The ‘Last Good Year’: Revisiting the Centennial Craze

Habitat: legacy of the good year

Did Montréal get the best Centennial legacy of them all?

1967 was a good year— the “last good year” according to Pierre Berton. Canada’s centennial sparked centennial-project craze across the country.

I first started to think about the lingering legacies of Centennial celebrations on a visit to St. Paul, Alberta. I was on a little road trip checking out ‘big things on the side of the road’ and stopped in St. Paul to visit the town’s UFO landing pad. Reading the accompanying plaque I discovered that the UFO landing pad was a centennial project. For the citizens of this Albertan town, welcoming out-of-planet visitors was the perfect way to celebrate Canada’s birthday and Canadian hospitality. While countless arenas, community centers and parks were built in honour of the Centennial, Berton outlines other more extraordinary celebratory acts. Men grew ‘centennial beards,’ one man attempted (unsuccessfully) to lead a dog team from Tuktoyaktuk to Edmonton, and a team of paddlers embarked on a canoe trip/ race following the historic route of the Voyageurs from the North Saskatchewan River to Montreal, all in celebration of the nation’s birthday. Berton also noted this more anarchist style ‘centennial project’: “It almost seemed that every man and woman in the country was determined to mark the anniversary with a personal effort, even if to somebody it meant throwing a hammer through the window of the U.S. Consulate in Toronto. A note from the anonymous vandal attached to the hammer announced that this was his centennial project” (39).

Many centennial projects now exist as monuments to this great year. While Expo 67 was a city-wide celebration in Montreal which has left memories and nostalgic recollections, Moshe Safdie’s centennial project Habitat 67 continues to be inhabited and celebrated for its design ingenuity. And, while the party on Parliament Hill in 1967 was historic as a moment of nationalistic collective effervescence, Ottawa continues to be marked by multiple Centennial project-monuments.

The most notable of these Centennial projects is the Centennial flame. Lit on New Year’s Eve, 1966 by Prime Minister Lester B Pearson, the flame was intended to be in front of Parliament Hill only for the Centennial year; however public pressure is what gave the flame its ‘eternal’ presence. Suitably national, the base of the eternal flame depicts the coats of arms for each province and territory, as they were in 1966, with their dates of entering Confederation.

Nearby Nepean Point was also accentuated with two Centennial projects: the building of the Astrolabe Theater and the establishment of the Surveyor’s Monument. The Astrolabe Theater was designed to produce the perfect vantage point from which to enjoy the “Light and Sound” show. A concrete monolith, “The Surveyors’ Monument” also still stands at Nepean Point to celebrate Canada’s pioneer surveyors in Canada’s history. A project of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources: “A brass surveyor’s marker is set in the base of the monument and a brass plaque shows the relation of this monument to the others in the provincial capitals” (NCC. N.d. Major’s Hill and Nepean Point). In Gatineau, at the intersection of Montcalm and Alexandre-Taché there is a monument titled “Explorer II” by Victor Tolgesy, which was put there in 1968. It is a version of a 1967 monument that was in Montreal.

Down Wellington Street, across from the National Library and Archives is the “Garden of the Provinces” (which was rededicated ‘Garden of the Provinces and Territories’ in 2005). The Garden was opened in 1961, in the nation-building years leading up to 1967. The Garden consists of flags representing every province and territory, their shields, and a sculpted tree with a fountain of water. A concrete slab represents the Great Lakes.

MP Judy LaMarsh was one of the central forces behind the exuberance of Canada’s centennial year. As Secretary of State, LaMarsh was given the portfolio for Centennial celebrations. One of LaMarsh’s suggestions was to commission four monuments in the centennial year to honour four past Canadian Prime Ministers: Arthur Meighen, Bennett, William Lyon McKenzie King and Louis St. Laurent. Two of these were to be unveiled in the centennial year.

The monument to William Lyon McKenzie King was unveiled only one year late, on Canada Day, 1968. The efforts to monumentalize King proceeded slowly for many years. King had designed his own memorials by bequeathing both his downtown Ottawa home— Laurier House, and his country estate Kingsmere to the people of Canada. As Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister, having been in office in some form from 1900 to 1948, deciding which era of King to represent added a level of complexity. Terry Guernsey adds “in addition, although a statesman of some importance, King, in his own view, remained throughout his life unimpressive in appearance” (116). The monument, designed by Raul Hunter, Guernsey describes: “In a tense but determined stance, King confronts us as a decisive and commanding presence– perhaps not as he was, but as at least one part of him might have liked to be” (117). King’s location, facing the back of Parliament Hill’s East block, compounded with the monument’s low pedestal, has produced a fairly unimpressive statue; especially unfortunate for a Prime Minister who had such a fondness for monuments and statues.

The monument to Louis St. Laurent, “Uncle Louis” (Prime Minister 1948-1957) was not unveiled until 1976. The monument was completed in 1969, however it was decided that it would be more appropriate to unveil the monument after St. Laurent’s death. The monument was placed in front of the Supreme Court to honour St. Laurent’s role in the development of the Supreme Court, and his career as a lawyer. He had pled over 60 cases in the court in front of which his monument is placed. His monument also faces the Justice building where he was Minister of Justice 1941-1946.

The final two monuments that LaMarsh had proposed— to Prime Ministers Arthur Meighen (1920-1921, 1926) and to Richard Bennett (1930-1935) were never realized in Ottawa. While the statue to Meighen was built (and eventually installed in St. Mary’s, Ontario http://meighen.byethost13.com/), the monument to Bennett never made it past maquette stage. LaMarsh’s rejection was apparently not based on artistic merit rather because they were not “primarily intended as works of art but as representations to future generations of the statesmen of the past” (on Guernsey 129). In 1974, Prime Minister Diefenbaker was alerted to the case of the ‘missing monuments’ and decided to recover them. His aesthetic judgement also deemed the models not worthy of the statesmen they were to represent. * on this, I would like to note and suggest in defence of these two monument designers, that politicians, and ‘the public’ is often a few decades behind the ebb of creative innovation.

Finally, the most striking and productive Centennial project in the capital is the National Arts Center, which opened in 1969. The building of the National Arts Centre was the inspiration of an organization, the National Capital Arts Alliance headed by media mogul Hamilton Southam and Levi Pettler. A few locations were considered for the NAC, among them were Nepean Point and the old Union Station, however, mayor of the day Charlotte Whitton suggested its present location.

The building was designed by Fred Lebensold. For some, because of its concrete, strong geometric shapes and what some read as ‘confusing’ entryways, the National Arts Centre is disliked and dismissed. However, it is also celebrated as an exemplar of 1960s brutal modernism; in 2000 was recognized by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, as one of the top 500 buildings built in Canada in the last millennium.

At the close of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, there was talk about the legacy of the games, how they were to be a shining moment of Canadian pride and nationalism, matching Expo ’67 and the 1972 Summit Series. These predictions seem a little enthusiastic and maybe lacking historical distance. However, in the shadow of those very exhilarating games, I think it prudent to consider the lasting urban legacies of 1967: ‘the last good year.’

References:

Berton, Pierre (1997). 1967: The Last Good Year. Toronto: Doubleday Canada.

Guernsey, Terry. (1986). Statues of Parliament Hill. Ottawa, National Capital Commission.

National Capital Commission. n.d. Major’s Hill and Nepean Point. Ottawa, National Capital Commission.

photo of Habitat 67 by Justin Wilcox

One comment

  1. This is just a correction about William Lyon Mackenzie King. Although King became Deputy Minister of Labour in 1900, he only entered Parliament in 1908. Atter defeat in the election of 1911, he was chosen leader of the Liberal Pary in 1919. He only became Prime Minister in 1921. He was PM 1921 to 1926, 1926 to 1930 and 1935 to 1948.
    However you define being “in office”, I believe King was definitely out of office at least from 1911 to 1919.

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