As 1981 ended, the lenten tedium and oppressive conformity of Canadian life had vanished. With all the fervor of born-again agnostics, Canadians in every region, occupation and economic circumstance spontaneously and angrily challenged their governments, their bosses and their banks. By year-end, the craving for order and obedience, historically so dominant in this peaceable kingdom of ours, had been replaced by confusion reminiscent of the swaying bleachers at a Stones concert.
The widening dichotomy of trust between the governors and the governed no longer was limited to the radical young or the financially strapped. Pent-up resentment of authority burned across the land, with ordinarily placid middle-class citizens accusing the politicians of lies and damned lies. Only the most faithful of retainers still believed that national problems had political solutions.
Besieged federal parliamentarians responded by throwing up such mind-blowers as the National Energy Program, Eugene Whelan and a brand new constitution covered with beaver tracks. The politicians’ fatuous pronouncements continued slithering off Ottawa’s photocopiers like limp herring. But no one paid attention. While Pierre Trudeau was levitating in a space all his own, Joe Clark succeeded in giving banality a bad name. Ideology was dying, and authenticity became an overrated virtue. The world watched as Poland struggled for freedom.
It was a bruising process, a time of anarchic impulses and lost touchstones.
What really happened during 1981 was the unruly passage from an acceptance of closed-shop authority to a militancy that questioned most traditional power groupings. The once-smug burgh-
ers of a once-smug country staged a coup d’état against the notion of having the big personal decisions made for them by self-selected hierarchies. This was true not only of governments, but of business, union ranks—and families.
It was Pierre Trudeau who inadvertently set off the process. His insistence on drafting a new charter of rights prompted voters to re-examine past dues, present entitlements and absent powers. In gaining their own constitution, Canadians came of age in a curiously uncharacteristic way.
It was not pride of independence that dominated the national conscience of a country about to be untied from Mother Britannia’s apron strings. It was a scream of defiance against usurious interest rates and spirit-crushing inflation. Unemployment in Canada had created a horde of jobless greater than the ranks of the country’s entire armed services during the Second World War. What should have
been a time of national celebration turned sour.
Protests and strikes grew commonplace. Instead of obediently following march organizers, the frustrated men and women who took part in the demonstrations eyed their own leaders with the wariness of starving foxes.
Cecil Taylor, militant boss of the United Steelworkers’ local who led a 17-week strike against Stelco Inc. and caused it $70 million in lost profits, was shouted down as he was announcing the victorious settlement at Hamilton’s Ivor Wynne Stadium. When his members started setting the building on fire by lighting copies of the new contract, Taylor adjourned the meeting with the taunt: “If you want to light fires, I’ll be at the union hall this afternoon. You can burn that down!”
The 100,000 angry workers Dennis McDermott organized and led to Ottawa on Grey Cup weekend set their own bonfires on Parliament Hill, and the Canadian Labour Congress chief threatened that next time he would forcibly take over Parliament itself.
No one seemed immune from this mood of spreading sedition. Convicted kidnapper and FLQ revolutionary Jacques Rose was hailed with two standing ovations at the Parti Québécois’ policy convention in Montreal, while René Lévesque’s pleas for provincial sovereignty, based on some lingering association with Canada, were postponed. In response, Alex Paterson, a mildmannered Montreal lawyer and copresident of the province’s Englishspeaking Positive Action Committee, huffed: “The mood of our community has shifted from reason to hostility, from moderation to calls for civil disobedience, from hope to a search for new solutions.” Violence was becoming a habit. Vandalism cost Toronto schools
about $1 million, while in Halifax
the murder rate doubled, with reported rapes up by 40 per cent. More than two million Criminal Code offences were committed across the country in 1981. In such formerly placid backwaters as Ontario’s Bruce and Grey counties, hooded and armed farmers, infuriated by high interest rates, threatened bankers, particularly those of the Commerce, which raked in an unprecedented 61-per-cent profit increase.
The revolutionary spirit flourished everywhere. Only Ruhollah Khomeini remained unperturbed, contemplating the legacies of terror. Even though Iran under his bloody stewardship had massacred or deposed two presidents and four prime ministers, the ayatollah maintained that what gave his country stability was how fast its leaders could be replaced.
The grisly killings of Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Ziaur Rahman of Bangladesh (and the attempted assassinations of
Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II) underlined the vulnerability of the international order. By year-end, invasions and insurrections had created more than 10 million refugees, with new victims from Guatemala and Nicaragua swelling the ranks of the dispossessed in Pakistan, Somalia and the Sudan. Cuba exported its revolution by maintaining 50,000 soldiers in Angola, Ethiopia and the Yemens. The United States sold Pakistan $3.2 billion worth of arms—even though that country (with Libya’s support) moved further in its atomic bomb development than Iraq had before the Israeli bombing on June 7.
Such thunder of distant apocalypse was matched at home by dour predictions that North America during 1981 had moved into a major recession, the worst since the economic blight of the ’30s. Paper losses on the Toronto Stock Exchange alone amounted to more than $20 billion, and businesses across the country were going bankrupt at the rate of 2,500 per month. Stockbrokers’
Christmas cards were featuring gallows humor, such as this verse sent out by Loewen, Ondaatje,
McCutcheon & Co. poking fun at Allan MacEachen:
Our spending programs are a hit So let’s forget the deficit
Let ’s make sure that no one mentions Or thinks about our indexed pensions
While MacEachen’s enterprisedestroying budget attracted most of the criticism, it was the Bank of Canada’s drum-tight monetary policy that deserved more of the blame, by raising interest rates to an unprecedented peak of 23 per cent. Governor Gerald Bouey (who won his war on inflation by accepting a 1981 salary increase to $104,500) admitted that unemployment was “disagreeable and unpleasant” but stubbornly stuck to the monetarist-style diktats that helped increase it. His approach was all too reminiscent of the barb delivered to the November conference of British Conservatives at Blackpool by Robert Jones, one of the party’s activists: “They tell us that monetarism is only a theory.
Perhaps then they should try jumping off the Blackpool Tower.
Gravity is only a theory.”
Hardest hit was the North American automobile industry, its Canadian branches suffering from protracted layoffs. The prestigious Moody’s Investors Service took the unheard-of step of downgrading the credit rating of General Motors Corp., long the symbol of America’s industrial strength, after third-quarter earnings showed a net operating loss of $468 million. G M’s Canadian subsidiary managed to find a new market by shipping 13,500 Chevrolet Malibus to Iraq where they were used to partially compensate the widows of soldiers killed in the interminable war with Iran.
While Toronto retained its dominance as the country’s leading financial centre, industry, money and people continued shifting westward. So much so that during the pregame banter at the Grey Cup game in Montreal, Ontario Premier Bill Davis casually suggested to Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed that they make a little wager: Ontario’s budgetary deficit (about $1 billion) against the Alberta Heritage Fund (about $9 billion). With a half-time score for the Ottawa
Rough Riders of 20-1, Davis thought he had it made, but Lougheed (whose Eskimos won in a 26-23 squeaker) never did take the bet.
Not all the economic prognostications were gloomy. In a little-noted speech delivered to an international energy forum in Mexico City, Joel Bell, the executive vice-president of Petro-Canada, predicted that the oil discoveries off Newfoundland might rival the North Sea. Jack Gallagher of Dome continued to walk the Beaufort, fooling his cynical critics by delineating a giant Arctic oil pool estimated at 9.5 billion barrels—adding 50 per cent to Canada’s recoverable reserves.
Corporate cannibalism flourished throughout the year, with companies worth $27 billion (representing one-fifth of all stocks listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange) being swallowed up in mergers and acquisitions.
To divert themselves from the burden of all the sombre economic and political news, Canadians took up fads, new and old, some spilling over from the U.S. and Japan. Rubik’s Cubes and Sony Walkmans became “must” items for the urban chic, who started sending each other Strip-A-Grams and gift certificates for fitnessdance classes. Jelly beans came in with Ronald Reagan, the Rolling Stones were back on the road, a pacifist wave was sweeping Europe, and Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel was judged the third-best in North America (and 24th in the world). The best news of 1981 was that in June, 109 episodes later, Charlie’s Anyels finally halted production; the year’s non-news event was that Brooke Shields lost a court decision to halt publication of nude photos of herself.
Canadians drank more beer than usual (18‘/2 gallons each), and recreational bicycling became our fastest-growing sport. It wasn’t a vintage year for whooping cranes: out of 25 eggs, three reached the flight stage and of these, only two survived. Poodles remained Canada’s favorite dogs. The most significant book published in 1981 was the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, while the U.S. best-seller lists sparkled with such gems as Alexandra Penney’s How to Make Love to a Man, which The Washington Post dismissed in a one-line review: “So much for lying back and thinking of England.”
If 1981 had an appropriate swan song, it may have been the one-man exhibit of a hundred Canadian flags painted by Toronto artist Charles Pachter. “I discovered something magical about that image,” he says. “I turned something banal into something mysterious. But more than one of my flags is staggering halfway down the pole, all knotted up against itself, which represents the whole feeling of pent-up frustration and tension in this country.” In some of Pachter’s final canvasses the red maple leaf has torn away from its moorings. It is an angry emblem, not soaring with pride but plummeting in free fall like a spent rocket.
“There’s no question my show is documenting something that’s going on in this country—a pulling apart—the tearing away at the strings trying to hold us together.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.