In 1967, the year Canada turned 100, Tom Hawthorn was seven years old, living in Montreal and, as he puts it, "obsessed with Expo '67 in the way that only a seven-year-old boy could be." His family could only afford to attend one day of the now-legendary exhibition, but that one day, and the buzz that permeated his hometown that Centennial year, left their mark.
Fast forward 49 years and Hawthorn, by then a veteran newspaper reporter and author, saw a photo online of the Centennial Fire Hall in the hamlet of Sovereign, Saskatchewan, population 35. Now little more than a weather-beaten shack, it still proudly displays the Centennial logo of triangles arranged to form a maple leaf.
"I started thinking: If Centennial was even celebrated in this little hamlet of less than 100 people, it must have happened everywhere," Hawthorn recalls. "I wanted to know, what was the legacy of this? How did it change Canada?"
As it turns out, when the clock struck midnight on January 1, 1967, Canadians, an ordinarily reserved people who had spent much of the previous year expressing skepticism about their government's plans for the Centennial, suddenly found they had much to celebrate — and celebrate they did, sometimes in fantastically unhinged ways. Those celebrations are detailed in Hawthorn's new book, The Year Canadians Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country, released this month just in time for Canadians to recognize another national milestone.
Here, Hawthorn shares some of the characters and stories he came across in his research, and his thoughts on what the Centennial year has meant to Canadians then and since.
On Canadians' outlook on the Centennial in 1966
What I found was that, leading up to 1967, people were kind of like, 'Who cares?' They thought Expo was going to be a disaster. The Mint unveiled new coins that year, designed by the great artist Alex Colville — easily one of the top five most beautiful coin issues in the world — and the first people they showed them to thought they were stupid. I think it was just our nature at the time. There was so little of Canada seen in the rest of the world, there was a sense that Canada didn’t matter and we weren’t important.
On what changed on January 1, 1967
On New Year's Eve, 1966, there was a lighting of the Centennial flame on Parliament Hill, and they scheduled it at 8:30 so the children could watch it on television. Then the very next day, they had two special shows, including a variety show where Gordon Lightfoot performed the 'Canadian Railroad Trilogy,' and I actually think it was that shared experience of those two evenings of television that sparked people up, and people started coming up with their own crazy, extraordinary Centennial projects.
On some of the stranger Centennial projects
One of my favourite characters is a fellow named Hank Gallant. In February 1967, he was a 24-year-old labourer from Prince Edward Island working on dam projects in British Columbia, and he really loves Canada, so he decided that he was going to walk across Canada on his own. He put this sign on his backpack with the name of his walk: "VICTORIA TO BONIVISTA." He misspelled Bonavista and I guess nobody had the heart to tell him. He arrived in St. John's on his 25th birthday — in November. I tracked him down in P.E.I. for the book and asked him, "What did you learn about Canada?" And he said, "I learned it's not a very small place, boy."
On the celebrations everyone remembers
I think what people most remember about the Centennial specifically was the rolling museum called the Confederation Train. It was essentially a mobile museum on the railway, and it would stop in major cities for a week or two weeks. The horn on the train sounded the first four notes of 'O Canada.' Up in the far north, they actually had a Confederation barge that went up and down the Mackenzie River. I think it was just a brilliant idea to take the story of Canada to Canadians.
On the lasting impact of the Centennial
Up until then, Canada had lived in the shadow of Britain and the U.S. — and sometimes we still struggle with that — but I think Canadians realized at the end of '67 that we have something special and unique here. One of the genius marketing things at Expo '67 was the passport that you brought to get stamped at all the pavilions, and I can’t help but think that Canadians heading out into the world with maple leaves sewn on our backpacks are repeating that experience. There’s a perception now that Canada has more to share with the world.