Sarah Nickel, whose CHR piece considered the impact of 1969 and the White Paper on Indigenous activism, is a member of the conference organizing team. She will not only be presenting her own research on Indigenous women and activism in the aftermath of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, but also hosting a keynote conversation with acclaimed Indigenous filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin. Tom Hooper, who considered the impact of the 1969 Omnibus legal reforms on state and police responses to homosexuality in Canada, will be giving a paper that further explores these themes, particularly about the myth of decriminalization. Katrina Ackerman and Shannon Stettner, whose CHR contribution considered questions of reproductive justice and abortion access, will respectively be giving papers about abortion politics in Newfoundland and Labrador following the Morgentaler decision, and about Rev. Ken Campbell’s influence on anti-abortion activism. Marcel Martel, whose piece reflected on language rights following the passage of the Official Languages Act, will be part of a plenary session of historians reflecting on how we teach, research and write about this period.

The aforementioned papers are but a small sampling of a dynamic program that includes discussions of housing, Canada’s international relations, drug policy, access to information, deindustrialization, labour, neoliberalism, the environment, energy, politics, and much, much more. The conference is free, thanks to support from a SSHRC Connections Grant and our sponsors, and you are invited to register at the conference website at https://betweenpostwar.artsci.utoronto.ca/

In anticipation for the conference, and to mentally set the stage for the era that was about to unfold, we invite you to go back and read our Historical Perspectives section on 1969, if you haven’t done so already. Prepare to cast yourself back to the era of disco balls, leg warmers, and plaid shirts. Put on your favourite retro music mix. Remember – or be grateful that you can’t remember – when finding journal articles involved card catalogues or sitting on the floor in the stacks with a pile of back issues. All four articles, plus the editors’ introduction, will be free to read on the UTP Journals website until a couple of weeks after the conference.

Matthew Hayday has been the co-editor of the Canadian Historical Review since 2018. He is a professor of Canadian history at the University of Guelph, with a particular research emphasis on political and cultural history in the post-1960s period. He is on the organizing committee of the conference Between Postwar and Present Day: Canada, 1970-2000, Local, National, Global.

The UTP Journals blog features guest posts from our authors. The opinions expressed in these posts may not necessarily represent those of UTP Journals and their clients.

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