When Spring arrived and broke into blossom in Toronto, back in 1967, nine of us Jesuit scholastics (from about 80 studying at Regis College) began making plans for summer school--in German. We had been told German would be needed if we ended up doing graduate work in philosophy or theology. Within a week all nine of us ‘budding intellectuals’ had decided on the same plan—we would study German for those six weeks in the very centre of German language and culture in North America—Montreal!
Yes, it was a joke—but a happy one. We all wanted to be where the action was going to be in Canada that summer of the 100th anniversary of Canada—and that was going to be ‘Expo ’67’, the hugely advertised gathering of nations being held on the small islands off the Island of Montreal. The world was coming to Montreal—why shouldn’t we go?!! (Some of us even thought St. Ignatius would be proud of us!).
So with hearts and flags fluttering, some of us picked up the “Ca-na-da!!” song and sang it along with the incessant radio repeats of it day after day. As for us, studying that Spring among the pheasants in our back field, and within easy view of the paths of the Eglinton Equestrian Club that ran along the Eastern edge of our Regis Willowdale property, we inevitably got drawn in by the ‘Give us a place to stand! And a place to grow!’ ditty that ended with the silly but captivating ‘Ontari-ari-ari-o.’
In fact, Expo was a total success for Canada. We were all very enthusiastic. The Canadian pavilion was beautiful--though overshadowed by the massive geodesic dome of the US pavilion. Irenée Beaubien SJ, French Canadian Jesuit pioneer in ecumenism, and Jack O’Brien SJ, from his position in Communications at Loyola College (now a part of Concordia University) had major influence in creating the Christian pavilion entitled The Eighth Day.
Every nation was there--and welcomed. We met citizens of the USSR, ate food with names we couldn’t pronounce and with exquisite tastes our mothers wouldn’t recognize. And we drank beer on different nights with people literally from around the world. Finding God in all things (a famous Jesuit dictum) never felt so good! And yes, we did study German by day.
The Canadian and Ontario governments that year offered generous funding for patriotic projects; good and great stuff like creating small-city orchestras, completing the newly-started Bruce Trail, and hundreds of other regional and local enterprises. Think Katimavik, small town libraries, new rinks—and lots more.
And, of course, 1967 was the year the French and English Canadian Jesuits launched our fabulously successful canoe trip from Midland to Montreal. It was all a national and international blast—and we Canadians were totally proud—and very happy with ourselves.
It was only later that we came to recognize that Canada in 1967 was already changing rapidly. The frozen dream of Expo forever was melting fast—and we were, by and large, surprised by the big shifts when the new waters began spreading. Canada in 1967 --we kind of knew, but actually ‘discovered’ forcefully--was almost entirely white. It was only in the 1970s that Canada became the demographic rainbow (mosaic) we know now in our big cities, but not yet fully so, even now, in our smaller towns.
Rumblings of new questioning, new hopes—and new anger--were already popping up in Quebec by the early 1960s. From Spokane (while studying philosophy) I had asked Jacques Monet SJ in 1963 to educate me a bit on events in Quebec before I returned home the next year. He did so (by letter!), and beautifully. But when I stood there that warm summer evening in 1967 under the balcony in Old Montreal and heard President De Gaulle proclaim ‘Vive le Quebec Libre!’ to thunderous approval of the thousands below, I finally felt what we all came to know so clearly in October 1970: that leading up to the FLQ kidnappings of James Cross, the gentle British Trade Representative in Canada, and Pierre Laporte, an even gentler Quebec politician (killed on October 17 by his captors), and through the multitude of changes since that pivotal year, the Canada of Expo was a lovely, fading dream-picture of our national character, history and self-proclaimed destiny; a particular version of a national honeymoon, but not a portrait of the actual marriage, or the ‘family’ called Canada.
A big leap forward: My work with refugees over the past 25 years has given me a sharp appreciation for the continuing and developing spirit of Canadian openness and generosity. It is very much alive. However, knowing refugees and knowing them in their new ‘situation’ and struggles has also exposed me to the ‘other half’ of our Canada, the half that regularly chooses to move into self-protection, into a diffused fear of the other.
These energies inevitably ride on the steady political winds, especially since September 11, 2001, from our neighbour to the south. But they also rise up from within our own hearts--and our own history.
Let me ‘count the ways’:
- the covenants, promises and pacts with aboriginal peoples signed—and broken;
- the “Chinese head tax” and the inhumane ways our railroads got built on the backs of ‘Asian foreigners’;
- the displacement & internment of the Japanese Canadians in B.C. during World War II and the stealing of their homes and properties by our authorities—not to be returned;
- the refusal of the Jewish refugees whose ship, the MS St. Louis, was turned back from Canadian waters by our government at the time, and many of whose refugee ‘passengers’ died in Auschwitz;
- the fierce initial refusal, just a few short years ago, of refugees from Sri Lanka arriving in boats—so different from our wonderfully innocent acceptance of the Vietnamese ‘boat people’ in 1979.
Canada, it must be said, is in many ways one among other nations. In some ways we have excelled and done very well in generosity and kindness. But Canada has also learned to speak the language and play the game of ‘the big boys on the block’ in world affairs. We have wanted to be there around the same table, not to convert (or even alert) the larger nations to our Canadian ‘niceness’ but to be like them—powerful, privileged, and therefore recognized and ‘respected’. Meanwhile many, many Canadians know this is not the kind of respect and power we really believe in, want—and work for. The catch-phrase ‘we are better than we know, and we are worse than we appear’ comes to mind. It seems both tempering--and true.
Canada is still, in so many ways, a land of hope. But it is also a country of complacency—living off an international reputation that is today exaggerated and unhelpful. Hope and justice are still vital goals in our country as we approach our 150th birthday party. Yearning and working for justice for our native peoples, for refugees who come to Canada in dire need, for the ignored Canadian poor and for the homeless in our city streets, for a national conversion to serious, practical resistance to ecological abuse, for being a leader in finding genuine ways to international peace—all these aspirations and efforts lie now in the hands of the grateful and hopeful few—and the young. They lie ahead of us as an unfinished nation—not behind us as triumphant and completed accomplishments.
Born in 1940, I and my country were children of the ‘dance’ at the party that Expo incarnated and celebrated. As a boy, I was located comfortably in a post-Depression, post-World War II expansion, at the very start of changes in which every passing year meant more and better. At Expo in 1967, I was celebrating an era of Canadian plenty—and my own incredibly gifted life. It felt real. It felt forever.
We have so much now…and, indeed, we are so much. But so much else cries out for recognition, for healing and honest hard work. So many—even after arriving here and thinking life would be good—still cry out for a chance to have even a bit of the peace and promise pool that I swam in so easily--before 1967 and after.
I danced at Expo. I want now, as a 2017 Canadian, to be part of making it easier for those in our country and in other nations to know what it is like to be part of the dance that God intends for each of us, for all of us—in Canada, yes…and beyond. In gratitude and in hope I sing gratefully the praise of my country—and pray for it.