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Readings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Canada at 150: celebration and continuing challenge

Gerald Schmitz


Charlotte Gray, The Promise of Canada
(Toronto, Simon and Shuster Canada, 2016, 378 pages)

Charlotte Gray’s wonderful book is subtitled “150 years — People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country.” In a few days crowds of a half million or more will celebrate Canada Day in the capital where Gray lives. This sesquicentennial year is a good time to reflect on what has been achieved, and what has not, on the historical record, warts and all. Gray does this superbly through engaging portraits of nine exceptional Canadians in the context of their times, chosen because they “helped shape the way we think about ourselves.”

The picture drawn is candid and complex, going back to the events leading up to Confederation, which Gray points out was hardly a glorious affair. It ignored our indigenous peoples and gave birth to a fragile “Dominion” that took over a century to get its own flag and patriated constitution. Still, notwithstanding ongoing challenges, today’s Canada must be counted one of the world’s most fortunate countries.

In Part 1, “Laying the Foundations,” Gray delves into the contributions of four historical figures. Confederation was a political enterprise, so she begins appropriately with a principal architect, Sir Georges-Étienne Cartier, whose promotion of the idea of federalism — with clear provincial powers — proved crucial. His partner, Sir John A., is more celebrated, but without Cartier, who had been a radical “patriote” during the 1837 rebellion, French Canada would not have accepted the deal.

Gray’s account is enriched with fascinating personal details about Cartier, his peccadilloes and his skills as an artful juggler of competing interests. Cartier was at the centre of the young, semi-sovereign, loosely connected country’s growing pains that included the first Riel Rebellion, leading to the admission of Manitoba, and the incorporation of British Columbia on the promise of a transcontinental railway; not glossing over the struggles and scandals. To Cartier, at least as much as to Macdonald, we owe the emergence of a pan-Canadian “political nationality” forged through compromise.

Next up is the colourful character of Samuel Steele, who made his name as part of the paramilitary force, the North West Mounted Police, sent westward to bring law and order to the vast territories Canada had acquired from the Hudson’s Bay Company. This was the sharp end of the “peace, order and good government” to accompany the ribbon of steel bringing an influx of settlers. That pacification contrasted with the Indian wars and lawlessness of the expansionist American “Wild West,” which it was intended to guard against, but included the suppression of the 1885 Riel Rebellion and the marginalization of First Nations and Métis. Steele would later become famous for bringing order out of chaos during the Yukon Gold Rush, and the “Mounties” became an admired symbol of Canada abroad.

But the mythology shouldn’t cover up the flaws. Gray observes that “such nationalism as existed was fragile, artificial and deeply racist.” Into the 20th century Steele’s funeral coincided with the repression of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. Much nation-building and recognition of rights lay ahead.

Gray’s next subject is the unconventional artistic pioneer from the West Coast, Emily Carr, born in the year B.C. entered Confederation. At a time when women were still second-class citizens, Carr was every bit as much a trailblazer as Tom Thompson and the Group of Seven in re-imagining the “vast canvas” of the wild Canadian landscape. Moreover, unlike them, much of the spiritual energy in her work came from its incorporation of the legacy of indigenous peoples on the land. While some might criticize that as “cultural appropriation,” it was a mark of her deep respect for indigenous cultures. Carr had a troubled, somewhat eccentric life. The recognition she deserved came late. But the power of her art still moves us.

Gray’s fourth foundational figure is the scholar Harold Innis. The early 20th century was a time of explosive immigration and population growth followed by the trauma of the First World War. The Ontario farm boy Innis, a wounded veteran of that war and anti-imperialist, became a professor at the University of Toronto where he developed an influential historical political economy of Canadian nationhood, notably in his seminal work, The Fur Trade in Canada, published the year before the 1931 Statute of Westminster gave Canada sovereignty in foreign affairs. Innis’ prodigious research on the export of “staples” (fish, fur, lumber, later wheat) showed how these economic forces shaped Canada’s development across the northern half of the continent. The Dominion and “its coherence as an independent country” emerged from this linked geography. Innis’ later work on communications had an important impact on the internationally recognized theories of Marshall McLuhan.

Part 2, “A Different Kind of Country,” begins with a politician who came to prominence through the Depression and Second World War. Tommy Douglas, an immigrant and Baptist minister, was instrumental in the creation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) as an alliance of agrarians, unions and urban intellectuals. His CCF swept to power in Saskatchewan in 1944 as North America’s first socialist government. The have-not province became a laboratory of progressive socio-economic change. Although Douglas faced difficulties when moving to federal politics, he is most admired as a pioneer of medicare, which has become part of the Canadian brand; surely a factor in him being chosen the “greatest Canadian” in a 2004 CBC series.

Gray then moves to the celebrated contemporary author Margaret Atwood and her “geography of the mind.” She was involved with the House of Anansi, founded in the centennial year 1967, to promote a Canadian literature, and her 1972 book Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature became a seminal contribution to understanding national preoccupations. It was also a search for postcolonial expression and an assertion of the prominent role of women writers. The post-war decades saw a surge in government support for arts and culture, the flourishing of which underscores the importance of Canadians telling their own stories.

The third personality in this section, Bertha Wilson, was, like Douglas, a Scots immigrant (though Gray reminds us that some immigrants were more welcome than others). Wilson’s persistence in climbing the ladder of the legal profession led to her being appointed Canada’s first female Supreme Court Justice in 1982, just prior to the coming into force of the Constitution Act with its Charter of Rights and Freedoms — Pierre Trudeau’s proudest and most lasting achievement. The Charter, which enshrined Aboriginal rights, principles of equality and diversity, gave the court a significantly expanded role. Wilson, who championed those rights including women’s rights, helped make the Charter integral to what it means to be Canadian.

Part 3, “Straining at the Seams,” explores terrain that remains contested in the unfinished project of Canadian nationhood. Gray looks at how Elijah Harper, a soft-spoken but resolute Oji-Cree member of the Manitoba legislature, used the “power of no” to block ratification of the Meech Lake Accord for its inadequate recognition of indigenous peoples and their rights. Their place mattered as much as Quebec’s “distinct society.” Harper, a survivor of residential school abuse, was blunt, describing the First Nations’ relationship with Canada as “a national disgrace.” Although indigenous peoples, determined to be silent and idle no more, have come a long way, there is still much to be done to overcome the impacts of a history of dispossession, discrimination, mistreatment and exclusion.

Gray’s other political figure is former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, whose “populist power” spoke to a history of western grievances against central Canadian elites and which sought proper recognition of the West in Confederation. Manning’s father, Ernest, Social Credit premier of Alberta, had, like Douglas, been a preacher. But in contrast to the latter’s social gospel, that of Social Credit tacked to the right. In the 1980s, the Trudeau government’s National Energy Program provoked western protests, an added resentment that fuelled the formation of the Reform party. A decade later in 1997 Reform became the Official Opposition in Ottawa and it influenced the national agenda with its emphasis on conservative fiscal policy, limited government, and decentralized federalism. Manning continues to insist on grassroots democracy although that populist approach would be abandoned for a top-down style in the Stephen Harper era, after Reform morphed into the Canadian Alliance, then merged with the diminished Progressive Conservatives to form the Conservative party.

In a concluding chapter Gray notes that the Canada of today “would be unrecognizable to most of the persons I’ve written about, frustrating to others.” We are a country of many stories, a country under continual construction, a work in progress. Demographically we are increasingly diverse. In our cities much of the population is foreign-born or has at least one parent born elsewhere. Canadians tend to celebrate diversity rather than promote a singular national identity. We pride ourselves on not being aggressive about the ties that bind. Gray borrows from Douglas Coupland the idea of a shared sense of being Canadian as more like a “secret handshake.”

What is not in question is the deep attachment to Canada that this book affirms. In telling the story of Canada through the stories of Canadians, Gray, herself an immigrant, has come to love her adopted country, and to proclaim the promise of its potential.

Happy Canada Day!