25 YEARS

Then and Now

Our minds and bodies may be better, but our hearts are not

Ken MacQueen December 25 2000
25 YEARS

Then and Now

Our minds and bodies may be better, but our hearts are not

Ken MacQueen December 25 2000

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was, let’s be frank, the age of leisure suits. When respondents to the Maclean's Global year-end poll were asked to compare the country of today with that of 25 years ago, Canadians had a dickens of a time coming to agreement about the relative merits of 1975—a year that marked the first issue of Maclean's as a newsmagazine. Questions asked by The Strategic Counsel pollsters ranged from the quality of television, then and now, to the quality of mercy. Are we more tolerant as a people? You bet. Are today’s politicians better? In a pig's eye! Was there more sexual freedom in the age of disco? Ahem, ask your mother.

The answers engendered a lively debate over what aspects of a tumultuous quarter-century of change actually constitute progress. “There does seem to be a pattern,” says Strategic Council chairman and CEO Allan Gregg, of his 17th year-end poll for Maclean's. “Our minds are better, our bodies are better, but our institutions, and our hearts, perhaps aren't. We don’t have the same kind of ethical and moral standards or health-care system—these sorts of things are on the decline.”

Each of the 1,400 respondents to the survey, aged 18 or older, obviously brought their own experiences to bear. Relationships, movies, music, fashion—even the leisure suits now weeping polyester byproducts into landfills across the country—all play a part in the misty watercolour memories of the way we were. See, there is no escape even for those too young to have lived the 1970s. The airwaves are still dominated by baby boomer music, or by young artists who have sampled old standards to create edgy new music remixes. The multi-channel television universe is a trackless desert of reruns—there is even a modern offering called That 70s Show. Perhaps in self-defence, the young have embraced disco nights and their parents’ retro fashions, mercifully laced with wicked doses of irony. Asked to pick what was truly of value from both eras, age, geography and political leaning all played a telling role, yet a powerful national consensus emerged on several fronts, we clearly have fallen back on others.”

On the whole, Canadians optimistically believe the country has managed about two steps forward for every one step back. In a question that revealed a generally buoyant national mood, Canadians were asked if they would “prefer to live in the Canada of today or the Canada of 25 years ago?” Almost six in 10 respondents said today, but a significant 34 per cent preferred to live in the past. Perhaps understandably those under age 30 preferred the present, as did French Canadians, Newfoundlanders and Liberals. Canadians aged 50 to 59, those from smaller communities or from Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia were more prone to prefer the past.

There are exceptions, of course. Anne Stammer, 70, retired from a career as a nurse and health-care planner and living on Saltspring Island, B.C., is much less likely than many of her generation to dwell in the 1970s. “I think living in the past is a good way of getting old,” she reports from “paradise,” an ocean-view home outside the island community of Ganges. “Fashion is fleeting, but the future is always the best way of looking at things.” She agrees with a great majority of respondents that Canadians have become, for the better, a far more tolerant people. Given a menu of issues to choose from, a chart-topping 72 per cent cited “our treatment of gays and lesbians” today as the largest single improvement in today’s society. Next on the list, at 66 per cent, was “our treatment of visible minorities.” Stammer immigrated to Canada from Germany in 1953—part of the huge wave of European post-Second World War immigrants. Even in 1975, Europe remained the largest single source of immigrants, although that changed by the 1980s, when Canada began to draw the majority of immigrants from Asia. “Eventually, we’ll all meld together and become something positive,” says Stammer.

Across the country and several decades younger, Rob Hebert, 27, of Fredericton harbours serious reservations about the modern age. “I’m looking at the quality of my parents’ life versus today,” says Hebert, who is single and manages a tire warehouse. He cites such concerns as heavy taxation, families fractured by divorce, and treatment of the homeless and poor as problems that plague the modern Canada. In this he is not alone. The public is split over its opinion of Canada’s treatment of the poor and disadvantaged. While 40 per cent say the poor are now treated better, 32 per cent say the poor are worse off, and one in four say there has been no progress on poverty issues. Worsening ethical and moral standards are a significant public concern. Just 23 per cent say standards have improved while half say morals are sliding. Hebert’s musical tastes reach into the past—to Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne and Creedence Clearwater Revival—although the majority of respondents under age 30 understandably consider today’s music better. “I don’t know if you can say you were born in the wrong time,” says Hebert, a bit wistfully. “But I’d like to have been a ’60s child. I think of that free love spirit there, it sounded like fun.” 

Generally, however, even the nostalgia is conditional: Canadians had strong, if conflicting, opinions on what was gained and lost over the years. “We’re a nation that’s very clearheaded about the past,” says Bani Dheer, an associate of The Strategic Council. “There’s not really a desire to turn back the hands of time.”

Or, perhaps there is no need: the hands of time are relentlessly cyclical. Wait long enough—say 25 years—and the past returns like, well, like a remake of the mid-1970s jiggle hit Charlies Angels, now playing at theatres everywhere. Or a Guess Who reunion, which came 25 years after lead singer Burton Cummings quit the band to go solo. It was the same year that fellow Guess Who alumnus Randy Bachman scored the best-selling 1975 album with his breakaway band Bachman-Turner Overdrive. While Bachman’s chart-topping single that year promised You Ain’t Seen Nothin Yet, by 2000 that promise of great new things was ringing hollow on many fronts. Even platform shoes have tottered full circle, enriching a new generation of podiatrists.

It was 1975, with the Oct. 6 issue, that Maclean's marked its own profound shift: the venerable monthly became Canada's first newsmagazine, and it seems staff have been running ever since to keep up with the torrid pace of change. The editorial of that first edition—under the guidance of then-editor Peter C. Newman, who remains a columnist and contributing editor—called the newsmagazine “a titanic and slightly subversive venture.” It was also a precursor of an information explosion that would see news radio, all-news television and finally the Internet, a concept that Maclean's readers in 1975 would likely have dismissed as science fiction. It must be noted that the first newsmagazine edition was leisure-suit free. The same cannot be said of the previous September, 1975, issue with a full-page Jantzen advertisement offering, in “dark walnut” and assorted colours, a suit to “fill your leisure hours with style.” 

Fashion aside, the news format was well suited to the rapidity of change. It was a time when institutions, politics and societal verities were being renovated, renewed and rethought. Or so it seemed. Feminist Germaine Greer explained in a 1975 Maclean's interview that feminism need not be the death of “a phallic relationship.” Indeed, just over half of respondents say the amount of sexual freedom is better today, although significant numbers of those over 60 and—go figure—residents of Saskatchewan, consider the sexual climate worse. In other areas, societal change stalled. An early edition of the newsmagazine included an interview with shaggy looking scientist David Suzuki, then a fresh media darling revered for his abilities to popularize complex issues. His concerns then about chemical contamination of the environment or the dangerous applications of “genetic surgery” could be pulled from today’s headlines. In fact, 49 per cent of Canadians surveyed say the quality of the environment has worsened over the past 25 years. A modest 36 per cent see an improvement. Quebecers, older Canadians and those tending to vote Progressive Conservative are most satisfied with the current state of the environment. New Democrats and those aged 25 to 29 are most worried that it has deteriorated.

Politics endures as a consistent source of despair. With inflation, running almost 11 per cent in 1975, one hardly noticed the national debt had crept past $19 billion, chump change when compared with 1997 when it topped out at $583 billion. Disgraced U.S. president Richard Nixon was still being kicked around two years after the Watergate scandal forced his resignation as president. The movie All the President’s Men, chronicling Nixon’s fall, hit theatres in early 1976, and inspired a generation of reporters and voters to  take a jaundiced view of political motives on both sides of the border. Notably, Maclean's first newsmagazine cover story— written by current Editor-in-Chief Robert Lewis—featured Pierre Trudeau's appointment of Donald Macdonald as finance minister after the abrupt resignation of John Turner. The stories portrayed a Liberal government adrift while the prime minister feuded with a finance minister who coveted the top job. Sound familiar? How about this? The opposition, sensing blood, moves to solidify the political right. Staring from the cover of the March, 8, 1976, edition was a fresh-faced politician, under a headline that has become a timeless Canadian question: “Can Joe Clark unite the Tories?”

In what may be statistical verification of the maxim that familiarity breeds contempt, respondents to the Maclean's/ Global poll saved their highest level of concern for “the quality of our political leaders.” The survey, conducted Nov. 7 to 12, in the midst of the federal election, found that just 14 per cent of respondents said today's politicians were better than those of 25 years ago. A substantial 45 per cent said they were worse, and 38 per cent felt they were “about the same.” Of course, in the case of Jean Chrétien and Joe Clark, they are the same. Among those registering their disapproval was Donna Crozier, 31, of Saskatoon. She is an unemployed retail worker who is weighing the expense of returning to school to enhance her employability in a tight market. She found little comfort in the platforms of any of the candidates. “The way they were acting, I didn’t know who to vote for. They never addressed the issues, all they did was argue.”

To the surprise of no one who tracked the election, health care rated the highest level of public concern of all issues mentioned in the survey. Significantly, about half of Canadians felt their own “health and physical well-being” were better today than in the past. But they were troubled by the healthcare system, which, unlike exercise and diet, are beyond their personal control. A substantial 61 per cent felt health care had declined over the past 25 years. Or, perhaps more accurately, the concern was with the delivery of health care. “I know there are shortages of doctors, yes, but the advances in medical knowledge are vast compared with 25 years ago,” said Shelagh Stewart, 39, a stay-at-home mom from Cornwall, P.E.I. One of her three sons was diagnosed with cancer at age 3 1/2. Today, he is 13, and healthy. Had he been diagnosed 25 years ago, she says, “he definitely would not have been here now.” Back on Saltspring Island, Anne Stammer also sees good and bad in health-care deliver)’. Technology has improved and so has life expectancy, she notes. In fact, life expectancy at birth has jumped about five years since 1975. What troubles her is the rough treatment of the mentally ill. “Mentally incapacitated people were more secure 25 years ago because they were institutionalized and looked after.” Today, during visits to the city, she sees them left to fend for themselves on the street. “We have medication to let them out, and sometimes we forget about them.”

The survey is not without its contradictions. More than half of respondents feel “the personal safety of Canadians” has worsened. Yet, crime statistics give room for optimism. The rate of violent crime has fallen for seven consecutive years, after 15 years of increases. The national homicide rate actually peaked about 1975. Last year, it hit its lowest level since 1967. Then, there is the whole retro thing, from Charlie's Angels to lava lamps. Curiously, it is a notion embraced by the young, although they, as a group, are much happier with the present. Dheer of The Strategic Counsel suspects both contradictions can be explained by what she sees in the poll as a strong Canadian desire for “civility and stability.” Crime, an obvious threat to a civil society, elicits a strong response. Retro chic, she sees, as a quest for stability: “Going back to the past and picking and choosing things that worked then, bringing them into the present with a slightly different twist.” The theory takes a tumble, however, if one tries to rationalize the return of platform shoes as a quest for stability.

Finally, the Maclean’s/Global poll asked Canadians to look ahead to the year 2025. It is a measure of these optimistic times that 55 per cent of respondents predict better things to come. There is, though, a profound divide: 61 per cent of men are bullish about the future, but only 49 per cent of women agree. This indicates, if nothing else, the lack of a breakthrough in inter-gender communication these past 25 years.

Telling the future is a risky proposition, but some things seem certain for 2025, based on the lessons of the past. The music of the young will scandalize the oppressive legions of the old. Movies and television, in whatever form they exist, will be judged vastly inferior. Rap music will be huge on the fall fair nostalgia circuit. And, wait for it, a pouting male model will strut a Paris runway, foisting the leisure suit on an innocent and unsuspecting generation. **