I had been travelling outside of Canada for a year, and living in England when I first heard of the hippies. There was lots of talk in 1966 about this new movement coming out of California. Something was happening, that was for sure. Young Londoners were strutting their stuff in colourfully patched jeans and beads. The Beatles were doing their part.
The optimism of the hippie movement was palpable. There was a sense that if you just dropped out and turned on, a new social order could be established. The hippies were high on human kindness and certain herbs.
We were cool. No reason to get uptight. We were going solve the world’s problems through love and peace. Flower power would prevail. It was the dawning of the age of Aquarius.
Back in Canada, the focus of the world was on Canada and Expo 67. When I arrived in Montreal, the mood of the country was euphoric. It was Canada’s one-hundredth birthday and it really did seem that the twentieth century belonged to us.
When Prime Minister Trudeau was elected the following year, in 1968, his style matched the mood of the country. He seemed to embody anti-establishment hippie ideals. The flamboyant outfits, the irreverent attitude, the idealistic talk of justice — it all fit into the new order. Canada was a country where exciting, cool things were happening.
Trudeaumania swept the country. It didn’t seem unusual at all that he was being greeted as a pop star. The universe was unfolding as it should. Trudeau was like no other politician. He was an outsider who came to politics to claim the country for the Canadians.
The meeting of Trudeau with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Montreal was a hippie summit. When John and Yoko held their “bed-in” in a Montreal hotel and they sang “give peace a chance” I thought, why not? We had been giving war a chance for long enough.
But Trudeau was no hippie, as we saw during his implementation of the War Measures Act in November, 1970. Flowers thrown in front of the tanks that rumbled through Montreal would have been crushed. The hippie was just one of Trudeau’s incarnations, along with the Gunslinger and the Philosopher King. He governed with an iron hand and became what Canada needed most for those turbulent times. — a forceful Prime Minister with a clear vision of Canada.
The problem with the hippie movement was that although it had fuzzy, warm intentions, there was no plan, no prominent voice. Unlike the beatniks, who had poet-leaders like Jack Kerouac, the hippie movement was leaderless. Rock stars sang about hippie ideals but most of them burnt out quickly.
John Lennon sank into a drug stupor from which he would not awaken from for more than decade. He re-emerged only to be shot to death by Mark Chapman, a former mental patient. Other musicians who had inspired the hippies died from drug overdoses. The hippie ideals of love, peace, and cosmic consciousness through chemicals, were soon replaced by the philistine rant of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll.
The hippie movement was an example of what happens when earnest reformers try to eliminate too much social order. “When starting from zero, they jettison basic social practices and institutions, abandon common routines, and defy common sense, reason, conventional wisdom–and, sometimes, sanity itself”, says writer Christina Hoff Sommers.
The hippie movement was not a complete bust. The spiritual children of the hippies are leading a movement so new that it has yet to be named. They are raising new global consciousness with demonstrations against the World Trade Organization and World Bank. Maybe the new counterculture will have learned from the self-destructive hippie movement. Maybe they rise phoenix-like from the ashes of the old movement.
The euphoria of the late 1960’s didn’t last long, but for a while I naively thought that the ideals of brotherhood and peace could really change the world. Now, in sad reflection, it all seems quaint and anachronistic. History will prove Trudeau’s legacy to be much more durable — the man stands tall above the nostalgia.