University College and Canada's Sesquicentennial

Author: 
Principal Donald Ainslie
Magazine Section: 
Keynote

The year was 1967. Canada was feeling good about itself in its centennial year. We had the new flag. Montreal’s Expo was about to open. Alex Colville’s centennial coins were in circulation: the rock-dove penny, the rabbit nickels, the pickerel dimes, and the cougar quarters. Gordon Lightfoot had released the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” on New Year’s Day.

Twenty years prior, Canadians had finally become citizens of their own country, rather than subjects of the British Empire.  A few months later, the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act had been repealed. When, in the centennial year, the Pearson government introduced the points system that made national origin irrelevant to immigration decisions, the door to a truly multicultural Canada was opened.

Meanwhile, at University College,  the counterculture had arrived, with all the challenges to old policies and campus traditions it brought in its wake. The Lit that year sponsored “Perception ’67,” a festival devoted to psychedelic arts, including a performance by the Fugs and a reading by Allen Ginsberg. When the UC Principal at the time, Douglas LePan, prohibited any discussion of LSD on College property, that portion of the festival was moved to Hart House, though Timothy Leary was unable to give his talk about the liberating effects of acid when he was refused entry to Canada.

Bob Rae (BA 1969 UC) was on the organizing committee for “Perception ‘67” and, when he went on to become Premier of Ontario, he joined the many UC alumni who have helped to lead Canada as it evolved into the open and democratic country we know today: other Ontario Premiers Edward Blake (BA 1854 UC), Howard Ferguson (BA 1891 UC), and Bill Davis (BA 1951 UC); Prime Ministers Arthur Meighen (BA 1896 UC) and William Lyon Mackenzie King (BA 1895 UC); Governor General Vincent Massey (BA 1910 UC); and Supreme Court Justices such as Bora Laskin (BA 1933 UC) and, currently on the bench, Rosalie Abella (BA 1967 UC) and Michael Moldaver (BA 1968 UC).

As a card-carrying member of the “baby bust,” the generation born between 1966 and 1974, I am too young to remember the centennial itself, but I did sing “Ca-na-da” and “Ontari-ari-ario” in school. Perhaps because of this misplaced nostalgia, I am particularly looking forward to Canada’s 150th birthday this year.

The University of Toronto is marking the occasion with a series of faculty- and student-driven initiatives, starting with Kent Monkman’s “Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience,” an exhibition that premiered at the University of Toronto Art Centre (UTAC) location of the Art Museum at U of T and is now travelling across Canada. Monkman used art and carefully curated historical artifacts to tell the story of Confederation from a queer, indigenous perspective. He required us to see what is too often erased in national histories: those who have been subjected to violence, to cultural genocide, to ongoing displacement. In doing so, he exemplified what the University can offer during this sesquicentennial year: not further celebration, but historically informed investigations of what it means to be Canadian and where our country is heading.

University College’s Canadian Studies program will be hosting major conferences on Canadian literature in June and on immigration policy in October. The Centre for Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies will have a gala in April to celebrate its 50th birthday, Canada’s sesquicentennial, and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. John Borrows, a law professor at the University of Victoria, will be giving the F. E. L. Priestley Memorial Lectures in the History of Ideas at UC in October on indigenous law, truth, and reconciliation. For events happening elsewhere on campus, see canada150.utoronto.ca.

I have not yet heard of any psychedelic festivals and I haven’t yet had to ban any planned activities from College space, but perhaps next year’s Lit will take inspiration from their forebears?