Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Review: Canada's 1960s

[Bryan D. Palmer. Canada's 1960s: The Ironies of Identity in a Rebellious Era. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009.]

Before I started reading, a friend warned me that this was a kind of peculiar book. I wasn't sure how to take that and mostly just shrugged it off. After all, I have read some of Bryan Palmer's work before, and am aware of him as a prominent Canadian labour historian of the generation that entered the academy in the '70s. I also know that Canada's social movements of the 1960s have received very little attention in book form -- see here for a review of an important early exception -- and I was keen to see what he had to say on the subject.

Except this isn't quite the book that I had thought it would be. The second half is, mind you -- it looks at various Canadian social movements of the 1960s, synthesizing things I'd read about elsewhere with other things that were completely new to me. Various chapters were more or less successful, of course. The chapter on spontaneous youth unrest was a bit odd (see below) but interesting and new to me, and I particularly liked the chapter on the wave of rank-and-file labour militancy that washed across the country in the mid '60s. I also appreciated the chapter on the uprisings in that era in Quebec, since that has received so little treatment, particularly treatment-from-below, in English. I didn't think the chapter on the student New Left was quite as strong, but it was still full of good stuff. The chapter on indigenous resurgence in that era was a rare instance of trying to transcend the very fragmented, partial ways I've seen it dealt with before, when it gets attention at all, though I think the chapter illustrated for me that a lot more basic groundwork remains to be done to unerase that important piece of history.

So some of it was stronger and some of it not so strong, and I think perhaps there would have been something to be gained by an examination of the decade treating the 1960s as a political moment with unclear boundaries rather than as ten specific years bounded by the calendar. However, it was all well worth reading.

Except that was only half the book.

The first half had a very different feel to it. I'm not sure if I'm using this term in the same way that academic historians would, but it felt to me like cultural history rather than movement history. Which on a certain level is fine, even positive. I think sometimes people who write about social movements don't do enough to explore the intersections between movements and the broader environments in which they operate. I also learned a lot from each and every chapter in this section of the book. Yet the combination of how Palmer chose to put this section together and the larger purpose he had in doing it left me feeling -- well, a little peculiar.

You see, the overarching thesis of this book is about nationalism and Canadian identity. Palmer argues, as I understand it, that the 1960s represented a decisive shift in Canadian identity, an end once and for all to the vestiges of Canada as a purely imperial, British-identified project, and a shift towards a much more unsettled identity that the decade failed to clearly define. I think critical scholarship focused on the (English) Canadian nation is important and one of the many possible projects I have simmering away in the background of my mind for when I'm done my current book has to do with that, but this book's approach has quite different politics than I would be likely to adopt. One thing I found useful about the book was Palmer's engagement with mainstream reflections on nationalism and the nation in the decades following World War II, which is a literature that I doubt I would enjoy reading but which might be useful to me in future projects, so it was nice to get a sense of its landscape. I have mixed feelings overall, though, about the book's assertions around Canadian identity in the 1960s -- some felt like they had been clearly demonstrated, but others just did not. Moreover, it did not feel to me like the book was asking the questions that I would want to ask.

The oddness I experienced in reading the first half of the book may have to do with this divergence of interests in the nation, though I don't think that completely explains it. I felt like the "cultural history" chapters lacked adequate attention to a basic social fact that is (or should be) at the forefront of social movement history: that society, that the nation, is inevitably divided and constantly in struggle. Shifts in attitudes and practices, even when they are driven in large part by changes in hegemonic institutions like the state and the mass media, simply cannot be understood without examining in some detail their complicated interactions across those social divisions which are the fault lines that organize where everyday and collective struggles occur. In too many instances, the "cultural history" in this book did not do that.

As well, I just didn't get the specific choices of focus in these chapters. It's not an unusual practice in the writing of history to take some quirky specific and use a detailed telling of that as a way to illustrate a particular phenomenon more broadly, but that technique, which is used extensively in the first half of this book (as well as the chapter looking at youth unrest), felt kind of awkward here. Which isn't to say I didn't learn from this section -- I learned a lot about machinations surrounding the Canadian dollar and Parliamentary sex scandals and the function of celebrity for Marshal McLuhan and Pierre Trudeau. I even think there's some useful stuff about shifts in relations of white supremacy in Canada that could be brought out more explicitly from the chapter on the big Maple Leaf Gardens fight between George Chuvalo and Muhammad Ali. It's just that many of the choices in this part of the book remain a bit mystifying to me, and I'm not convinced that, when they are put together, they are the most effective way to get at cultural shifts in (early) 1960s Canada.

So I guess the message is the same as it is with any book: take what you need, enjoy what you can, and don't get bogged down by the rest. Many of the parts are interesting, and most that talk about social movements are both interesting and useful. And if the whole is not quite what I expected and not organized around the questions that interest me the most, well, that's fine -- there's still a great deal of value in the book.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


cls said...

While I haven't read Palmer's book I would agree with him that the 1960s, in particular Canadian nationalism as it existed then, represented a break from the hegemony of 'Englishness' and a move towards a less ethnically defined notion of what it meant to be Canadian. Around the time of Expo 67 England and things English were no longer the automatic reference points for how things were done or judged. This created a space in which a less ethnic notion of citizenship could be envisioned. I noticed that once 'Englishness' was dethroned it created the conditions for greater tolerance of differences.

Scott said...

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