Fifty years ago, I was closing in on 19 and was about to graduate from Grade 13 at Don Mills Collegiate. I hated it. I had no idea what I was going to do, but not going to high school anymore was enough to keep me going. I had perfected bagging groceries at the Dominion Store down the road and 80 cents an hour was enough to buy gas when I could liberate my mum’s car. Sometimes on weekdays I’d get a shift at the car wash where I stood in a cement silo and washed hubcaps as the cars lurched by. This was my life. To stay sane, I played hockey and the saxophone in the winter and escaped to be a camp counsellor in the summer to what was then up North.
I knew nothing about drugs or marijuana, which apparently was quite widespread. Although I was fully capable of drinking too much (I have not been able to drink gin since age 16), it wasn’t a big deal. I was pretty much bored and boring — not unlike my country, which was 81 years older than me.
We were both about to change.
The launch day was April 27, 1967. This was the day Expo 67 opened its doors in Montreal, and I swear over the next six months the country transformed. It was visceral.
We went from boring to cocky (some say smug), from risk averse to risky, and from provincial to global. French President Charles de Gaulle came over to insult us (vive la Québec libre) in the middle of Expo and soon after that we’d move from Lester Pearson, our peacekeeping grandfather, to Pierre Trudeau, our cape-wearing confirmed bachelor. We would never be the same.
The last 50 years has produced an extraordinary number of world-class Canadian writers (from Alice Munro to Michael Ondaatje), recording artists (from Leonard Cohen to Sarah McLachlan), and our fair share of well-known actors (from Donald Sutherland to Christopher Plummer).
What Canadians forget is that much of this excitement was the result of deliberate public policy. We supported our book publishers so they could support Canadian writers. We insisted that our radio stations carry Canadian content to actually develop Canadian talent. The Canada Council for the Arts supported actors and playwrights and live theatre across the country. It is no accident we have developed an infrastructure that is fantastic for the size and breadth of our country.
It would not have happened next to the American Entertainment Complex without good governance and political courage.
CBC radio, in particular, brought us together from coast to coast. Whether it was waking up to Peter Gzowski’s This Country In the Morning or wrapping up at night with As It Happens, you were never far from the heartbeat of Canada if you chose to take an interest.
We launched Medicare within a year of Expo (July 1968) against fierce opposition from the medical establishment. While far from perfect, it has changed the lives of all Canadians. In Canada, you do not have to go bankrupt if you are sick.
We didn't even have a Canadian flag until two years before Expo 67.
In 1982, we repatriated our constitution and with it came with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms which has been groundbreaking. It has limited police powers, protected women’s reproductive rights, recognized the rights of the LBGT community, protected francophone rights outside of the province of Quebec, and improved Indigenous rights in Canada.
We have remained a country open to and supportive of immigration. We have brought people in from all over the world and arguably done it better than anyone else.
The implementation of free trade was a risky course, but we took the plunge and, of course, how could we forget we held our breath not once but twice to see if this country would actually stay together.
It has been an extraordinary 50 years since I fled Don Mills Collegiate and my country its colonial past.
We have not managed our resources well and we have let down our Indigenous partners badly and so there is much work to do.
That said, we have created our own unique and respected space in this world and we should be immensely proud. This is an amazing country and, at 150, the future is ours to imagine.
Congratulations. And over to you.