Friday, February 25, 2011

The Sixties: Passion Politics, and Style - review

The Sixties. Passion, Politics, and Style. Ed. Dimitry Anastakis. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008.

Composed of a series of papers which were originally delivered at a 2003 conference on "The Sixties" that was held at Montreal's McCord Museum, this collection is another in a series of recent publications on that decade which have called for more research on the era and which attempts to identify and expand upon some of the major themes of the time. Including papers on modern art, architecture, race, urban renewal, the feminist movement, the peace/anti-Vietnam War movement, the Quiet Revolution and Quebec's relationship with France, masculinity, youth conformity, and the inclusive/exclusive nature of the Trudeauvian liberal state, the collection covers a wide range of topics, but fails to offer any real theme apart from the decade itself and the notion that it was an era of significant social, artistic, and political change. This attempt at creating a cohesive theme is apparent from the text's rough division into sections of articles dealing with the passion, politics, and style of the decade. In his introduction, the editor, Trent University's Dimitry Anastakis, notes that the 1960s are a ten-year period which is still ripe for potential historical research since it is only now becoming distant enough to escape many researchers' bias of memory. Yet, he also remarks that the decade was one with an ambiguous legacy, a theme which also appears in Brian D. Palmer's Canada's 1960s, in which Palmer claims that the decade was a period in which old identities of the individual and the nation were overturned, but which failed to offer concrete alternatives.

The collection begins with a paper based upon the opening lecture from the conference. As a female English-Quebec journalist in the 1960s, Gretta Chambers offers an overview of the decade as witnessed by someone whose job it was to be familiar with all of the events and public opinions of the province each week for her weekly show on the major stories discussed in the province's city and regional papers. Not an academic history, but a discussion of her impressions of the province and its population during the 1960s, Chambers paper leaves the reader with the understanding that the decade was one of meaningful and profound change in Canada, and especially Quebec, but also that the consequences of those changes were often far from obvious at the time.

The second essay, by Frances Early, examines the anti-Vietnam War protest activities of the Voice of Women (VOW) in the mid-late 1960s. She explains that the organization, founded in 1960 dedicated itself to voicing women's discontent with male dominated and directed cold-war politics and social injustices. VOW undertook an array of peace activities in the decade, broadly defining peace to include all social justice issues. Starting with its anti-nuclear arms campaign in the early 1960s, the organization was also involved in debates over bilingualism and biculturalism, as well as combating racial discrimination in particular Canadian communities. However, while initially fulfilling the role of respectable mother-citizens, the increasingly radical nature of the organization's tactics eventually caused it to loose favour and be viewed with suspicion by many Canadians. These more aggressive tactics included openly criticizing Lester Pearson for accepting nuclear weapons in 1963, and the arrest of Thérèse Casgrain and Kay Macpherson as they attempted to deliver a letter of protest to the secretary general of NATO in Paris in 1963. With this change in the perception of the organization its membership dropped. Yet, with a more militant membership the VOW embarked on a number of protest projects to promote peace and understanding while criticizing the United States' war in Vietnam and the Canadian government's involvement in the US war machine. In keeping with the organization's women-centred reform tradition, Early explains how the VOW established a project to provide front-line eyewitness accounts of the destruction and suffering caused by the war, sending the organization's president into the middle of the conflict to report back to the organization and to Canadians. VOW began a knitting project for providing Vietnamese children with camouflaged warm clothing, a project which attracted a great deal of attention and participation from the United States. Finally, she describes a series of exchanges, hosted in Canada, between Vietnamese and American women, designed to allow for communication between women on both sides of the conflict and to show their shared anti-war sentiments.

In her article "Negotiating Citizenship: Joyce Wieland's Reason over Passion" Kristy Holmes challenges, what she sees as a simple notion, that in producing her Reason over Passion quilts and film in the late 1960s, Joyce Wieland was simply supporting Pierre Trudeau's vision of both Canada and Canadian citizenship. Rather, Holmes claims that the liberal notion of citizenship advanced by Trudeau in his call for a Just Society was an inherently masculine construction, and that Wieland's quilts and film, while supportive of the notion of justice, also pointed out inherent inequalities in those liberal concepts. Holmes claims that the gendered nature of the quilts, and the obviously female perspective of her film, did not allow for their easy adoption as propaganda for Trudeau's cause. Rather, Holmes claims that the works of art pointed to the problems of women fully participating in a society which strove for equality between all people, but which did not take account of the emotional, physical, and social differences and different needs of men and women. Although the Just Society aimed to allow all individuals to participate in Canadian society, Holmes claims that the notion of the individual proposed by the liberal state was inherently masculine, a fact which was recognized by Wieland and influenced her unique means of broadcasting Trudeau's 1968 campaign message.

Gender is also central to Christopher Dummitt's article on men, cars, and risk in post-war Vancouver. As he explains, before, and into, the 1960s police and Vancouver's Traffic and Safety Council understood the good driver to be embodied in the ideal modern man. Car accidents and fatalities were understood to be examples of irrational and poorly thought-out actions. The ideal modern man was not only rational, but was the master of the technology of the time. Given this mind-set, the means of reducing accidents was through public awareness campaigns concerning safe driving techniques. However, Dummitt points out that the 1960s brought new notions about both the place of the car, as well as its role in causing automobile accidents. Acknowledging the contributions of Jane Jacobs in questioning the usefulness and place of the car in modern cities, as well as Ralph Nader's challenge to car companies that it was the cars themselves which were dangerous by design, Dummitt explains that the 1960s saw a challenge to the notion of both the role of the modern man, as well as to the gender associations between the automobile and one's ability to drive it safely.

In his article on drug use in the 1960s Marcel Martel looks at the approaches to the prevention and control adopted by the Ontario and Quebec governments, as well as the government structures through which such prevention and control was studied and promoted. Both Ontario's Addiction Research Foundation ( ARF ), and Quebec’s Office de la prévention et du traitement de l’alcoolisme et des autres toxicomanies ( OPTAT ) adopted a medicalized position concerning drug use. They strove to explain the effects and risks of using various types of drugs in an unbiased and non-judgmental manner. Unlike many politicians and many Canadians, both organizations refused to equate drug use with some kind of moral weakness. Rather, they chose to research and educate the public about the medical effects of using drugs for non-medical reasons. However, as Martel explains, in the case of OPTAT, its position within the Quebec government, as well as the aspirations of that government to increase its influence in the area of health, the organization had limited funding and limited influence. As a government body, unlike ARF, OPTAT had limited access to additional government and non-government funding for its research and awareness campaigns. While advocating its medicalized approach, OPTAT's usefulness was negated by the creation of a federal program which also took a medicalized approach to drug treatment and education. Challenged by the federal government, as well as by police bodies, the pharmaceutical industry, provincial politicians, and even advocated of legalization, who viewed the organization as not being liberal enough, ARF was also defunct by the 1970s. Martel argues that while neither organization was able to win positions of authority within their provincial governments, the medicalized approach they advocated would eventually become the dominant approach to drug education and awareness.

In his "Canada's Foul-Weather Friend" Olivier Courteaux discusses General de Gaulle's 1967 visit to Quebec, and in particular his pronouncement of "Vive le Québec libre!" from the balcony of Montreal city hall. Courteaux explains that de Gaulle 1967 call for liberation was both in keeping with his long-held view of Canada and Quebec, and based upon a misunderstanding of the position of Quebec nationalists in the mid-1960s. In his 1944 visit to Canada de Gaule, while please with Canada's 1943 support of his Comité de la libération nationale, of France having a say in the design of the proposed European peace plan, and that the country should regain its prominence in a post-war Europe, he always viewed Canada as a largely British country which had suppressed its French population. In the mid-late 1960, with France having divested itself of its colonies and allegedly of its position of oppression, de Gaulle was able to pursue a policy of peacefully uniting the French-speaking peoples of the world, and countering English-American international hegemony. Forging close ties with other French-speaking populations, as well as encouraging independence movements which challenged American and English cultural domination were central to this policy. However, while Quebec did establish closer relations with France during the 1960s, and although there did indeed exist a nationalist movement in the province, Courteaux argues that de Gaulle did not understand that French Canada no longer saw itself as a colony of France. Rather, many French-Canadians saw France as having been traditionally uninterested in French-Canada, and they did not recognize French claims of interest in the affairs French-Canada as being genuine. Furthermore, by the 1960s many Quebecers were looking to their own provincial government to be a force for change. They were not particularly interested in forging more than symbolic ties with their former colonial masters. In addition, although a nationalist movement did exist in the province, no Quebec government of the 1960s was willing to do more than use the threat of independence in order to gain concessions from Ottawa.

Although France Vanlaethem argues in her contribution, "The Ambivalence of Architectural Culture in Quebec and Canada, 1955– 1975," that there was a movement in the Canadian architectural community even before the 1960s away from Modernist architecture and to preserve older structures, as Krys Verrall explains, this trend was not apparent in the case of urban housing developments in either Halifax or New York during the 1960s. Beginning in the mid-1950s and continuing throughout the 1960s Harlem underwent massive redevelopment. Areas which were deemed to be "urban blight" by city planners were destroyed and rebuilt as new, scientifically engineered public housing developments. These developments, designed, sanctioned, and implemented by overwhelmingly white government officials were supposed to beautify Harlem and create better living conditions for their residents. Yet, as Verrall notes, exactly what constituted an aesthetically pleasing city and what was viewed as acceptable living conditions was largely based upon middle-class white conceptions of reality. Very little public input was sought or made available from the communities which such developments would wrench apart and attempt to resituate in high-rise concrete public housing projects. 

In keeping with the architectural and city planning impetus for urban renewal during the 1960s the New York Museum of Modern Art commissioned four urban planning projects for Harlem in 1967. Designed by four American university architecture departments, the proposals were theoretical urban renewal projects which, like those that were actually being realized in Harlem, depended upon the convergence of various elements of overwhelmingly white middle class professions: government will, architects, urban planners, anti-poverty activists, and developers. These impositions of white notions of the city were reminiscent of a 1965 proposal made by Buckminster Fuller which identified Harlem, an overwhelmingly black/minority community, as requiring urban renewal, was symptomatic of urban administration of the 1960s. Where poor, spatially disorganized communities existed, city planners often attempted to impose changes which would bring order to an observer. However, such order and tidiness was typically only thought of from an external perspective, where as the effect upon those living in the communities was often overlooked. Verrall argues that this oversight shows part of the intersections between the civil rights movement and the avant-garde. Modernist architecture and scientific urban planning fueled the design of the proposed and realized New York housing projects, while living conditions, poverty, and discrimination, and how they were, and were not, being addressed by governments and American society, led to conflict throughout the United States, including in Harlem. It was not that those in what were termed "slum communities" did not want to escape poverty and poor living conditions. However, the labelling of those communities as slums, which were to be cleared and their residents relocated according to the terms of people who were not members of the community, offended Harlem blacks.

The white middle class penchant of the 1960s for large-scale urban renewal projects which imposed ideas of beauty and community redevelopment upon minority populations was also realized in Canada. Verrall explains how the City of Halifax, in conjunction with the federal and provincial governments, realized Prime Minister Pearson's wars on poverty and "ugliness" by appropriating and razing Afericville and relocating its residents into the CMHC designed Uniacke Square development in the city's north end. 

While all of the contributions to the collection mentioned above are relevant to discussions of Canada in the 1960s, their eclectic nature is emphasized by the last essay of the book which discusses the spread of a 1960s California inspired casual style throughout not only North America, but around the world. From cars to clothing to hose design, Nicholas Olsberg explains how the consumer and commuter influence of a post war, prosperous, fashion conscious state affected the spirit of the decade. However, while interesting in tracing the source of various 1960s trends and cultural influences, the paper has little to do with Canada, other than the fact that California-cool influenced Canadians in a similar way to how it influenced Americans.

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