Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017 no doubt will prompt much soul-searching around the subject of how to define our country. Is it easier or harder, 150 years after Confederation, to explain who we are? And how is it that a country without a cohesive national narrative has managed to thrive for a century and a half? In honour of this milestone, two of our most celebrated authors address these questions – from very different angles.
Historian and biographer Charlotte Gray tackles the subject in The Promise of Canada, which profiles nine people who represent ideas that have shaped the country. In a refreshing move, Gray does not include any prime ministers, which opens up space for new perspectives on our shared history.
The first part of Gray’s book features people who laid the foundations for what would become Canada. Gray explores federalism through George-Étienne Cartier’s vision of a country that shares a political, but not a cultural, nationality. She uses Sam Steele’s rigorous application of law and order to discuss the creation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as an “idealized Canadian brand.” Emily Carr and Harold Innis represent the growth of nationalism by way of a uniquely Canadian art and a new understanding of Canada as a “natural,” rather than political, entity.
In the second part, Gray unspools Tommy Douglas’s belief that government could be a force for good, and acknowledges the growing recognition of Canadian literature as exemplified by the talent and determination of Margaret Atwood. The importance of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is elegantly explored in a profile of Supreme Court Justice Bertha Wilson, who believed that Canadians should both have and exercise as many rights as possible.
The third part of the book takes us up to the 21st century, a time at which Gray admits “exuberance and pride … were not shared equally.” A beautiful and tragic profile of Elijah Harper gets to the core of ongoing disenfranchisement among our First Nations. Harper’s stand against the Meech Lake accord, Gray writes, is just one “symbol of Indigenous peoples’ 150-year-long battle to shed the role of victims and become part of the national dialogue.” And while Gray cannot disguise the fact that she does not share Preston Manning’s political views, she paints a balanced picture of why Western Canada was excited to have him speak on its behalf. The last chapter’s short sketches of Douglas Coupland, Shadrach Kabango, Lise Bissonnette, Annette Verschuren, and Naheed Nenshi bring us up to the present.
Each profile includes a study of the figures’ early influences, and this provides a crucial historical bedrock for the ideas the author analyzes. Gray is also to be commended for her focus on First Nations throughout Canadian history; she acknowledges their presence at every stage, regardless of whether or not contemporary Canadians were doing so.
In contrast to Gray’s personal portrayals, novelist Jane Urquhart’s A Number of Things approaches the country through a focus on objects, both fantastic and ordinary. Objects belonging to or associated with famous Canadians (the Marquis de Montcalm’s skull, the rope that hanged Louis Riel, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s china dogs) need little explanation, while those that speak to the daily experience of our ancestors (the tractor, the barn, the crosscut saw, the lighthouse) are reminders of how we survived our beginnings as a country.
Urquhart’s list also includes less familiar objects, the poignancy of which causes the reader to stop and reflect on who we are as a people. A Beothuk legging, the backyard cherry tree in Joy Kogawa’s childhood home, and a Mountie’s turban are all symbols either of who we were (and the wrongs we still need to right) or who we are becoming. Urquhart’s skill with words provides some wonderful imagery; her memory of a canoe trip, for example, includes the realization “that an entire change of direction could be effected simply by a turn of my wrist.”
Urquhart also reverts continuously to the history of her own family. This is unfortunate, because instead of fulfilling her promise that the objects explored in the book will open up “like a fan to reveal a much, much larger landscape,” returning so frequently to the experience of her own past means the opportunity to explore the larger significance of an object to Canada as a whole is lost. This personal lens also results in a focus on the author’s home in southeastern Ontario, and as a result, the book does not feel representative of Canada’s many regions and their unique histories.
Both Gray and Urquhart acknowledge that lists like theirs are inevitably subjective, but Gray succeeds at an inclusivity that is lacking in Urquhart’s collection. Where Gray uses short personal anecdotes to illustrate her connection to her subjects, Urquhart lets her family history overshadow the objects themselves. And where Gray pulls her ideas together to create a cohesive narrative, Urquhart’s vignettes are completely individual, which makes it hard to see a broader picture of Canada through her chosen objects. While both books search for a definition of Canadian identity, is more likely to inspire readers to pause and reflect on what continues to hold us together.