Canada's 1967 Military Tattoo September 18 2013, 2 Comments


Written By: Keith Wilson

It was 46 years ago back when I was 26 and a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, specifically a member of the Band of the Corp of the Royal Canadian Engineers. But this story is not about my time in that great military band but about the participation of almost 2000 forces personnel in one of the biggest military tasks the armed forces had ever undertaken during peace time in Canada.

1967 was Canada’s 100th birthday and many events had and were being planned to celebrate this confederation milestone not only by various governments, civilian groups but also the military. The Armed Forces of Canada commenced planning their participation many years before and by 1966 were ready to get underway. The plan would be a military tattoo the likes of which had never been seen before in Canada.

A military tattoo is a military show with band music, marching and other military displays. For those of you who have witnessed the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo or other military tattoos in other locations in Canada will know what a military tattoo is all about but those tattoos are usually only performed in one location and probably not more than a week at the outside.

Tattoo 1967 was planned to be a bit different. It would comprise of 16 scenes each depicting part of Canada’s military history from as far back as the first French military units in Canada in 1665, to the British in 1782 right up to the UN Peace Keeping forces Canada contributed in the 1960s, three hundred years of military history compressed down to a show of two and one half hours. Not only that, Tattoo 1967 was designed to travel across Canada performing in cities from coast to coast commencing in late March of that year and concluding in late September. This may sound like a massive undertaking for the military but thanks to thousands of hours of planning and many hours of rehearsal time in Picton, Ontario in February and March of 1967 the show was ready to cross the country.

One of the first shows was in Kingston, Ontario then off to Peterborough for another but by the time the Tattoo had finished in the fall of that year, there had been over 153 performances in 45 cities from Victoria, BC to St. John’s, Newfoundland involving over 1700 armed forces men and women from the three branches of the services requiring many costume changes. Costumes had been researched over years to make them as authentic as possible such as the 1665 dress of France’s famous Le Regiment de Carignan-Salieres, the dress of the Highland Black Watch Regiment stationed in Canada between 1756 and 1889, the uniform of the court of Louis XIV of France, the uniforms of Canadian soldiers during the Boer War in South Africa, the clothing worn by our soldiers during World War I, II, Korea and the uniforms of the navy in 1911. These are only a few of the costumes worn in the Tattoo to say nothing of the muskets researched and made for the French soldiers of 1665 scene, the Lee Enfield rifles for the WWI and II scenes, all of which were in operating condition and the swords for the navy’s cutlass drill. Even a Spitfire aircraft was created for the WWII scene in the Tattoo.

One of our stadium shows was in Toronto during the CNE from August 28th to September 4, 1967 and became so popular with crowds at the CNE stadium of 30,000 most nights, the 89 year old never on Sunday taboo had to be waived to accommodate the extraordinary demand for tickets. John Holden, a CNE official stated, “It was breathtaking. You just can’t compare it with the like of anything that has come before it.” CNE General Manager Bert Powell stated, “We’ve never had anything like it — fabulous and fantastic. My phone is never quiet. I’m even getting professional critics and entertainers begging for tickets, and that’s the ultimate tribute.” That was indeed a tribute and what most performers already knew about the show.

Almost every night the Tattoo was performed, standing ovations were common place. I think I can safely say that all the performers while standing at attention during the finale felt pride swell up inside them when they heard the applause. That’s what I still feel today; Canadians proud of their Tattoo and proud to be Canadian. The Tattoo also included some comedy sections, however the scene that tugged at my heart strings was the First and Second World War scene especially the section where fog drifted out from the fort and the shadows of soldiers could be seen coming through the fog and as they came closer you could see that they had obviously been through a battle because some were struggling to walk while others had bandages on. Having never experience battle, I could see in my minds eye what those veterans must have gone through. I felt proud of them; those who gave their lives for our freedom and I can still see that scene in my memory today.

Tattoo 1967 was an all Canadian production, performed by Canadians for Canadians. Perhaps John Lindblad of the Windsor Star said it best, “The Canadian Forces’ Centennial Year Military Tattoo closes tonight at the Arena. If you are among those who haven’t seen it – then go. As a matter of fact, no matter what else is doing, or how important, go. It’s that big” . . . [upon the conclusion of the Tattoo he commented on what he felt was the attitude of the crowd] “It was as if all of a sudden Canadians had lost their self-depreciating, their quibbles with Confederation, their ethnic hyphenation, their inferiority complex. And in their country’s 100th year had found what was here all the time, but had escaped their view – a nation, God love it, called Canada.” As McKenzie Porter of the Toronto Telegram said of the Tattoo “It makes you proud to be a Canadian.” T

he success of Tattoo 1967 apparently caught the Federal Government and the military by surprise. They didn’t expect it to be received with such overwhelming appreciation. On September 9, 1967 the Hamilton Spectator reported, “Several Hamiltonians who have been impressed by the Tattoo — and more than 45,000 will have seen it last night and tonight — fear that it may be typically Canadian in another respect. ‘So often we come up with something great,’ said one, ‘then we just let it drop. We’ve really got something with the Tattoo, something unique in North America. Let’s hope we don’t let this one go like the others. It’s just too good.’ ”

So impressed with the show, a U.S. impresario Sol Hurok wanted to tour the Tattoo in the United States and Europe but Prime Minister Pearson scuttled the proposal. Sadly the show came to an end and after the last show in the fall of 1967, the Tattoo was mothballed and eventually all the costumes, uniforms, muskets, etc. were sold off or donated to museums. Little remains of what was called a “tour de force”. But what can’t be mothballed are our memories. Perhaps another Tattoo of this caliber can be created for Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017. Even though the Tattoo was 46 years ago, I’m still proud of my participation in that momentous event and to all those who participated or those who remember seeing the show when it played in a city nearby; you have your memories too.

I’ll leave you with what the Calgary Albertan said on May 12, 1967 about the Tattoo when they reported “Twenty million Canadians won’t be wrong when they acclaim the Canadian Armed Forces Tattoo which opened last night for a three-day run at the Corral the greatest single presentation of centennial year.” To have been a part of the Tattoo was indeed one of my proudest times the memories of which will never be forgotten. It still today sends shivers down my spine when I remember the announcer in the finale of the Tattoo saying, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the cast of the Canadian Armed Forces Tattoo.”


Keith Wilson