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The Seventies

In many ways, the seventies was a period of retrenchment in the wake of the turmoil of the sixties. Canadians first felt this shift during the dramatic days of the October Crisis. A terrorist organization labeled the Front de libération du Québec kidnapped a British diplomat and Quebec cabinet minister in October 1970. The federal government reacted (after a decade in which dozens of ground-breaking human rights laws were introduced across the country) by invoking the War Measures Actand suspending the human rights of all Canadians. Around the world, states reacted with similar force to threats at home and abroad. The Vietnam war peaked in the 1960s and the 1970s was its denouement. By the time Richard Nixon visited China (the first American president to do so) in 1971, he had pulled out more than 400 000 troops from Vietnam ( only 60 000 to 70 000 remaining, of which 6000 were combat troops). Peace negotiations had begun in secret between Henry Kissinger and the North Vietnamese in Paris. In 1973, the US suspended all military activity in Vietnam and announced that a cease-fire agreement had been reached with the North. The death toll had been estimated by the Defence Department at 55,337 Americans, 231,483 South Vietnamese and 922,290 North Vietnamese civilians and soldiers. Within a couple of years the Americans had completely abandoned Vietnam and the South was soon overrun by the North.

Significant milestones in international politics and the world economy were reached in the 1970s. In 1971 China joined the United Nations as one of the Great Powers and the United Kingdom entered the European Common market. Fears of nuclear war ebbed somewhat in the 1970s following a series of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in 1972. A second round of talks, seven years later, established limits on the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Intercontinental ballistic missiles were to be fixed at their existing level in 1972, 1,618 for the Soviets and 1,054 for the Americans. Salvador Allende’s left-wing regime in Chile was toppled in 1973 and was replaced with a right wing military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet. Another western leader, Richard Nixon, confronted a scandal over a break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington. Within a year revelations of the President’s falsehoods and misdirections led to a Senate vote for impeachment forestalled by Nixon’s resignation. The world’s attention soon shifted to the fall of two other leaders of leading nations who had ruled throughout the 1960s. In 1975 General Francisco Franco died of influenza and the King of Spain took power with a promise to return the country to parliamentary rule. Across the world in China, the man who had led a political and cultural revolution, Mao Tse-Tung, died in 1976.

Wars, new regimes and scientific advances continued in the 1970s, but this decade lacked the energy and radicalism associated with the sixties. Concorde began its first flights across the Atlantic in 1976 and Apple computers, soon to revolutionize an industry, was founded in the US in the same year. Pope John Paul II was elected in 1977. The Israeli-Egypt conflict of 1973 was called the "six days war" and ultimately led to the Camp David accords in 1978. Unfortunately, the peace settlement failed to resolve the most painful consequence of the six days war: OPEC’s oil embargo. Oil prices rose to an all-time high in the 1970s. Severe shortages wracked the world economy. With peace in the middle east, however, came conflict elsewhere: in 1979 Vietnam invaded Cambodia and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The latter conflict was destined to sink the Soviets into their own Vietnam. Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic fundamentalists took power in Iran in 1979. Ronald Reagan, the former Hollywood actor, led the Republican Party to success in the 1980 presidential elections while Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party ruled in the United Kingdom. The liberalism of the 1970s gave way to the conservatism of the 1980s. In 1984 the Progressive Conservatives won the federal elections in Canada under the leadership of Brian Mulrooney.

The Conservative Party fared far better provincially than the federal party which was defeated almost continuously in the 1970s (except for a brief stint led by Joe Clark in 1979). By 1982 the Progressive Conservatives had retained power for most of the seventies in Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick, and to a lesser degree in Manitoba (1977-1981), Prince Edward Island (1979-1982) and Nova Scotia (1978-82). The party also managed to defeat the last Father of Confederation, Joey Smallwood, in 1972. The Social Credit party continued to dominate politics in British Columbia (1975-1982). Liberals managed to grasp power in Nova Scotia (1970-1978), Quebec (1970-1976) and Prince Edward Island (1966-1978), but were otherwise eclipsed from provincial politics. The NDP enjoyed greater success in the 1970s than they had in the 1960s. For the first time a new and dynamic NDP government operated in British Columbia for a few short years (1972-1975), and held power in Saskatchewan (1971-1982) and Manitoba (1966-1977, 1981-2).

The most significant addition to the Canadian political landscape in the 1970s was unquestionable the rise of the Parti québécois. René Lévesque, a former cabinet minister in Jean Lesage's Liberal government, managed to unite the separatist movement in Quebec in the late 1960s and, in 1976, he shocked the nation by winning the provincial election and installing the first separatist government in Quebec history. Lévesque was still the Premier in 1982 when the constitution was patriated and he refused to add Quebec’s support to either the constitution or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Moreover, Lévesque initiated the first referendum on Quebec sovereignty in 1980. His failed initiative to create an independent North American francophone nation would prove to be a key incentive for Trudeau and the Liberals to push their bill of rights project.

The economy suffered severe downturns in the seventies. Macroeconomic performance deteriorated markedly after 1973 in ways that contradicted contemporary theories of how a modern industrial economy should function. Keynsian economic policies on promoting growth came increasingly into disrepute. As growth slowed policy makers began to ignore cyclical factors and consider instead the more fundamental weaknesses in the economy. For the first time in a generation political leaders planned massive cutbacks in government spending. Gross Domestic Product fell from 7.7% in 1973 to 2.6% in 1975. Unemployment soared from 5.3% in 1974 to 11% in 1982. Inflation jumped to 10% in 1975, and dipped only slightly in 1979 but otherwise remaining in the double digits. Government debts also skyrocketed. A deficit on national accounts in 1975 was marked at $3.8 billion; in 1980 the debt mounted to $10.7 billion and in 1982 the debt reached a staggering $20.3 billion.

Among the most controversial public policy developments in the 1970s were the federal government’s wage/price controls and the National Energy Policy. To deal with rising inflation the federal government established an Anti-Inflation Board to place ceilings on prices and wages for large firms and the government sector. It was empowered to monitor price increases and profit margins of large companies and roll them back in necessary, although there were broad exceptions for food products and imports. Organized labour was frustrated at limits placed on the workers’ Supreme Court of Canad building in Ottawawages while prices skyrocketed. Ultimately, though, the labour movement failed to challenge the government's policies before the Supreme Court of Canada. If organized labour was upset at the inflation board’s policies, however, the province of Alberta was absolutely infuriated when the federal government implemented the National Energy Policy (NEP) in the late 1970s. Designed to deal with the crisis caused by the OPEC oil embargo and the rising cost of oil associated with the Iran-Iraq war, the NEP kept Canada’s oil prices well below international levels, taxed oil exports, redirected exploration and development to the north and east coasts, and increased the degree of Canadian ownership in the domestic oil sector. These policies were complemented by a retrenchment in social policies. Governments were more concerned with maintaining existing programs than creating new ones. The era of large and generous social programs had ended.


Further Reading

  • Dominique Clément, Canada's Rights Revolution: Social Movements and Social Change, 1937-1982 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008).
  • Kenneth Keniston, Youth and Dissent: The Rise of a New Opposition (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971).
  • Carl Mollins, "The Stagnant 70s," Canadian Business  14/15 (2003).
  • Doug Owram and Kenneth Norrie , History of the Canadian Economy, Toronto: Harcourt Brace, 1996.
  • Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2000).




Soliders patrol a police station in Montreal during the October Crisis in 1970
The October Crisis of 1970 was the culmination of almost a decade of violence in Quebec led by the Front de libération du Quebec. The federal government's use of the War Measures Act was an extreme reaction to two kidnappings by the FLQ. Nonetheless, the FLQ was essentially destroyed in the wake of the crisis.

©Dominique Clément