In Canada, 1981 was a year that resounded to the sound of numbers spewing forth—patriated but not seasonably adjusted—in computerized blips from supermarket cash registers and in staccato bursts from service station gas pumps. The totals were metrified morsels, but for most Canadians they added up to a giant racket in their daily lives. A nutritious basket of food for a family of four rose 11 per cent, to $81.64 per week. The cost of heating a home and fuelling a car added $700 to some household budgets, while gasoline shot up more than 40 cents a gallon in most major centres—10 cents per litre on the relentless klik-klik meters of the nation.
It was enough to drive otherwise gentle folk onto the streets and picket lines. Appropriately, adult frustration was the keynote in a year of games domi-
nated by Rubik’s Cube and Space Invaders. Fuelling the rage was the curious detachment of rulers from the daily affairs of Dire Straits. The prime minister travelled the world in a laudable effort to promote a sharing of wealth. But at home, inflation soared to the highest level since the 1930s, the dollar bottomed out at a historic low, and interest rates were matched in precedence only by bank profits. Seemingly out of sync with hard times in the land, cabinet ministers flew government Jetstars in formation; politicians and Bank of Canada Governor Gerald Bouey helped themselves to hefty pay hikes.
For political people, it was a year of the art of the improbable. After 21 months of stalemate and threats of western separatism, Ottawa and Edmonton hammered out a new $212-billion energy agreement. Ottawa intervened in the boardrooms of oil and gas firms in a manner not seen since the
Second World War as companies were dragged, screaming and kicking, toward a heady state called Canadianization. Topping off a historic year, Pierre Trudeau presided over his long-cherished goal of a new constitution, overcoming objections from a supremely divided court and most premiers.
Ironically, it was also the year that Trudeau was supposed to resign. Yet the quickened pace of his government’s activity, so absent throughout the late 1970s, conjured up visions of the early years. The Liberals’ fervor was rooted in their astonishing defeat by the Conservatives in 1979. A chastened Energy Minister Marc Lalonde reflected, “It was clear that if we came back, it would have to mean something.”
Even at the end of the season of ostensible victories, Trudeau decided not to step down. The opinion polls showed him running behind the Conservatives, but there was one last showdown to
come with René Lévesque. There also were complex problems left untended— from the economy to relations with Uncle Sam. Dealings with Ronald Reagan’s Washington slipped into a deep freeze, and the Liberals retreated from a nationalist industrial policy. In high official circles, Reagan was debunked as “the original cardboard man.” But the people showed their colors in a bout of Budweiser buying and sighs of wonder for the shuttle Columbia.
What Ottawa could not dispose of or cover up, it dispatched to inquiries and negotiators. The Kent commission found too much concentration by press barons, McDonald and Keable probes reported on black-bag jobs by Mounties, and a fearless, but dismissed, combines watchdog, Robert Bertrand, alleged that there were conspiracies by oil and
uranium companies. On the troubled labor scene, workers played a costly game of catch-up with the mails, national airwaves, coalfields, steel plants, pulp mills and even the very offices of the federal government.
Some old combatants departed. In Prince Edward Island, Premier Angus McLean retired. Sterling Lyon was defeated in Manitoba, and hapless provincial Liberal leaders came and went. Joe Clark faced mounting calls for his resignation. Majorities returned John Buchanan in Nova Scotia, Lévesque in Quebec and Bill Davis in Ontario.
For their part, consumers struggled on. Mortgage relief from 20-per-cent rates was scant, and there was a new chemical horror between the walls, called um. Acid continued to reign, and a new generation of scary substances
from Captan to Mi rex contaminated water and weeds.
To be sure, it was a year of major advances and of individuals who inspired. Canada sent its very own mechanical arm into outer space, and a breakthrough by Telidon held out the promise of a small country exploiting what it knows best. Women and native groups heralded a new concern about endangered rights.
Typically, the accomplishments were lost amidst the cacophony at home, but not on outsiders. “For all the compromises, mistakes and might-havebeens,” The Economist concluded, “it is an exciting record of an increasingly civilized, decent and prosperous people.” That was a measure of a race that sounds better than all the bleats and blips—by yards and miles.
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