People who crafted the promise of Canada

Continuing this series of reviews of books that deal with the Canadian identity and, to an extent, with the idea of Canada at 150, we come to the latest book by former Berton House writer-in-residence Charlotte Gray.

It’s called The Promise of Canada: 150 Years – People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country. It deals with exactly what the title suggests, but does so mainly by focussing on individuals and their impact on how we see ourselves.

“Our country owes its success not to some imagined tribal singularity but to the fact that, although its thirty-five million citizens do not look, speak or pray alike, we have learned to share this land and for the most part live in neighbourly sympathy.”

This book was published in 2016 by Simon and Schuster Canada, and is 400 pages divided into three sections, which are subdivided into 10 chapters.

In the chapter, Laying the Foundation, there are four key people. You can’t talk about the building of Canada without referring to John A. Macdonald, but Gray chooses rather to emphasize the role of George Étienne Cartier, who she feels was the mind behind the idea of our federation, even though John A. was the obvious salesman.

Next comes a chapter celebrating ours as the only nation which has a police force as a national symbol. Perhaps influenced by her time in Dawson, she focussed this on Sam Steele.

To show artists causing the public to look at the land in a different way she chose, not the Group of Seven, though they are mentioned, but Emily Carr.

For economics and geography she picked Harold Innis, who explained why the fur trade and the river systems caused Canada to make economic sense. Without him, there would never have been a Marshall McLuhan, who applied a similar analysis to communications theory and taught us the connection between the medium and the message.

Continuing to the chapter called A Different Kind of Country, she picked out Tommy Douglas, for Medicare and good intentions; Margaret Atwood, who proved that literature could map the Canadian mind and play in the big leagues; and Justice Bertha Wilson, who epitomized the activist character of our Supreme Court, which has come to interpret and shape government policy. Straining at the Seams introduces an element that might otherwise have appeared to have been missing entirely when it brings in the career of Elijah Harper, the man who said no to Meech Lake. Then, to talk about the shift in the structure of Canadian politics and economics, she turns to Preston Manning, who developed the populist movement in Canada.

The final chapter, called Secret Handshake: The Power of Now, is the most diverse, featuring segments on Douglas Coupland, Shad (when he was still hosting the CBC radio and tv show “q”), Michaëlle Jean (former Governor General), Lise Bissonnette (journalist), Annette Verschuren (business person), and Naheed Nenshi (Calgary’s mayor), explaining how they react to events and trends in the country.

The chapter concludes with some autobiographical reflections. Gray is herself an immigrant, having relocated here from the United Kingdom in 1979, and feels that an outsider’s perspective is useful in this sort of a study.

To assist in the reader’s thinking, Gray has assembled a timeline of all the people and events she highlighted.

I don’t know how the hard copy is organized, but the e-book has about 20 pages of artwork and advertising posters related to items in the book at the very end. Overall, the book is very thought provoking and informative.

You can find Charlotte Gray’s book The Promise of Canada: 150 Years – People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country for loan through the Yukon Public Libraries, and for sale at Mac’s Fireweed Books on Main Street.

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