The year that is ending brought a flood of recollections of the Kennedy assassination, 50 years before. All those pictures of hulking 1963 sedans and those funny fedora hats on the men drew attention to the wide gap that separates our world from that one. The chain of links is unbroken from that time to this, and yet, when you look back, it was a different world.
It was a world where the job of a U.S. president was to lead the free world in opposition to the Communists, who had been stopped in Europe but were still advancing in Asia. Russia's 1957 success putting a satellite into Earth's orbit spurred creation of the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration the following year. In 1961, Mr. Kennedy set the goal of landing a man on the moon and bringing him safely back to Earth during that decade, and this was achieved in 1969.
Great tasks confronted the leaders of the western world and they rose to the challenges. The dreams were big dreams, the risks were enormous but politicians and the public in Canada, the U.S. and Europe showed confidence in the capacity of their experts to achieve great things. Canada upheld the principle of racial equality within the Commonwealth, invented constructive ways to curb conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours, joined in the air defence of North America. The European democracies started building the European Common Market in order to aid commerce and keep the peace.
In Winnipeg, too, it was a time of ambitious ventures. Manitoba Hydro was formed and it started power development of the Nelson and Churchill rivers. A floodway was excavated around Winnipeg to protect the city from Red River floods. A Winnipeg regional government was created to tie the whole city together with a network of arterial roads.
The year that starts Wednesday will bring a fresh flood of recollections, for it will mark 100 years since the outbreak of the 1914-18 war, also known as the Great War, the First World War or the War to End War. The images and the stories will be drawn from artifacts, documents and oral traditions, for those events are beyond the reach of human memory. They, too, will evoke a world very different from the one around us.
When Great Britain declared war on Germany on Aug. 4, 1914, it spoke and acted for the entire British Empire, a globe-girdling entity on which the sun never set. Canada was therefore automatically involved. Just three years earlier, Canadians had defeated the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier because he wanted to conclude a free trade agreement with the U.S. administration of William Howard Taft. Robert Borden's Conservatives, rejecting U.S. free trade, were elected to preserve Canada's connection to the British Empire. In 1914, the British Empire and the values it represented were under direct threat from Germany. Canadians knew it was their war. They did not at the start know that it would last four years and cost the lives of nine million combatants in the belligerent countries, but they stuck with it to the bitter end.
Manitoba, too, was dreaming big dreams in those years. Winnipeg was coming to the end of its real estate and construction boom but still prospered as the transport and manufacturing hub of the growing Prairie region. The government of Rodmond Roblin had created the government telephone utility. Winnipeg River power stations were built. The Shoal Lake aqueduct was started. The T.C. Norris government elected in 1914 extended voting rights to women, made school attendance compulsory, established minimum-wage guidelines, prohibited the sale of alcoholic drinks and suppressed bilingual schools.
From the vantage point of this moment -- as 2013 turns into 2014 -- the view backwards along the path shows the ground this civilization and this community have covered and may help us to take the measure of our own times.
The U.S. under Barack Obama has withdrawn from George Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more discouraged than defeated by the internal divisions of those countries. Now the U.S. tries to defend itself by tapping all the phones in the world and sending unmanned drone aircraft to bomb the enemies they believe they have found. The Democratic administration's big idea of health-insurance reform has provoked intense anger among opponents of big government. In the implementation, it appeared the reformers of health insurance did not actually know how to design a workable health-insurance system.
In Canada and in Manitoba, too, our dreams are smaller and our means more modest. The Empire is gone and the Cold War is over. The great projects of this moment are a free-trade treaty with Europe, oil pipelines to link Alberta to the Pacific Coast and the Gulf of Mexico and a cap on roaming fees for cell-phone users. In Manitoba, our leaders dream of widening the Pembina underpass and re-paving Highway 9 up to Winnipeg Beach. Winnipeg succeeded in building a new hockey arena, a new air terminal and a new football stadium, all of them excellent buildings, but turning the old Graham Avenue postal plant into the Public Safety Building proved to be more than the City of Winnipeg could handle.
In this peaceful time, Canadians are not called upon to fling themselves in front of enemy machine guns, as an earlier generation did. Nor are they offered great purposes to serve in the same order as preserving the Empire, defending freedom or landing on the moon. Our information is more abundant because limitless amounts of data are available to anyone with a mobile computer. But our world is also smaller in another sense because we have no actual involvement with the strangers on the other side of the world whose tweets we see. We are entertained or enraged by the scandal of the day and then it's gone, replaced by tomorrow's scandal.
We should not try to revive the Empire or the Cold War just because of the comfortable certainties those times offered. But it is worth recalling those eras and the achievements of those ancestors when the leaders of our own time -- and we the followers -- run the risk of getting a little too full of ourselves, a little too pleased with our own cleverness.