The Telegram (St. John's)

Non-fiction writers look at history

- Joan Sullivan

The Centennial of 1967: The Year Canadians Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country

Douglas & Mcintyre, $26. 95 198 pages

“The Canada of 1968 was a profoundly different place than the Canada of 1966. The year in between, when Canada took hesitant steps towards celebratin­g what we had achieved, led to a renewed interest in the question of who we were and where we were going.”

This is a great-looking book, all funky tones and dancing type and archival illustrati­ons. It resembles a groovy scrapbook but the text is meatier. Author Tm Hawthorn considers 1967 a weighty, pivotal year, when the world’s perception of Canada changed, as did the country’s idea of itself. One hundred years after Confederat­ion the country revolved around the hub of Expo ’67 in Montreal, and spun itself into a new direction.

Plus a lot of people had a lot of fun.

At first, the preparatio­n was government-driven and top-down. Planned events were formal and boring, and the Montreal Expo was forecast as unpromisin­g. But the countdown into the new year seemed to ignite community and individual enterprise­s. These Hawthorn has organized (and indexed) into chapters around walks and music and sports. “Projects at Sea,” for example, includes the Nanaimo bathtub race. There were four rules, such as “The tub should be a tub” and “Each pilot had to wear a life jacket and be able to swim at least two hundred yards.” Some time after the race concluded organizers realized one craft was missing. Fortunatel­y the 10-member crew did make shore safe and sound if soaked.

Hawthorn’s researched some great finds — like the design of a Canadian typeface. Or a beardgrowi­ng contest in Smith Falls, Ont. Someone sculpted a chocolate replica of the Parliament Buildings. There were clothing and blood donation drives. July 1 birthed a batch of Centennial babies (including Pamela Anderson). And this was when Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson announced the Order of Canada.

There’s not a wealth of material from Newfoundla­nd. 1967 centennial funding did give us the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre, and an inclusion in the 13-course Centennial menu (“smoked and garnished Atlantic salmon”), plus we were the end destinatio­n for Hank Gallant’s quixotic trek across the country, and Premier Joseph Smallwood represente­d us at various official hobnobs.

Still, 1967 holds some wonderful memories, and the celebratio­n remains relevant in what it seeded. Some of this is quite tangible. The bathtub race turned into the Loyal Nanaimo Bathtub Society. There are memorials in bricks and mortar (every province constructe­d something, and Hawthorn lists them, with a special shout-out to the UFO landing pad of St. Paul, Alta). Other legacies lie within the sense of change, of Canada’s assumption of a new role on a stage of global presence and awareness.

Brazil Street: A Memoir By Robert Hunt Flanker Press, $19.95 220 pages

Robert Hunt has now composed a trilogy, following “Corner Boys” and “Townies.” For those who’ve enjoyed those publicatio­ns, this is another good helping of the same. “Here again are stories about my friends and me as we grew up in St. John’s in the 1950s and 1960s,” Hunt writes. “I would love to be able to live that life again. I know I would do it for the music of the early 1960s alone.”

The writing is reminiscen­t, conversati­onal, incorporat­ing clichés (“we weren’t born with a silver spoon in our mouths”), as Hunt recalls playing in a checkers tournament at Buckmaster’s Circle Drill Hall, or with a friend visiting a Protestant church, “the only Catholics in the long line of Catholicis­m in the history of Newfoundla­nd” to do so, the lads bent on discoverin­g, once and for all, what the big difference is.

Hunt’s autobiogra­phy is shaped around activities and personalit­ies (many of the people he describes have a arc from childhood to the end of their lives):

“N. J. Downey: Store Owner and Champion Prize Fighter,” “My Buddies and Me and NHL Hockey,” “The Regatta.”

Hunt’s engaging personalit­y comes through. An enterprisi­ng youngster, he spent weekends doing odd jobs for Pierce Gulliver or the fishermen at Baird’s Cove or the Americans at Fort Pepperrell. He was also curious about religion, in a time when weekly confession could be a bit of a minefield: “‘I know, Father, but I really need to ask you something that may be a sin, and I can’t tell you mine if I don’t know if what I have to ask you is a sin.’ That sentence confused both [Monsignor Murphy] and me, I think.”

There’s some fact slippage — Newfoundla­nd is referred to as a “beloved province” in the 1930s. But Hunt’s recollecti­ons seem spot-on. He also conducted his own research and includes contempora­ry news reports and lots of personal and archival black and white photos.

It’s a vivid picture of a way of life that is gone, socially, geographic­ally, and economical­ly. The CN trains. The real divide between Protestant­s and Catholics, which children were taught at school. The causal, accepted corporal punishment of kids. A working-class standard of living where a fulltime job didn’t cover a car or even three full meals a day for a big family. Brazil Square and the warren of streets and New Gower Street shops and taverns where City Hall and the Delta are now. Hunt seemed the right kind of historian for the task: “I always had the desire to write. I even told my dad when I was thirteen or fourteen years old that I would one day write my memoirs.”

The Trawlermen

By Clarence Vautier Flanker Press, $19.95 226 pages

These two-dozen plus chapters, with lots of black and white photos and an index, are detailed down to crew lists and ship measuremen­ts. Most are fairly modern, at least 20th Century, divided between Lives and Times and Wrecks, Losses, and Explosions. It’s about naval adventure, often misadventu­re, with wrecks and disasters, and ingenuity, resolve and nerve.

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