Chapter 9. Cold War Canada, 1945-1991

9.18 Summary

Drawing a line at the end of the Cold War era is not without challenges. Beginning in the 1980s, there were significant shifts in the political environment in Soviet Russia. Hardliners were on the way out. The USSR’s president, Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931), faced economic stagnation, increasing military expenditures in the arms race and an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, and heightening international tensions; his response was to propose a significant reduction in nuclear weapons on both sides. His twin policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) offered an olive branch to the West. United States president Ronald Reagan was able to obtain American concessions that led to a rapid de-escalation of global sabre rattling. Within two years, border defences between the West and the Soviet Bloc were coming down. The most momentous of these events was the demolition of the Berlin Wall, which began in November 1989. Liberal democratic regimes with free market sensibilities began to appear across Eastern Europe. The last days of Soviet power were coming fast. Civil wars began to break out in the south, and breakaway movements appeared in the Baltic States. A failed coup d’état attempt broke the back of the regime, and the USSR’s constituent republics fell away. The Cold War was, for all intents and purposes, over.

For nearly half a century, the Cold War had given shape to Canadian politics and society. Economic growth, social satisfaction, and social mobility were seen as the surest formula to inoculate against communist movements at home; suburbanization and consumerism were instruments in the new demand-led economy; investing resources to nuclear-age defences would protect Canada from trans-Arctic assaults from the Warsaw Pact; positioning the country as a middle power that supported UN efforts to de-escalate international tensions was meant to protect Canada from a US/USSR nuclear holocaust. Reactions against these strategies included second wave feminism’s critique of patriarchal normalcy and a counterculture attack on the arms race and late 20th-century imperialism. Nationally, politicians struggled in their relationship with the federal status quo and with the United States. It is no coincidence that the two greatest legacies of the Mulroney years include an attempted constitutional rapprochement and the Free Trade Agreement with Washington.

Holding the country together was a continuing theme from the early 1960s on. That is, it was a priority for federalists. For those in Quebec who had concluded that repairing federalism was either impossible or simply not desirable, the drawn-out dialogue on patriation of the constitution was simply a distraction. Finding a voice for these sentiments took some into the more radical, guerrilla-style tactics of the RIN and the FLQ, while others pursued change through democratic means, mainly through the Parti Québécois. The emergence of these separatist and sovereigntist streams in the 1960s exposed the tentativeness of Canada as a project and the unavoidable necessity of working on that relationship continuously.

The Canada that emerged after 1945 was in a constant state of change and transformation. Nowhere was this more evident than in Quebec, but in every province the increased force of secularism, state activism, consumerism, and youth culture pointed at one shared phenomenon: modernity.

Key Terms

academic freedom: The privilege and responsibility on the part of scholars to conduct enquiry and communicate their findings free of sanction by external authorities.

Agent Orange: A herbicidal defoliant, used by the United States Army to destroy jungle cover in the Vietnam War.

Alaska Highway: A highway built during WWII to facilitate the movement of troops and materiel from the United States to its northern territory (not yet a state), Alaska. It was constructed between Dawson Creek, BC, and Delta Junction, Alaska, and completed in 1942. It served to open the Yukon to greater traffic and activity.

American Indian Movement (AIM): Founded in 1968, an advocacy group established to counter the United States government’s Indian Termination policies of the 1950s and 1960s. Inspired by the civil rights movement, it was influential among Canadian First Nations activists.

apartheid: A political and social system predicated on racial discrimination and/or segregation; associated with the Republic of South Africa from 1948 to 1994.

asymmetrical federalism: A federation in which one or more constituent parts enjoys more autonomy and/or authority than one or more of the other constituent parts. In the case of the Meech Lake Accord, it was suggested that recognition of Quebec, as a distinct society would create an asymmetry in confederation.

Avro Arrow: An interceptor jet aircraft designed and built by A.V. Roe (Avro) Canada in the 1950s, capable of Mach 1.98. Production of the Arrow was stopped in what remains, in the mind of many Canadians, a controversial political decision.

Bay Street: In Toronto, the location of Canada’s leading financial offices, banks, and corporations, as well as the Toronto Stock Exchange.

bedroom communities: Suburbs to which commuters return at the end of the day to do little other than sleep before commuting out to jobs elsewhere; applies especially to those suburbs that are largely free of industry and other sources of employment.

big band: A musical group involving as many as two dozen players; associated with jazz and swing music from the interwar and early post-WWII years.

Bill 101: The Charter of the French Language, passed into law in 1977, which advanced the provisions of the Official Language Act (Bill 22) of 1974, and which made French Quebec’s official language. Bill 101 established the primacy of French in day-to-day life.

Bill 178: One of several amendments to the Charter of the French Language (see Bill 101); introduced and proclaimed in December 1988 in response to a Supreme Court ruling that would end the unilingual French signage provisions of the Charter. It is significant for its reference to the “notwithstanding clause” of the federal Charter of Rights.

birth control: Any method or practice aimed at reducing fertility or preventing the complete gestation of an infant; may include abstinence, the use of chemicals/drugs, termination, and prophylactics.

Blacklist: A list of people suspected of having Communist sympathies who were denied work as a result.

British Invasion: A surge of popularity enjoyed in North America by British musicians, artists, writers, and film makers in the 1960s.

Canada Act (1982): Federal legislation that enabled the patriation of the Canadian constitution and the possibility of its amendment in Canada, rather than in Britain.

Canada Pension Plan (CCP): Introduced by the federal government in 1965; the first publicly funded pension plan in Canada; transfers earnings from working people to retired citizens.

Canada Student Loans: Replaced the Dominion-Provincial Student Loan Program (1939-1964); guaranteed the banks’ risk in extending loans to post-secondary students under the auspices of the program.

Canadian Caper: The rescue of six American diplomats during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to 1980.

Canadian content (CanCon) rules: Under the authority of the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), CanCon regulations were established to ensure a quota of Canadian creative product in various media, particularly in television and radio.

Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC): An independent government agency established in 1968 to regulate and supervise all elements of the broadcasting systems.

Carruthers Commission: Established in 1963 and reported out in 1966; recommended a devolution of authority from Ottawa to the North-West Territories; headquartered at Yellowknife.

CÉGEPs: Publicly funded pre-university colleges in Quebec.

Centennial: A 100th anniversary; in Canada, is used as shorthand to refer to the 1967 celebration of 100 years of Confederation.

Central Business District: The concentration of commercial, business, and finance enterprises generally in the centre or downtown of most cities. Some cities, like Toronto, have several such hubs.

Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC): Created under the National Housing Act, 1944; enabled low income families (including demobilized servicemen and women) to obtain low cost mortgages; created social housing; funded construction of new rental housing; and continues to function in 2016.

Charter of Rights and Freedoms: Also known simply as the Charter; incorporated by the British government in the Canada Act, 1982; comprises the first part of the Constitution Act, 1982.

Civil Rights Movement: In the United States, beginning in the mid-1950s, this was a movement to secure the rights promised in court decisions. Widespread protest, frequent violence, and growing support throughout the USA — much of which was televised — influenced Canadians who sought to address inequities in their own society.

Cold War: The prolonged period of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, based on ideological conflicts and competition for military, economic, social, and technological superiority and marked by surveillance and espionage, political assassinations, an arms race, attempts to secure alliances with developing nations, and proxy wars.

containment: The American policy that sought to limit the expansion of Communism abroad.

crude birth rate: The number of births occurring in a community or nation per 1,000 population.

declericalization: A movement to replace church authority with state authority in the running of schools and other institutions.

demonstrations (or demos): Protest events; includes marches, sit-ins, and occupation of offices, as well as other forms.

détente: The relaxation of tensions and improvement of relations between the West and the East in the Cold War during the 1970s.

devolution: This is when a senior level of government hands some of its authority to a lower level or ostensibly lower level of administration. In Canada in the 1960s, authority over the North-West Territories devolved to the new administration in Yellowknife, NWT.

Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line: The northernmost of three Cold War radar systems aligned from west to east to identify incoming Soviet missiles in the event of an attack.

distinct society: A term devised during the Quiet Revolution to describe Quebec vis-à-vis the rest of Canada; a “distinct society clause” was created that would recognize and enshrine that difference. In the Charlottetown Accord, this was spelled out as recognition of “a French speaking majority, a unique culture and a unique civil law tradition.”

domino theory: The theory that if Communism made inroads in one nation, surrounding nations would also succumb one by one, like a chain of dominos toppling one another.

draft dodgers: Principally refers to American men who avoided mandatory, selective service in the Vietnam War by fleeing to Canada in the 1960s and 1970s.

Eastern Bloc: The alliance of pro-Soviet (or USSR-dominated) countries in Eastern Europe in the post-WWII era, consisting of Poland, East Germany, Czecho-Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and, more loosely, Albania; Yugoslavia, another communist-dominated country, regularly declared itself separate from the Eastern Bloc; formalized in the mutual security agreement, the Warsaw Pact, in 1955.

establishment: An elite, colloquially in the 1960s; the conventional social and economic order.

Expo ’67: A “World’s Fair” held in Montreal in 1967; part of the Centennial celebrations.

fifth column: A population within a community that supports the efforts of an external force to topple that community or nation; examples include Cold War fears of Canadian communists who were loyal to Moscow rather than Ottawa.

Flag Debate: Arising out of PM Lester Pearson’s decision to replace the Red Ensign in the early 1960s.

free love: Sexual relations outside of the institution of marriage; critical of the idea of marital monogamy.

free speech: A movement that begins in earnest in the early 20th century, calling for the elimination of laws barring public discussion of any number of topics; some subjects regarded as seditious — including calls for violent overthrow of the regime — have been subject to intermittent bans.

Fulton-Favreau Formula: A formula for amending the British North America Act (1867) developed in the 1960s; rejected by Quebec in 1965; provided the framework for subsequent discussions in 1982.

Geneva Convention: 1864, 1906, 1929, 1949; a succession of international agreements on the treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) and civilians.

Gouzenko Affair: Post-WWII espionage case involving a clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa who disclosed the existence of a spy ring in Canada.

Grande Noirceur: In Quebec, the period from 1944 to 1959 in which policies were introduced under the Union Nationale government of Maurice Duplessis.

hippies: A youth movement originating in the 1960s that was anti-war (specifically, opposed to the war in Vietnam), critical of social conventions, and associated with experimentation with psychedelic drugs.

housewive: A married woman whose principle (unpaid) occupation is the maintaining of her household, including preparing food, cleaning clothes, providing pre-school education, and cleaning house.

illegitimate: In legal and demographic terms, a child born to unmarried parents (or “out of wedlock”).

intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs): Cold War-era surface-to-air missiles with no less than a 5,000 km range; typically nuclear-tipped.

Iron Curtain: A term coined by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to refer to portions of Eastern Europe that the Soviet Union had incorporated into its sphere of influence and that no longer were free to manage their own affairs.

Klondike: The locus of the 1890s gold rush in the Yukon Territory, along the Klondike River valley; used to describe the gold rush as a whole.

Korean War: A war that began in 1950 and ended inconclusively in Armistice in 1953; this was Canada’s first Cold War era military engagement, and it involved significant casualties.

Maîtres chez nous (Masters of our own house): The slogan used by Jean Lesage’s Liberals in Quebec in the 1960 election, ushering in the Quiet Revolution.

marketing boards: An agricultural producers’ marketing tool; often established by the producers themselves or by government, which acts as a buyer of output and then a marketer. Constitutes a kind of monopoly in that producers cannot sell their goods through any other means. See also wheat pools.

Meech Lake Accord: 1987; an agreement reached between all the provincial premiers and the Prime Minister that provided for a constitutional amending formula, a distinct society clause for Quebec, senate and Supreme Court reforms, and a devolution of some immigration issues to the provincial level. Despite a promising start, the Accord failed to achieve final approval.

Metro: The federated Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto.

middle power: The idea that Canada might occupy a position between “great power” states like Britain and the United States and, after the World War II, at a level between the superpowers (the US and the USSR), the second tier of military and economic powers (e.g.: Britain and France), and other nations; tied to Lester Pearson’s vision of peacekeeping and Canada as a referee or fair broker.

mutually assured destruction (MAD): The Cold War belief that the sheer number of thermonuclear devices and delivery systems in the hands of the Soviet Union and the United States meant that neither side would survive an assault initiated by the other. By assuring their mutual destruction, they would be deterred from initiating a nuclear war.

nationalization: The imposition of state ownership over a corporation or sector; examples include the provincial nationalization of hydroelectricity providers (e.g.: Ontario Hydro, Hydro-Québec , and BC Hydro), and the water transport monopoly in British Columbia (BC Ferries).

Neverendum: The series of referendums dealing with Quebec separatism (or sovereignty-association) and proposed changes to the constitution, beginning in 1980.

New Left: Associated with campus radicalism in the 1960s and the writings of German philosopher Herbert Marcuse; less interested in the class struggle and labour power than with social justice.

North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD): Arising from a pact signed with the United States in 1957; provides detection and defence against Soviet missile and other airborne attacks on North America.

notwithstanding clause: Section 33 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982); allows any provincial, federal, or territorial government to override some select rights in the Charter for a fixed period of time.

Nunavut Land Claims Agreement: 1993; set the stage for the Nunavut Act, 1999, which created the new territory of Nunavut; the first major land claims agreement negotiated by the federal government since Treaty 11 (1920 to 1921).

October Crisis: This was a combination of events in October 1970 including the kidnapping of James Cross and Pierre Laporte, attempts to ransom the two men, the execution of Laporte by his abductors, and the use of the War Measures Act for the first time in peacetime.

paparazzi: Photo-journalists who principally target celebrities and public figures and whose technique is sometimes intrusive.

patriation: The transfer to Canada from Britain of the British North America Act (an Act of the British Parliament), thus enabling its amendment in Canada.

peacekeeping: Under the United Nations in the Cold War and post-Cold War era, the use of military and other military personnel in non-combatant roles to maintain peace between adversaries so as to enable the peace-making process.

(the) Pill: Refers to the first successful oral contraceptive; approved for public use in 1960.

Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada: Established in 1964, the Federation was the descendant of a long line of organizations advocating education and support around birth control.

pop music: A music sub-genre within the larger rock and roll (rock’n’roll) genre; adheres to obvious structural qualities, tends to be melodic, and aims at a younger audience.

Prague Spring: 1968, a brief period of liberalization of government policies and democratic rights in Czechoslovakia; countered by the invasion of Warsaw Pact troops under the command of the Soviet Union.

Prime Minister’s Office (PMO): Also the Office of the Prime Minister or the PMO; the centre of political decision making in the Parliamentary system, consisting of the Prime Minister and her/his chief political advisors; in Ottawa, located in the Langevin Block on Parliament Hill.

proxy wars: Cold war era conflicts conducted by third party countries in which the United States and the Soviet Union had a stake, rather than a direct conflict between the two superpowers.

punk rock: A variant of rock’n’roll that appeared for the first time in the late 1970s; marked by an anti-establishment, anti-authority stance.

Quiet Revolution (Revolution tranquille): A period of rapid and consequential change in the character of Quebec politics and society beginning in the late 1950s.

Red Tory: A Canadian Progressive Conservative who takes an essentially 19th century conservative position on the social obligations of the upper classes; a position sometimes described as noblesse oblige.

relocation programs: A federal government initiative in the mid-20th century to move Indigenous peoples in the North to locations where they would serve as a sign of Canadian sovereignty and/or where services (education, healthcare, administration, and the church) might be more effectively centralized; a program to which Inuit in particular were subjected, their lives disrupted, and their economies severed.

Rest Of Canada (ROC): A term used to describe all Canada apart from Quebec; has the advantage of avoiding the idea of dualism (as in English vs. French Canada).

rock and roll (rock’n’roll): Also rock’n’roll and rock & roll; a musical style originating in the 1950s characterized at first by a synthesis of blues, jazz, country, western, and boogie-woogie; became in the 1960s and later an umbrella term for many styles that incorporated any of these elements, including a strong youth component; regarded at mid-century as rebellious in its presentation and content.

Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism: Created in 1963 and reported out in 1969; co-chaired by A. Davidson Dunstan and André Laurendeau (who was succeeded at his death by Jean-Louis Gagnon); identified underrepresentation of Franco-Canadians in many areas of public life, second-rate services in French in national and relevant provincial systems, and poor opportunities for Francophones in post-secondary institutions outside of Quebec; recommended the establishment of a Commissioner of Official Languages.

rural depopulation: Movement of people — generally younger people — off the land and into the cities; associated with urbanization and also with the collapse of village and town economies.

Second Vatican Council (Vatican II): Convened by Pope John XXIII in 1959; ended 90 years of papal infallibility by opening dialogue regarding doctrine and the relationship between the Catholic Church and the modern world; upset many long-standing convictions about unchanging features of Catholic life; in Canada, contributed to the sense of social, spiritual, and secular fluidity that was bound up in the Quiet Revolution.

sexual revolution: A complex of social changes associated with the 1960s; loosening of moral codes as regards premarital sex, illegitimacy, divorce and remarriage, pornography, and sex for pleasure (as opposed to procreation).

sleeper agents: Espionage agents who are deeply embedded in the host community and dormant, awaiting activation.

social mobility: The movement of individuals, households, or communities through social hierarchies; generally associated with upward mobility — but downward is also a possibility.

space race: Competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to establish a dominant commercial, scientific, and military presence in near space; initiated with the launch of the Soviet satellite, Sputnik I in 1957; marked by American determination to reach the moon first.

Space Shuttle: A low orbit space craft developed by NASA in the 1970s and launched first in 1981; includes reusable sections and the craft is capable of reentry and a controlled surface landing on return. Nine Canadians have flown in Space Shuttle missions.

Sputnik: The first artificial satellite, launched by the Soviet Union on 4 October 1957; credited with starting the space race between the USSR and the United States.

suburban, suburban sprawl: The low density housing districts beyond the city limits; the expansion of cities beyond their boundaries into bordering municipalities, creating low density and car-dependent districts with few amenities other than housing.

Suez crisis: The 1956 invasion of Egypt by Israel, followed by France and Britain with the objective of seizing the Suez Canal. The failure of England and France to inform their former Allies — especially the United States — of their plans led to a rift between Britain and the USA in particular. Canada’s response, led by Lester Pearson, was to propose a large multi-national peacekeeping force in the region.

Thalidomide: A drug prescribed to pregnant women for morning sickness; available in Canada from 1959 to 1962; resulted in catastrophic side effects, including severe disfigurement and defects in more than 100 infants in Canada alone.

Three Wise Men: Les trois colombes, a term used mainly by commentators to describe the trio of Jean Marchand, Gerard Pelletier, and Pierre Trudeau when they were recruited to the federal Liberal Party in the 1960s.

Trudeaumania: Term used principally by journalists to describe public and media fascination with Pierre Trudeau in the course of the 1968 Liberal leadership convention and then the general election; alludes to the phenomenon of Beatlemania, associated with the British Invasion.

two founding nations: The narrative of Canadian history that privileges the idea of the French and British as co-equal founders of Canada; ignores roles played by Indigenous nations and implicitly reduces the importance of Canadians drawn from other ethnicities and countries; is at the heart of dualism.

United Nations (UN): An international body established in 1942; originally was the rough equivalent of the Allied Nations in the Second World War; expanded to a post-war role in 1945 as an intergovernmental assembly and series of agencies tasked with reducing international tensions and addressing international social and economic crises.

Universal Health Care: Provision of health insurance coverage to all members of society; pioneered in German in the 1880s; similar programs appeared first in the British Commonwealth in New Zealand (1939); in Canada, introduced first in Saskatchewan in 1962 and nationally in stages from 1966-72.

Veterans Charter: Introduced in 1944; provided funds to enable the transition to civilian life of Canadian troops; included free university education, payment for time served, life insurance, and money for civilian clothes. The Charter also guaranteed that ex-servicemen and women could reclaim their former jobs, which had the effect of displacing women who had worked in industry during wartime.

Victoria Charter (1971): An agreement to patriate the British North America Act, which included an amending formula, new civil, personal, and language rights, and provisions for regional equalization; achieved agreement from nine provinces and narrowly failed to secure Quebec’s approval from Premier Robert Bourassa.

wage and price controls: Introduced as part of the Anti-Inflation Act, 1975 as a response to an inflation rate approaching 11%; marked the beginning of a move away from the post-war settlement in that it established new restrictions on organized labour. The controls and the Anti-Inflation Board were dismantled in 1978.

white flight: Colloquial term for the migration of middle and working class European-Canadians from declining and multi-ethnic city centres for the suburbs; associated earlier in the United States with racial tensions in cities and more homogeneously Euro-American suburbs.

witch hunts: Colloquial term used to describe security campaigns conducted in capitalist democracies during the Cold War which targeted, mainly, communists but also homosexuals and any other group regarded as potentially seditious.

world music: An umbrella term used to describe mostly non-European, non-North American styles of music, including indigenous and hybridized forms. The term is problematic in that it includes essentially everything while, at the same time, implicitly otherizing anything that is not North American mainstream.

Yippie (Youth International Party): Countercultural youth movement originating in the United States in 1967; combined anarchist views with environmentalist perspectives.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. Why did Newfondland join Confederation in 1949?
  2. What changes took place in the North in the 20th century? How were the lives of Northerners affected?
  3. What were the causes and principal features of the Cold War?
  4. In what ways did the Cold War change Canadian society and politics?
  5. What trends and institutions were challenged by the Quiet Revolution in Quebec?
  6. How did Canada’s relationship with the United States change between 1945 and 1990?
  7. Why were the Liberals far more successful than the Progressive Conservatives in holding onto power federally?
  8. In what ways did Canada change technologically in the Cold War years?
  9. What were the sources of separatism in 1960s and 1970s Quebec?
  10. Why was the War Measures Act invoked in 1970?
  11. What were the objectives of efforts to patriate the constitution?
  12. Why were referenda the route to failure for the Parti Québecois and for constitutional reformers?
  13. In what ways do the 1980s indicate an end to the Postwar Settlement and, thus, a break with the post-WWII order?
  14. What were the key social changes of the Cold War era?
  15. In an increasingly urbanized and suburbanized Canada, how was rural life changing?
  16. How did youth culture emerge in the post-war era and how did it influence mainstream culture?
  17. What changes led to and enabled the sexual revolution?

Suggested Readings

Carr, Graham. “‘No Political Significance of Any Kind’: Glenn Gould’s Tour of the Soviet Union and the Culture of the Cold War,” Canadian Historical Review, 95, Number 1 (March 2014): 1-29.

Churchill, David S. “Draft Resisters, Left Nationalism, and the Politics of Anti-Imperialism,” Canadian Historical Review, 93, Number 2 (June 2012): 227-60.

Martel, Marcel. “‘They smell bad, have diseases, and are lazy’: RCMP Officers Reporting on Hippies in the Late Sixties,” Canadian Historical Review, 90, Number 2 (June 2009): 215-45.

Onusko, James. “Childhood in Calgary’s Postwar Suburbs: Kids, Bullets, and Boom, 1959-1965,” Urban History Review/Revue d’histoire urbaine, 43, number 2 (Spring 2015): 26-37.

Stettner, Shannon. “‘We Are Forced to Declare War’: Linkages between the 1970 Abortion Caravan and Women’s Anti-Vietnam War Activism,” Histoire sociale/Social history, 46, Number 92 (Novembre/November 2013): 423-41.

Stevens, Peter A. “‘Roughing it in Comfort’: Family Cottaging and Consumer Culture in Postwar Ontario,” Canadian Historical Review, 94, Number 2 (June 2013): 234-62.

Stevenson, Michael D. “‘Tossing a Match into Dry Hay’: Nuclear Weapons and the Crisis in U.S. – Canadian Relations, 1962-1963,” Journal of Cold War Studies, 16, Issue 4 (Fall 2014): 5-34.



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Canadian History: Post-Confederation - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2020 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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