You know how some birthdays or anniversaries seem to matter more than others? They’re usually the one with a zero at the end, like turning 30, or 50, or even 100. Or it could be marking 30 years in business, or fifty years married – those kind of things. I marked one of those anniversaries this week. On June 19, I was forty years in Canada. I arrived with a young family on that date in 1982, thinking I’d be here for a couple of years before going back to Ireland. Not that there was much to go back to in those days, which explained why I was here.
This may seem completely irrelevant to everyone else but me, though if I hadn’t arrived here 40 years ago, I wouldn’t be writing this now, and you wouldn’t be reading the Times either. It’s amazing how little decisions can have huge consequences you never would have expected. But, more to the point, thinking about 40 years in Canada also makes me realise how much Canada has changed in those four decades. For better or for worse, this is not the country I arrived in as a young grad student at Lakehead University.
Some of the changes may not seem obvious at first sight. In 1982, the Prime Minister was called Trudeau, the same as now, and the Liberal Party was in power in Ottawa. But it’s not the same Trudeau and definitely not the same Liberal Party. As for the Opposition – definitely not your father’s Conservative Party. Comparing Joe Clark and Stephen Harper, for example, or even the unspeakable Pierre Poilievre, it is clear that much has changed in Canadian politics since 1982. And at the provincial level, what can you say? Remember when Premier Bill Davis, accused of being bland, gave the response: “In Ontario, bland works”. Would anyone ever accuse Doug Ford of being bland today?
Perhaps the biggest change in Canada has been the increasing domination of daily life by technology. I wrote my thesis at Lakehead on an IBM Selectric Typewriter, which was very hi-tech for its day: you could change the font by swopping out little metal spheres! A couple of years later, I was writing a dissertation on a university mainframe computer that took up a room and had less capacity than the laptop on which I’m writing this article. Now we all have smart phones, iPads, and even our cars talk to us! The Personal Computer, or desktop computer, seems old fashioned now, but was an unimaginable, straight out of Star Trek miracle of the future in 1982.
Canada has changed in deep ways: the way Canadians see themselves and the place of Canada in the world is not what it was. How could it be, when we have social media on every platform reflecting a nasty, rude, racist and misogynist side of ourselves every hour of the day. The decency is still there, of course, and the generosity and community spirit; but we can no longer pretend to have a higher form of morality than others. Not that we ever did, but the harsh spotlight that has been thrown on Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples, its attitude to women, minorities, immigrants, all have caused some dramatic rethinking on our parts, as it should.
One of the features of the last couple of decades has been the number of times apologies were made by various Prime Ministers on our behalf for attitudes and events with deep historical roots. So many groups with valid historical grievances, aspects of our shared past that had to be admitted at last. When I first arrived here, I was able to go through two graduate programs in Canadian History at two separate universities, without having one single course in Indigenous history, or reading a single chapter in a book that dealt with that aspect of Canada’s past. That wouldn’t happen today.
And there we have the big positive: the lesson to be learned from the changes over forty years. Canada has had to face up to some pretty awful sins in its past, and not too far in the past either. Not everyone has accepted what has been found, and our society is far from a complete rehabilitation. But the process continues, the coming to terms with things goes on, generation by generation, and there will be no going back now. I suppose that, in itself, may become a problem in the future. We are so determined to bring about necessary changes, that we may move too quickly. Laws have been changed in Canada over those 40 years that have altered the fabric of society in fundamental ways. But it’s not always clear how and why those changes were made, other than in a feverish attempt to right what were seen as wrongs. It may be we haven’t always considered the implications. The response of the media, and then of the general population, to the Indian Residential Schools claims and revelations of the past year are an example of kneejerk reaction before the facts were clear. Now the fear is that there will be a backlash, and the same media will downplay the reality because the initial reports were often incomplete or inaccurate. It’s a very sensitive issue, and will remain so.
But Canada has shown itself open to change, to renewal, reassessments, to a rethink of what it means to be Canadian. The facts of the past have made that more complicated and arduous than we might have expected, but we move ahead regardless. There is no end point for a country or a society, and 40 years is a short period in the life of a nation. The end is not yet, the process continues. But this personal anniversary has been a good time for me to look back and see how much has changed in Canada, and in me because of Canada. It still seems very strange for this working class kid from a Dublin suburb to be living the life I lead in this amazing country. Maybe I’m unsure of how it all happened. Maybe I’m surprised at how much this country has enabled me to grow and have an astonishing life. Maybe I’m amazed.
Which reminds me: Happy 80th Paul, and thanks for all the music.