Meaghan Elizabeth Beaton. The Centennial Cure: Commemoration, Identity, and Cultural Capital in Nova Scotia during Canada’s 1967 Centennial Celebrations (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).
By Matthew Hayday
It seems entirely fitting to review a book about the 1967 Centennial celebrations as the events of Canada 150 draw to their close. Reading Meaghan Beaton’s The Centennial Cure, one cannot help but be struck by the differences between how Canadian governments and citizens marked the 100th and the 150th anniversaries of Confederation. There was little debate, in the years leading up to 1967, about whether the centennial of Confederation should be celebrated, and the idea that substantial sums of money could be dedicated to these events in the interests of “nation-building” was widely accepted. As Beaton shows, through a series of case studies of projects across Nova Scotia, it was the question of how best to make use of Centennial largesse that created debates and controversies. Her analysis convincingly demonstrates how the planning of the Centennial projects sparked controversies over cultural changes in Nova Scotia, tensions over modernization initiatives, and debates over the economic future of the province and its communities. Moreover, she highlights both the possibilities and the limitations of how far Centennial monies could go to transform a province that was struggling with significant economic challenges, in light of broader nation-wide considerations.
Two case studies – one of a successful initiative, one of a failure – stand out as particularly strong illustrations of both the transformative potential of a Centennial project, and its limitations. While scholars such as Jonathan Vance and Helen Davies have drawn our attention to the high-profile Centennial initiatives and projects intended to foster a national culture, Beaton enriches our understanding of how individual communities made use of the per capita matching grants available from the federal government to further their local needs. In the case of Cape Breton, these funds were devoted to creating a Miners’ Museum, commemorating and celebrating the proud local history of an industry which was in decline, and likely to end soon. The choice to invest in this museum, which seemed to signal the inevitability of the coal industry’s demise, was greeted with some ambivalence. Yet the museum’s chief organizer, Nina Cohen, was able to frame this as a project that could draw tourism to the island. This shift to an economy increasingly reliant on tourism was a source of province-wide tensions, but it was ultimately accepted in the context of this Cape Breton Centennial initiative.
Plans for a dynamic, high-profile aquarium in Halifax, which would both draw tourists and become a centre for scientific research and development, on the other hand, became mired in debates of the Centenary committee and Halifax city council, and ultimately foundered due to skyrocketing projected costs. The Halifax aquarium also underscored the limits of how much the federal government was willing to spend on centennial projects to spur regional development. Efforts to convince Ottawa to top up its contributions were rebuffed, and Halifax’s centennial money ultimately ended up being diverted to a new swimming pool already under construction. Other chapters highlight how Nova Scotia engaged with debates about what its culture was, or should be for the future. Beaton considers province-wide engagement with urban and beautification movements via the Centennial Improvement Program, and the role of Scottishness in the province, as emblemized by the Nova Scotia Highland Games and Folk Festival. Not surprisingly, Ian McKay’s work on Nova Scotia, tourism and folk culture looms large as a historiographical influence. And yet Beaton often points to events that highlight how the 1960s were a decade when some Nova Scotians were challenging “tartanism” and seeking to find ways to modernize their province’s culture and economy.
At times Beaton seems a bit reluctant to challenge McKay’s interpretative framework, such as giving a bit too much credit to the idea that the aquarium might have been an attempt to reimagine and revise Nova Scotia’s folk identity as tied to the sea (146), rather than a modernization initiative. Similarly, her analysis of how surprisingly popular the 1967 multi-ethnic folk festival was with Halifax visitors as compared to the Highland Games, seems to be constrained by analytical nods to scholars who would want to consider this event as othering and marginalizing the participants in the festival. This, to me, somewhat underemphasizes the agency of the performers (such as the Nyanza Micmac choir of children from a Cape Breton reserve who sang in Mi’kmaw), the audience who flocked to the festival and the press who praised it. Beaton’s own inclinations seem to be to stress the modernizing and transformative impulses that were clear throughout the Centennial year, but her conclusions were sometimes more qualified than they needed to be, perhaps out of deference to potential critics. The evidence she presents makes a compelling case for her main conclusions.
Beaton does an excellent job of letting the curious reader know what became of the initiatives launched for the 1967 Centennial. In so doing, she reinforces the argument that these projects had a long “tail” in terms of their economic and cultural impacts. These were projects that were designed at the local level, with agendas set by individual communities. The federal government, for its part, wanted to make use of its various Centennial funding initiatives to help communities do what they thought best, to assist them in their local modernization plans and meet economic needs. This “Centennial Cure”, from Beaton’s evidence, proved to be a potent and enduring tonic.
Disclosure: Meaghan Beaton contributed a chapter, based on the Cape Breton Miners’ Museum case study, to the reviewer’s co-edited collection, Celebrating Canada, volume 2, slated for publication early next year by University of Toronto Press.
Matthew Hayday is a professor of Canadian history at the University of Guelph. His most recent book is the co-edited collection, Celebrating Canada, volume 1: Holidays, National Days, and the Crafting of Identities, published by University of Toronto Press.