The 1960s era was dominated by the civil rights movement, the second-wave feminist movement, the anti-war movement, the rise of the ‘New Left’, and the beginnings of the gay rights movement. Though many of these movements were centered in the United States, the power of the television and popular culture brought these conversations into Canada as well. By the 1960s, over half of the population in North America were under the age of twenty-five. Our young people were leading conversations and activism in response to changes in society and in our communities. How did teenagers in St. Catharines respond to the social and cultural revolution of the Sixties? Student yearbooks are a great way to explore how students reacted to the world around them.
High school students witnessed the upheaval led by the younger generation around the world and used their yearbooks to add their say. In Ridley College’s 1968/1969 Acta Rideiana, student M.J. Moulden wrote,
…The big decision seem[s] to be whether to conform or to question and rebel. Since conformity has become a bad word, questioning and rebelling are the natural choice…questioning and, if necessary, rebelling are healthy if they are undertaken intelligently. By all means question, but before it is decided to throw away the establishment – make sure that there is complete understanding as to why it exists. It is easy to tear down, but not so easy to replace with something as good.
While some used this platform to ask their generation to take heed, others eagerly jumped into the social and political turmoil of the Sixties. Informed by the civil rights activism in the United States, high school students used their yearbooks to address issues of racial inequity in their schools and beyond. Poetry seemed to be a common form of expressing these sentiments.
In the same 1968/1969 Ridley College publication, one unnamed student wrote in criticism of the “isolationist aspect of the school”, arguing that “when a student is told by a master that life is so difficult compared to the bowl of cherries we’re presently living in, what is he expected to think? If there could possibly be an equal representation of classes and races at Ridley then perhaps this gaping difference between our lives and the ‘real life’ might be minimized.”
In the 1965 Merritton Hi-Lites, the Merritton High School yearbook, photographs from the school’s mock United Nations Assembly feature a student representing South Africa dressed satirically in a Klu Klux Klan (KKK) costume. Though there is no mention of what their mock U.N. debates were about, it is suggested that this student in particular was making a critical statement against apartheid in South Africa, the political and social segregationist system imposed by the country’s white minority that denied many rights to non-white people.
Though few, such instances speak loudly on the pages of the yearbooks. They tell us that by the 1960s, conversations about the struggles of inequality were being had among high school students. Teenagers in St. Catharines and beyond were informing themselves on the political, social, and economic issues facing society and taking a stand. These would be the students that would continue their activism on university campuses and further the movement towards racial, gender, and sexual equality in Canada. Yearbooks in the Museum Collection offer us a small glimpse into how high schools were pivotal places for young people to begin to cultivate their voice in addressing these issues.
Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.