With the ground shaking under our feet and accepted truths under attack, how better to prepare for the challenges ahead, than to remind ourselves of who we are, and what we represent? For Canadians, that means refreshing our memory about what makes Canada unique and about what we need to champion going forward. Charlotte Gray’s new book The Promise of Canada, published in October in anticipation of Canada’s 150th birthday, seems even more relevant in the aftermath of the American election.
Gray immigrated from Britain to Canada (and to winters in Ottawa) in 1979 when the exuberance of the Centennial, the new flag, and Trudeaumania had given way to fears of Quebec separatism and “regular spasms of insecurity.” Continuing “concerns about whether there was enough glue to keep the country together” was the prevailing preoccupation.
As she has “gradually morphed into a Canadian,” Gray has concluded that, “There is no master narrative for Canadian history: there are too many stories to package into a tidy, tightly scripted identity. Yet Canada exerts a sense of endless promise because… it has successfully managed so many competing pressures: parallel identities, layers of allegiance, deep-rooted hostilities, overlapping loyalties.”
Her book is a Petri dish approach to our history. She focuses on the lives of nine plus individual Canadians “whose stories reflect the evolution of Canada over the past 150 years,” and whose “reflections on being Canadian have become embedded in our collective subconscious.”
There are those she describes who “laid the foundation” of our national subconscious. George-Étienne Cartier preserved the French culture of Lower Canada by ensuring a federal system of government, and the protection of minority rights. Samuel Steele personified the North West Mounted Police as it imposed “peace, order and good government” in the Canadian west and during the Gold Rush in the Yukon. Emily Carr embraced her local Indigenous culture, and turned outward to Europe and Eastern Canada to inspire the modern artistic sensibility she brought to the lush forests of the west coast. Professor Harold Innis used his canoe trips on wild northern rivers as “dirt research” for his economic history of Canada as a northern nation that naturally grew east to west because of the fur trade.
Gray then describes individuals who have helped Canada become “a different kind of country.” Tommy Douglas and the CCF government in Saskatchewan (1944-1961) created a host of social programs (including but by no means limited to state-funded medicare) which became prototypes for similar social initiatives across the country. Margaret Atwood’s influence “landscaping Canadian literature” in her Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972) nurtured a rich garden of Canadian literature which has flourished and gone global. Bertha Wilson, who came to Canada in 1949 as an “accompanying spouse” of a Presbyterian minister, in 1982 became the first woman on the Supreme Court of Canada, and helped shape the rights we enjoy under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The last section of the book, “Straining at the Seams,” talks of the pressures on the country in recent decades, as Quebec separatism continued simmering, Indigenous people demanded self-government, western alienation became more vocal, and hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from different cultures adapted to life in Canada. The profile of Elijah Harper is searing, not only for his dramatic “No” to discussion of the Meech Lake Accord in the Manitoba Legislature on June 14, 1990, effectively killing the Accord, but also for what it shows about the history of the indigenous people in Canada, our shared responsibility for their continuing problems, and their increasing determination to be “Silent No More.” To answer the question, “What does the West Want?,” she describes Preston Manning’s response to the populist politics of Alberta and how his alternative vision for the country has influenced the mainstream. She concludes with a pastiche of new Canadians who have grown up with the enthusiasm, energy and creativity to achieve personal success and reinvent the country with them.
Gray acknowledges the warts and the inequities which, from our contemporary perspective, have stained the history of the nation. But she remains optimistic. “It helps to recall,” she says, “Canada’s extraordinary resilience during constant turbulent change, and to recognize subconscious as well as conscious change.” Ours is not a singular tribal identity. For all our differences, “we have learned to share this land and for the most part live in neighbourly sympathy.”
The Promise of Canada is a great read which raised my spirits and made me glad that I live in Canada. Maybe it will do the same for you.