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January 10, 2014

Columnist's Canada in 1954

I am approaching, all too soon, a milestone birthday, and, as age seems to produce a certain boldness, I thought I would depart from my usual discreet journalistic anonymity just this once and offer a few personal reflections on my life as a Canadian.

Baby me entered the world halfway between the end of World War II and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That perhaps explains my lifelong fascination — some would say obsession — with these two seminal events of the 20th century.

The place where I made my entrance on a woefully cold Wednesday was about as distant from any action or excitement on the planet as you can imagine. The ramshackle northern Ontario gold mining town was in a deep post-war slump, and the future looked bleak. (It would be saved in a few years by a massive base-metals discovery by a company called Texas Gulf Sulphur; the find also sparked a huge insider trading scandal.)

My nurse mom and teacher dad were both raised in this forlorn but magnificent party of the country, still very much an untracked wilderness. Her dad was a travelling sawyer; dad’s father was a telegrapher at a series of remote railway stations.

Canada in 1954 was about as grey and conservative a place as was the United States. You had avuncular Dwight Eisenhower; we had Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent.

“Uncle Louis” was in his mid-70s when I was born. I would later go on to be a friend and colleague of his nephew. We signed the deed for our Quebec City house at St. Laurent’s former law office, now a museum in his honor.

St. Laurent was, at that time, only the second francophone prime minister in Canadian history. I grew up knowing Canada was partly French, although, typical of what in retrospect was the shocking xenophobia of my multi-ethnic town, the English population generally treated the local French-Canadians with condescension and scorn (the reverse was probably true, for all I knew).

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