There are some questions many Canadians grapple with, at some point, when thinking about identity. Given the diversity of the country and its citizens, it can be difficult to form a conclusive list of nouns and adjectives that adequately illustrate what, exactly, makes Canadians distinct and unique among their Western peers.
Perhaps now more than ever those questions are important to chew on, as the nation prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday (and as Conservative leadership hopefuls raise the question, albeit divisively, in their platforms).
In her recent book, The Promise of Canada, Charlotte Gray profiles nine Canadians who, in her view, shaped the country we call home.
In doing so, Gray said she noticed something about Canadian values and identity.
“There are Western liberal values that are common to peoples in many different countries … values that in fact most countries share if they’re developed democracies,” she said during an appearance on The West Block with Tom Clark.
“What’s crucial about Canada is how we put them into practice. And [in writing the book], I realized that in the last 150 years, this country has reinvented itself in every generation.”
Whereas Canada started as a “bunch of ill-assorted colonists,” Gray said, the country is now among the most successful worldwide.
“And there’s a particular style to that evolution which is unique to Canada, and it’s about accommodation, compromise and pragmatism.”
Absent from Gray’s list of the nine Canadians who she believes shaped the country are any prime ministers. Instead, there are relative unknowns, such as Sam Steele and Bertha Wilson.
Maj. Gen. Steele was a distinguished soldier in the 19th century and an officer in the North-West Mounted Police, perhaps most famously in Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush.
Gray credits him with ensuring Western Canada was settled differently than the Wild West in the United States — where outlaws ran the frontier — representing this country’s affection for peace, order and good government, and being the first person to embody what the Mounties have symbolically come to mean for Canada.
Wilson, meanwhile, is the individual who “put teeth” into the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Gray said.
“She was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada, a very most Scottish lawyer who in fact had arrived in this country as an accompanying spouse spouse to her husband,” she said. “She was the one who made sure the Charter defended the underdog. She was absolutely remarkable and a joy to write about because hardly anybody’s heard of her.”
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