It was—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—the best of times and the worst of times. It was the year of Steve Fonyo and of earthquakes; it was a year of economic boom and bank collapses; of joy for stockbrokers and disaster for farmers. It was the year President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev met and talked and apparently liked each other and the year when South Africa threatened, once more, to explode. We edged closer to peace and closer to war, depending on whether the unrolling of the Americans’ Strategic Defense Initiative turns out to be a club or a cushion.
1985 was not a disaster, although we flirted with disaster, and not a triumph, but we had our moments; it was the Year of Yin and Yang. Fate invited us to charge our glasses for a toast and then told us the wine was adulterated. Officially, 1985 was International Youth Year. It was also the year in which toy manufacturers reached for the youth market with cuddlesome Wrinkles puppets competing with toys that twist from space cars into monsters. Every mother’s child had to decide whether true happiness lies in hugging or in blasting the universe to smithereens.
There was a litany of catastrophes, natural and manmade, but then there always is. A cyclone killed 10,000 in Bangladesh, an earthquake killed 4,200 in Mexico, and a volcanic eruption killed 5,000 in Colombia. There were more modest tragedies: 53 people perished when a soccer stadium burst into flames in Bradford, England, and 12 died when a tornado swept through southern Ontario. There was the usual crop of murders, bombings and hostage-takings, as the usual gang of the discontented, oppressed and outraged said it with bombs and guns. But this year terrorism touched Canada. An Air-India jet, carrying 329 passengers and crew—most of them Canadian—and probably a bomb, plunged into the Atlantic off the Irish coast on June 23. Less than an hour earlier, a bomb had exploded in luggage from a CP Air flight that had just landed in Tokyo. It was a good year to stay home.
Still there was reason for optimism, even in a place such
as Africa, where a continuing death watch has become numbing in its remorselessness. The United Nations was able to report that several years of severe drought had eased, to the point where only 11—out of an original 20—nations are still in a state of emergency. When the good news is that only 29 million Africans are in danger of imminent starvation, you know what kind of year it was.
There were riots and a brutal emergency regime in South Africa, but among the deaths there was a sort of progress. The squeeze play of economic sanctions and international distaste seemed to be persuading South Africa’s leaders that concessions to the black majority will have to be made. There were marches and countermarches in Northern Ireland as a historic accord allowed the southern, Catholic republic some say on future developments in the British, Protestant north. It was either the first real turning on the long and bloody road of Irish tragedy or yet another squandered hope.
The bones of Josef Mengele, the Nazi death-camp doctor, were discovered in a South American grave; and another and more malodorous skeleton bobbed up in France, when it turned out that the bombs that blew up the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand had been planted by French government operatives. It was a grand year for spies everywhere, and it would have taken John le Carré to sort out the comings and goings of a cottage industry of secrets salesmen, who peddled documents everywhere until they got caught and then held press conferences, switched sides or went to jail, according to the vagaries of fate.
In Canada the universe unfolded as it should, in a confused, Canadian fashion. Stephen Charles Fonyo thrust his artificial leg into the Pacific after an 8,000-km Journey For Lives, and made the nation glow with pleasure and pride. AIDS, this year’s disease, reached Canada and made the nation squirm with alarm and discomfort. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, whose rumbling unction and affable vacuities propelled him into the highest office in the land last year, found himself, this year, beset with ill-smelling patronage scandals, cabinet resignations and federal-provin-
cial squabbles. He lost a defence minister to a West German nightclub and a fisheries minister to a tuna factory, and then, just to show 1985’s evenhandedness, his communications minister, Marcel Masse, suspended for two months while the RCMP investigated his election expenses, was restored, triumphantly innocent, to the bosom of mother cabinet. The New Era of federal-provincial relations, which saw a Western Accord and a new energy policy hammered into place to the sounds of purring, rapidly reverted to snarls-as-usual when a meeting of first ministers in Halifax late in November squabbled about transfer payments to the provinces and about control over the process when free trade negotiations eventually get under way with the United States.
Economic revival continued, and the federal government was in a position to deliver on its election promise to trim the federal deficit. But two banks collapsed, handing Ottawa bills that may total $1.5 billion, and demolished that dream. Unemployment and the growth rate of the consumer price index both dropped, while the gross national product rose in real terms by more than four per cent, and Canada’s trade surplus will probably reach $19 billion; but the jobless total remains stubbornly above 10 per cent —much higher in some areas—resource sectors and farming continue to be bedevilled by low prices, and federal cutbacks are hurting in health, education and welfare.
As the year wore on, the intractability of Canada’s problems rewrote the Prime Minister’s political strategy. He was no longer to be found front-andcentre in the House of Commons every day, bantering with the opposition; instead, he was slipping out of town, deflecting questions or playing peek-a-boo with the press. The man who sang When Irish Eyes Are Smiling at the Quebec Summit with Reagan in March was ready, by December, for a verse of Oh, Lonesome Me. That old gang of his had broken up, too. Ontario, after 42 years of Tory rule, had turned to a Liberal minority government; Liberals had swept to an overwhelming majority in Quebec; Peter Lougheed had laid aside his sceptre in Alberta (although handing it over to a near-clone Conservative Donald Get-
ty), and in New Brunswick PC Premier Richard Hatfield was being fitted for a noose by dissident party members. The Ontario upheaval was the most damaging, the one in Quebec the most interesting because it brought back Robert (Bob the Job) Bourassa, a man most pundits had declared defunct back in 1976. If Bourassa could imitate Lazarus, so could the federal Liberal leader. John Turner, whose name was a hissing and a byword in most Canadian homes 12 months ago, was looking confident, competent and feisty as 1985 drew to a close.
In a world entertainment scene dominated by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner and Sylvester Stallone displaying, respectively, vocal cords, thighs and sweat, Canada worried along. Canadian culture staggered under the twin blows of cutbacks in government funding to major institutions such as the CBC and the National Film Board and confusion over whether culture is or is not part of a free trade negotiation with the Americans. The Prime Minister said it was not as the year dwindled down, but by then it was hard to get anyone to take him at his word. At the same time, Canadian culture blossomed under a shower of new books, brewed at home, and such transported triumphs as the Stratford Festival’s first-ever American tour.
When historians look for symbols of this year in Canada, they may fasten upon the way this nation indulged in a favorite pastime, dithering, after the Americans sent a Coast Guard vessel, Polar Sea, across what we claim to be our North, without asking permission. We assured the world that there was no harm done and then ordered up a half-billion dollar ice-breaker with which to assert ourselves in the future. We will close the icehouse door when we are sure the walrus has been stolen.
As January loomed, we had the satisfaction of having survived another 12 months. In the mists ahead of us, Halley’s comet presses closer and so do free trade talks. We cling to faith and bow to fear and hope to survive another year.
Walter Stewart is director of the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax.
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