These are hard times. But we have known harder


National Post, 21 June 2018

The year 1968 was a riotous one, with deadly riots in the U.S. There were riots in Canada, too, but true to form, they were relatively tame

The news from around the world is of polarization, and conflict, incivility and rancour. Weren’t things better in the good old days?

How about 50 years ago, when ecstatic Trudeaumania swept the land?

Pierre Elliott Trudeau, recently elected to succeed Lester Pearson as leader of the Liberal party and thus the newly installed prime minister, called a snap election for June 25, 1968, hoping that the screams of teenage girls at his appearances would translate into votes at the polling booth.

He got his majority. It was neither as large as John George Diefenbaker’s crushing victory 10 years earlier, nor as large as Brian Mulroney would achieve 16 years later. The margin of victory was not as impressive as Trudeau’s loyalists in the national media insisted, but the manner of the victory made it memorable.

The night before the polls, at the St-Jean-Baptiste parade in Montreal, an amalgam of angry Quebec sovereigntists hurled bottles and debris at the prime minister in his reviewing stand. It was a massive parade, with some estimated 400,000 people on the streets (one quarter of Montreal’s population). Trudeau stood his ground in the reviewing stand as his security detail attempted to squire him away. It would be hard to imagine, say, Joe Clark or even Justin Trudeau making a such a show of defiance. (Diefenbaker may well have picked up the bottles and hurled them back.)

The memory of the riots remains more than the election. Canada has lots of elections. Riots are rather rare, especially political ones. But in 1968 it was not riots that were rare; indeed, it was remarkable that Canada’s riots, true to form, were relatively tame. It was a riotous year.

It is hard to imagine now what 1968 was like. Hands are wrung over the polarization of our politics, and the incivility of our common life. Fair comment to be sure, but it bears noting that in 1968 the unpleasantness of today would have been welcome in light of the violence that was spilling into the streets. In the summer of 1968, it was an open question about whether a peaceable common life would prevail.

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