The Canadian Centennial

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It was an event 100 years in the making, and it was the moment that Canadians suddenly showed an immense pride in their country and for an entire year, they celebrated it. It was the Canadian Centennial in 1967, when from coast-to-coast, Canadians of all types celebrated.

The preparations for the centennial began years earlier, but I am only going to be looking at the country from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. I also won’t talk much about Expo 67 because I will be devoting an entire episode to that huge event on July 24.

The planning for the Centennial celebration began in January 1963 when Prime Minister John Diefenbaker appointed a committee chaired by C.M. Drury to look at making the 100th anniversary a memorable occasion for the country. With the formation of the Centennial Commission, things started to kick off. Diefenbaker had a deep pride in the country, and he likely believed that he would still be prime minister in 1967 but that was not to be. The same year the Centennial Commission was created, he would be ousted as prime minister, allowing Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson to come in, and remain in power for the next five years. The Centennial Commissioner would be John Fisher, who was called Mr. Canada as a result. Even with the change in government, Lester B. Pearson did not change anything about the commission and things would continue with the Liberals in power.

The government did not want the centennial celebrations to just be something that happened on July 1, although that day was going to be a major focus due to it being Canada Day. With the goal of making, it a nationwide, year-long celebration, the federal Centennial Commission put aside $25 million, or nearly $200 million today, for the celebration. Each dollar spent on a centennial event by a community was matched not only dollar for dollar by the federal government, but the provincial government as well.

Across the country, centennial projects would spring up, and I will get to those a little later.

Everything kicked off on Dec. 31, 1966, when Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and Secretary of State Judy LaMarsh, along with John Diefenbaker and thousands of others, light the gas-powered Centennial Flame. At the same time, communities across Canada held parades, lit fireworks and had bellringing and lighting ceremonies. In Toronto, a parade and fireworks show drew 40,000 people. In Bowsman, Manitoba, the town celebrate the Centennial and its first sewage system by staging a bonfire of 33 outhouses.

Cliff Nowan, a policeman and the sewage plant operator in town, would say as he lit the bonfire, quote:

“The time has come to bid farewell to old and beloved friends who have held up their ends throughout the years.”

The Centennial Voyageur Canoe Pageant would be launched on May 24, 1967, from the Rocky Mountains, with ten teams representing eight provinces and two territories. The races would travel 5,283 kilometres over the course of 104 days, paddling and portaging across the country. Upon arriving in Ottawa on Aug. 29, Joe Green, the agricultural minister, would say quote:

“After seeing so many of these flabby fellows around Parliament Hill, it is good to see there are still some rugged Canadians around.”

On Sept. 4, the canoers arrived in Montreal. Manitoba recorded the fastest accumulated time, finishing in 507 hours, 21 minutes and 51 seconds, two hours ahead of second place British Columbia. In 2010, the Manitoba crew, most of whom came from Flin Flon, were inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.

The race still holds the record for the longest canoeing race in history. The winning team was awarded $1,500 per man, and $500 for second and third place.

One of the most recognizable aspects of the centennial is the Centennial logo. The logo was designed by Stuart Ash, who created the unique maple leaf out of 11 equilateral triangles that represented Canada’s 10 provinces and the territories. The symbol was designed by Stuart Ash, who worked for the Toronto firm Cooper and Beatty Limited. Soon, the symbol was everywhere in Canada. Over 700,000 small Centennial flags, 85,000 full-sized flags, 225,000 table flags, 1,400 giant banners, 30,000 posters, 96,000 stick on emblems and 4.5 million lapel pins.

The Centennial Medal was created and issued on July 1, 1967, to recognize those who made a contribution to Canada as a whole. Designed by Bruce Beatty, it was a circular silver medal on a white and red ribbon. Of the 29,500 medals that were issued, 30 per cent went to the Canadian Armed Forces.

The Order of Canada was created during the Centennial Year, established on April 17, 1967. The first inductee was Governor General Roland Michener on July 1, while 90 more people were appointed on July 7 including former prime minister Louis St. Laurent, former Governor General Vincent Massey, pioneering neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, painter Alex Colville and hockey icon Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.

Companies also jumped on the bandwagon, and many looked to copyright the use of the word of centennial based on what they were selling. Hope Furniture Company out of Vancouver registered a copyright in 1958 for the use of centennial in advertising for household furniture and furnishings.

Imperial Life Assurance Company began to market Centennial life insurance, while Peterborough Guns Limited hoped to sell the Canadian Centennial Gun, while John Inglis Company began to market Centenary washers, dryers and dishwashers.

Of course, not every company felt the same way. Brunswick of Canada Limited had been using the word Centennial since 1943 with its 100th anniversary and its Centennial line of products but felt doing so in 1967 or copyrighting the word wasn’t in the spirit of Canada. The general sales manager, S.J. Merson, would say quote:

“We think it would be dirty pool to do that this year.”

It wasn’t just medals that were created to celebrate Canada. The Cartier Font was created by designer and typographer Car Dair, who spent 10 years created Canada’s first typeface for Roman letters. Named for Jacques Cartier, it was released in January 1967 by the federal government. It was this typeface that was used for the printing of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.

The Confederation Train was created for the celebration so that Canada’s history could come to Canadians throughout the country. Throughout the year, the train would travel across Canada, hitting every province and territory and reaching Canadians in dozens of communities. 

The train was made up of six cars, with each car specializing in one aspect of Canada and its history. 

The first car was about Canada before the arrival of Europeans. From relating the history of the ice ages that dominated the landscape, to the arrival of the First Nations over the Bering Strait and the impact the First Nations had on the landscape. Indian villages were designed by artists and craftsman, allowing visitors to see what Canada was like centuries ago. The second car was about the arrival of the Europeans, beginning with the Vikings and continuing with the French and English. An electronic map traced the routes of Cabot, Cartier, Hudson and others. Samuel de Champlain had a life-sized statue, while holding his astrolabe for residents to look at. A map from 1632, created by Champlain, was also on display.  In the third car, the era of settlement was celebrated. A drawing room window allowed visitors to see what a typical scene looked like in 19th century French Canada. Other exhibits displayed the pre-Confederation state of confusion, the isolation of communities and colonies, along with the pressures from the United States. In the Confederation chamber of the car, the Centennial symbol is most prominent with the four coloured triangles that symbolized the first four provinces in Canada. 

In the fourth car, the era of 1867 to 1876 was covered. An old printing shop was on display, and prime ministers of the day were represented in Macdonald and Mackenzie. Sitting Bull’s rifle and a Sioux headdress were on display, while displays detailing the history of the Riel Rebellion, the Hudson’s Bay Grant and the creation of the North West Mounted Police. The remainder of the 19th century is represented at the back of the car, including the Treaties, the Klondike Gold Rush and the railway to the west. 

In car five, the first decades of the 20th century were represented, from the Boer War, through the establishment of Alberta and Saskatchewan, to the First World War. Visitors were able to go into a dug out roofed by corrugated iron and sandbags to see what it was like to look out at No Man’s Land. Newspapers from the start of the Second World War finish off the visit to the car. 

In the last car, the sixth one, The Second World War and Prime Minister Mackenzie King were represented, as were subsequent prime ministers St. Laurent, Diefenbaker and Pearson. 

The idea for the train was dreamed up by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker in 1961 as a travelling exhibit that would travel the country. One of the most interesting parts of the train, apart from the horn, was that it was pulled by two Diesel engines, one owned by Canadian Pacific Railway and one by Canadian National Railway. 

The Confederation Train was funded through the Centennial Commission and began its journey from Victoria on Jan. 9, 1967. The train’s whistle would first be activated by Blytha Pearkes, wife of the Lt. Governor General of BC, Secretary of State Judy LaMarsh and May Bennett, wife of premier W.A.C Bennett. A total of 1,500 people were at the rail yard to watch the train begin its journey. In addition, 1,000 coloured balloons were released and three RCAF jets roared over. During its first week in Victoria, 40,000 people would tour the train. It would then begin progressing through Canada until it reached the Maritimes on Oct. 26, 1967. At that point it turned around and finished in Montreal on Dec. 5. The train would blast the first four notes of O’Canada, rather than a typical train horn. 

In all, 87 communities would be visited across Canada. 

Over the course of its journey, hundreds of thousands of Canadians would visit the car. In one four-day visit at Sault Ste. Marie, 37,427 citizens toured the car. In Calgary, it would stay for 10 days beginning on March 9, with 80,000 citizens coming out to see the train. 

For communities that were not reached by the train, there was the Centennial Caravan, made up of tractor-trailers that travelled to 655 smaller communities and reached 6.5 million people. In the far north, there was the Confederation Barge, which went up and down the Mackenzie River, visiting communities along the way. 

At the Centennial Range, which separated Alaska from the Yukon, 255 members of the Alpine Club of Canada spent the summer climbing all 13 peaks of the new range.

One unique aspect of the Centennial Year was the creation of the Centennial Menu, which was presented to 600 restauranteurs at the annual Canadian Restaurant Association show. The menu was created by a group of cooks looking to span the history of Canadian cuisine.

The menu featured pea soup from Quebec, hot apple cider flavoured with cloves and cinnamon sticks and served in stone crooks from Nova Scotia, lettuce with sour cream-maple syrup dressing from Ontario, smoked and garnished Atlantic salmon from Newfoundland, Escalloped potatoes from PEI, green beans and tossed pearl onions with pimentos from New Brunswick, roast beef from Alberta, preserves, dill pickles, pickled red cabbage and spiced apple rings from BC, buttermilk tea biscuits from Saskatchewan, blueberry torte with chocolate sauce from Manitoba and cheddar cheese from Ontario.

Not everyone was a fan of the menu, with one critic stating quote:

“It reads a bit as if it all boils down to plain old roast beef and blueberry pie, but then, the chefs have fancied it up a bit.”

For the big day, July 1, there were many celebrations planned across the country. The biggest event was naturally in Ottawa, where Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were the guests of honour. They were joined by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, other dignitaries and 50,000 residents.

The centerpiece of the celebration was a birthday cake that was six meres high and decorated with the national coat of arms and provincial crests. The Queen then cut the cake using a knife that her father, King George VI, used for a similar event in Ottawa in 1939. The part that she cut into was real cake, but most of the rest of the cake was made of plywood and Styrofoam covered with 320 kilograms of icing sugar.

The Queen was then given a coin from Prime Minister Pearson, which she threw into the fountain at the Centennial Flame.

Centennial babies, who were born on July 1, received money and gifts from the communities they were born in. The most famous of all the centennial babies was Pamela Anderson, born at 4:08 a.m. on July 1 in Ladysmith, B.C.

At Vancouver’s Empire Stadium, 32,000 watched as Chief Dan George gave his speech titled Lament for Confederation. George would only a few years later become the first Indigenous actor to be nominated for an Academy Award and his speech remains a landmark moment in Canada’s Indigenous history.

Canada, also known as The Centennial Song, was created by Bobby Gimby in 1967 to celebrate the centennial as well as Expo 67. Written in English and French, the song was recorded by the Young Canada Singers and released by Quality Records. Released in the third week of January, it sold out its first shipment of 25,000 albums almost instantly.  Over the course of the year, it would sell a record 270,000 copies, stayed at No. 1 for two weeks on the Top 100 Singles in Canada in April, and was the most successful single in Canada for that year. Secretary of State, Judy LaMarsh, would present Gimby with a gold record in April. Over the year, Gimby walked so much in parades and in leading children in the song, that he wore out four pairs of shoes and travelled across the country four times on personal appearances. In 1971, Gimby donated all royalties to the Boy Scouts of Canada but by that point, it only earned one cent per airplay, one of the lowest rates in the world.

The Victoria Times Colonist would write, quote:

“In a country where nationalism was always regarded as a foreign disorder, a song called Ca-na-da, is suddenly the all-time best seller.”

Another song that was commissioned by the government was the Canadian Railroad Trilogy, written by Gordon Lightfoot and broadcast on Jan. 1, 1967. It took Lightfoot three days to write and compose the song, and it would appear on his album The Way I Feel, released later that year. The song describes the building of the railroad, highlighting the optimism of the railroad age, the cost in sweat and blood, and the efforts of the navies in building the railroad.

Pierre Berton, author of The Last Spike, would say to Lightfoot in later years, quote:

“You did more good with your damn song than I did with my entire book on the same subject.”

Queen Elizabeth II would tell Lightfoot upon meeting him that she enjoyed the song. In 2001, the song was named one of the Canadian MasterWorks by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada.

Some people looked for unique ways to celebrate the centennial. Hank Gallant decided to walk from Victoria to Newfoundland, singing his own songs along the way. He began his journey on Feb. 6, dipping his toe in the water of the Pacific Ocean. Most people didn’t take it seriously, but he kept at it. On March 9, he crossed in Alberta and at this point newspapers began to follow his progress. At Oak Lake, Manitoba, the principal of the school cancelled all classes so students could greet him as he walked into the community. On May 1, he endured his ninth blizzard and arrived in Winnipeg. He would tell Winnipeg Free Press, quote:

“I can’t offer any Centennial project a thousand bucks. This is what I have to offer as an individual Centennial project. It proves to the outside world that Canadians themselves are doing something about Centennial, not only governments, with their libraries and statues.”

In late September, he crossed through New Brunswick and on Nov. 13, after 280 days, he arrived at the Atlantic Ocean in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Filip Moen would walk from Halifax to Vancouver in 131 days, taking with him his German Shepard Bruno who wore felt shoes. Others crossed the country on horseback, roller skates and more.

Bill Hardman made 100 consecutive free-fall parachute jumps to set a world record, only taking the occasional 20-minute coffee break. On average, he conducted a jump every eight minutes. Hardman would say quote:

“When I landed in the target area, I would walk or run to a pickup vehicle and then ride back to the airstrip about 300 yards away, where the plane was waiting.”

Another individual flew to the North Pole and placed a centennial flag there. In the Northwest Territories, a Mackenzie River barge brought a Ferris wheel to the territories for the first time, while Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan created a 130-mile centennial wagon train journey along the Old Mountain Trail.

At 9:30 p.m. 17 hours after he started jumping, 10,000 people were on hand to applaud him as he made his 100th jump.

Arguably one of the most famous events was the bathtub races from Nanaimo to Fisherman’s Cove. The rules for the race, which was set for July 30, were simple. The races had to use a bathtub, no outboard motors more than six horsepower were allowed, each pilot had to have a life jacket and could swim 200 yards and each tub had to have an escort craft with it.

One month before race day, 130 people had signed up and the number would keep going up as the big race approached.

Frank Ney, the organizer of the event, would say on July 29, quote:

“We have bathtub enthusiasts from all over Canada entered and the tubs are still rolling into town. There were bathtubs all over the harbour the other night, practicing.”

The first tub to cross the finish line as Rusty Hamilton’s tub, which crossed the finish line at three hours and 16 minutes. Only 46 tubs made it across the strait, with the last one crossing the line 30 hours after the race started. The event would become an annual race and earned Nanaimo the title of being the bathtub racing capital of the world.

At the end of the year, things ended just as it began, on Parliament Hill. While the plan was to extinguish the Centennial Flame, the decision was made due to public opinion, to keep it alight. It now marks the emergence of Canada as a mature and self-confident nation.

I am going to end this episode by looking at the things that have become a lasting legacy of Canada’s Centennial, the Centennial projects.

In Alberta, the province offered $2.5 million in matching funds to a Confederation memorial project. Edmonton would use that money to build the Provincial Museum and Archives of Alberta. The Edmonton Flying Club would build the Edmonton Aviation Hall of Fame, with work commencing on the project on June 28, 1967. The Alberta Native Centennial Festival would be one of the first Centennial events held in Edmonton. Organized by Tom Cardinal, it featured dancers, special performances and more to celebrate Indigenous history.

Arguably the most famous centennial project in Alberta, and possibly Canada, is the UFO landing pad that was built in St. Paul and continues to sit there to this day, waiting for when aliens arrive and land there. The structure cost $14,000 and was designed by Alex Mair, an engineer from Edmonton. Wolly Polinsky, one of the organizers of the landing pad, would say at the time, quote:

“Everybody was getting in on the Centennial act, so we decided we had to do something too. Maybe we had too many beers. I never thought this would happen.”

The chairman of the town’s Centennial committee, John Lagasse, pushed for the landing pad to be completed by May 15 because on July 30, 1967, Mars was at its closest point to Earth. He would say quote:

“We have the Northern Alberta Radio Association helping us out. Every night they beam signals into space telling the people out there that we are building this pad and will welcome them.”

In Victoria, the Confederation Garden Court on Signal Hill was built, along with an archives library and auditorium.

The Calgary Stampede would also celebrate by expanding itself to nine days and billing it as the greatest birthday party of all. In Lethbridge, the Nikka Yuko Centennial Garden was opened, the largest authentic Japanese garden outside Japan.

On Cape Breton Island, the Miners’ Tribune Museum would be created using money raised by the community and money from the government for its Centennial project.

Sarnia, Ontario opened a centennial park in front of 3,000 residents on July 3, 1967. The local paper there, the Sarnia Observer, also celebrated the centennial by delivering a live tree with every newspaper.

Across the country, the Centennial Tree Planting Ceremonies allowed children to plant trees that would still be growing 50 years later and beyond. Two films were also released, The Hundredth Summer and Helicopter Canada, which showcased the celebrations of the country.

Several other provinces used the money for arts and culture centres, theatres, science and technology centres, concert halls and more.

Not all projects were big and noticeable. Redcliff, Alberta used the money to build a library, while Seven Persons, nearby to Redcliff, used the money to build a changing room for its skating rink.

Across the country, 860 communities took part in using the funds for some sort of improvement or special structure in the community. In all, $90 million was spent by governments and regular citizens on centennial projects, amount to $705 million today.

In High Prairie, Alberta, a time capsule was put into the ground on Oct. 20, to be opened in 2017. Inside the capsule was a letter from the mayor, an aerial photograph of the town, a phone book, a spring catalogue from Eaton’s and an edition of Time magazine from Aug. 18, 1967. The capsule was opened on Aug. 19, 2017, with 250 people gathered in the town, including several who were there in 1967 to see it buried. Glenda Groom would say quote:

“I recall it being a grand event. School kids were brought out to attend. The kids all thought it was a great break from school and when I think about it now, it was a smart decision on the town’s part as we were the generation most likely to be here for the opening.”

The time capsule and its items now sit at a museum in town.

Toronto would host its first Caribana festival, which has become the largest street festival in North America with two million visitors each year. Toronto’s West Indian community put in their own money for the festival. Dr. J.A. Liverpool, who was the head of the board of directors for the event, would say quote:

“The Centennial gave us an opportunity to give back something to this country. No other cause could have united West Indians so completely. Politicians have failed in the past, but Canada has brought us all together.”

The entire year was something unlike anything seen in Canada before. John Fisher, the man they called Mr. Centennial, would say of the year, quote:

“I think Canadians suddenly realized the land they live in is something to brag about. I even think that eternal search for the Canadian identity is over. I don’t know what it is yet, but I think we found it this year.”

I will close out this episode with a quote from Jim Liles, who helped burn those outhouses in Bowsman at the beginning of the Centennial Year. He said, to describe the year, quote:

“Something intangible happened. All sorts of barriers between people, social, religious and so on, seemed to break down when people started working on our Centennial projects.”

Information comes from The Year Canadians Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country, Canadian Encyclopedia, Indigenous Corporate Training, Wikipedia, City of Edmonton, Canada’s History, Macleans, Ottawa Citizen, National Post, the Windsor Star,

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