Lots of legal history sprung in the 1960s

Bryan D. Palmer is a labour historian — one of Canada’s finest — who teaches at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. He holds the Canada Research Chair in the department of Canadian studies.


Boomer decade analysis has erupted everywhere. How much weight does history account for in the daily to and fro of the legal mill? Marxism’s enduring value and intellectual legitimacy are deployed here.

Palmer’s labour history pedigree makes this book of especial interest to legal minds in the poverty law, public law, human rights, equality law, constitutional, and employment and labour law areas. Illegal strikes and wildcats and their meaning in comparison to the post-Second World War collective bargaining institutions are explored, for example.

A good index — 30 detailed pages — satisfies my traditionalism. Paternalism, pluralism, and populism are examples. Alcohol, golf, and drugs are missing.

And there are 144 pages of “notes” containing a smorgasbord of documentary sources: journalistic, historical, academic, labour, literary, cultural, political, and legal. These notes have significant intellectual value, independently of the text, for legal researchers, legal briefs, and all forms of thinking legal work.

And there are excellent photos of individuals and events. And poetry. And a great deal of excellent Quebec material.

There were only two women in my law school class. And Judy LaMarsh, a Niagara Falls, Ont., lawyer, was the only woman in Lester Pearson’s centennial cabinet. Her 1968 memoir . . . “a bird” in a “gilded cage” . . . is a snapshot. Equality rights and feminism, women’s studies, gender-based legal analysis, abortion rights: none of it existed formally.

The Diefenbaker Bill of Rights was a weak hope, along with the Supreme Court of Canada’s implied bill of rights. Native rights law, land claims, residential schools . . . all of these important issues were suppressed in Canadian law, like the environment and disability. Bilingualism and biculturalism appeared as political tools.

Palmer largely takes the decade on its own terms. He stands against the social and legal panic over ’50s juvenile delinquency. New Left student upheavals turned university campuses rebellious. How the ’60s was lived in Quebec is detailed: sporadic episodic protests in the name of language rights and independence gave way to the FLQ, culminating in October 1970, shattering liberal illusion.

There are more narratives than ideologies with complications and intrigues. What was Canada before, during, and after? He argues that it was a pivotal decade not capable of simplistic labelling. Rebelliousness . . . simple assertiveness, in fact . . . artistic and intellectual expansionism: these all provoked our legal milieu, its structures, its values. Criminal lawyers and criminal law academics will identify much stimulating material.

His Cuban missile crisis material recalls the paucity of Canada’s Western Hemispheric legal structures in the ’60s, from Antarctica to the Arctic, including all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

This narrative reminds us of the powerful dominance of the Cold War. Those maturing since 1989 may have difficulty grasping the incredible impact it had on our legal institutions: judges, courts, police, lawyers, legislators, tribunals, and law schools. Security and intelligence law was basically non-existent. The RCMP had not become the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. There were no information access or privacy laws. Dirty tricks are well illustrated here; Palmer likes to take on the state, as do many lawyers.

Enjoy the Gerda Munsinger sex scandal and the romantic Pierre Trudeau playboy years. The law’s treatment of gender and sex can be counterpoised to Trudeau’s rise based on his physical and intellectual attractiveness to both men and women. More on homosexuality would have been helpful.

Prior to the ’60s, Canada was still a British imperial outpost. Canada was what you saw in Toronto’s Honey Dew restaurants, Victoria’s Empress Tea Room, or Montreal’s Windsor Hotel. Everyone knew what “one Canada” meant. It did not include most immigrants, aboriginal peoples, and French-speaking Canadians.

After the ’60s, it was no longer possible to envision Canada as before. Youthful explosions of protest, native militants crossing borders to occupy Alcatraz or defend fishing rights, Molotov cocktails flying on picket lines or crashing and burning against monuments of Gen. James Wolfe, angry women appearing before a royal commission about abortion laws and restrictions on birth control: it became illegitimate to identify Canada with the British Empire.

Palmer argues that Canadians no longer knew who we were. I recall we were force-fed U.S. pop culture, including Disney’s Pongo, a 1961 anthropomorphic romp on conventional heterosexual male dominance.

Irony is beamed on race. Palmer shows how a Canada now portrayed as a bastion of diversity and multiculturalism was alive with conventional racism. He gives a compelling treatment of the George Chuvalo-Muhammad Ali Maple Leaf Gardens heavyweight match on March 29, 1966.

Canadians gravitated to Chuvalo out of racist hostility to a radical Ali. Ali angered the boxing establishment and conventional civil society. He refused to be inducted quietly into the U.S. military to be sent to Vietnam. “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” Ali quipped, in stating that he had no quarrel with the Vietnamese. To Palmer, the fundamental irony was that Chuvalo as Great White Hope — a Canadian-coined racism — was a ’60s product. In the ’50s, he was “hunky,” not really Canadian.

Palmer recognizes that our liberal state and its legal machinery respond to mobilized constituencies. Feminist agitation led to reproductive choice. Aboriginal militancy contributed mightily across a spectrum of native legal issues. And the Québécois sovereignty forces had an enormous impact on language, culture, constitutional law, and federalism.

“Then we were away from Manawaka. It came as a shock to me, how small the town was, and how short a time it took to leave it, as we measure time.” — Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel, 1964.

Craig Paterson entered law school in September 1967. His reviews will be appearing every second month on canadianlawyermag.com. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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