Wednesday, 1 March 2017

The Promise of Canada

Author: Charlotte Gray
Genre: Non-Fiction, Canadian
Type: Hardcover
Pages: 400
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
First Published: October 28, 2016
First Line: "When I immigrated to Canada from Britain, I was stunned to discover the wobbly sense of national identity here."

Book Description from GoodReads:  What does it mean to be a Canadian? What great ideas have changed our country? An award-winning writer casts her eye over 150 years of Canadian history.

“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.” —Charlotte Gray, from the Preface of The Promise of Canada

On the eve of Canada’s sesquicentennial celebrations comes a richly rewarding new book from acclaimed historian Charlotte Gray about what it means to be Canadian. Readers already know Gray as an award-winning biographer, a writer who has brilliantly captured significant individuals and dramatic moments in our history. Now, in The Promise of Canada, she weaves together masterful portraits of nine influential Canadians, creating a unique history of the country over the past 150 years.

What do these people—from George-√Čtienne Cartier and Emily Carr to Tommy Douglas, Margaret Atwood, and Elijah Harper—have in common? Each, according to Charlotte Gray, has left an indelible mark on our country. Deliberately avoiding a “top down” approach to our history, Gray has chosen people whose ideas have caught her imagination, ideas that over time have become part of our collective conversation. She also highlights many other Canadians, past and present, who have added to the ongoing debate over how we see ourselves, arguing that Canada has constantly re-imagined itself in every generation since 1867.

Beautifully illustrated with evocative black and white images and colourful artistic visions of our country, The Promise of Canada is a fresh take on our history that offers fascinating insights into how we have matured and yet how—150 years after Confederation and beyond—we are still a people in progress. Charlotte Gray makes history come alive as she opens doors into our past, our present and our future, inspiring and challenging readers to envision the Canada they want to live in.


My Rating: 5 stars

My Review: This past weekend I had the opportunity to go to a book event featuring award-winning author Charlotte Gray.  She was interviewed by fellow Canadian author Susanna Kearsley about her recently published book The Promise of Canada.  It was an interesting interview which got to the heart of why Gray chose this specific format and focus for her tenth published book.


Gray arrived in Canada 40 years ago, and as an immigrant she brings a unique perspective as she chronicles the elements that have most influenced our 150 year old country.  Each chapter focuses on one person within each of these elements. She doesn't necessarily choose well-known Canadians (and has consciously not focused on Prime Ministers and famous athletes) and yet the diverse group of people she has chosen are pivotal in the formation of the Canada we know today. 

These influential Canadians include: 

  • George Etienne Cartier and his involvement in the formation of federalism
  • Sam Steele, one of the founding officers in the Northwest Mounted Police (NWMP)
  • Emily Carr and the distinction and recognition of Canadian art
  • Harold Innis and his Staples Theory about how the exploitation and export of natural staples (fur, lumber) effected Canadian economics, politics and culture
  • Tommy Douglas and the beginning of Canadian Medicare
  • Margaret Atwood for the beginning of CanLit
  • Bertha Wilson - first woman on the Supreme Court of Canada
  • Elijah Harper - politician and First Nations leader and his effect on the Meech Lake Accord
  • Preston Manning - a politican who changed Canadian politics more than many people realize  
  • and five short vignettes which include a mayor, rapper, artist, journalist and business innovator
This is a well researched book. Gray uses first and secondary sources as well as interviews with some of the subjects and brings it all together for an enjoyable read. This is no dry textbook-like read nor is it a comprehensive history of Canada. It is compelling (even for this rare Non-Fiction reader) and filled with facts, humour and history.  It is an honest and a non-partisan look at our country from infancy to modern day and will give readers a better insight into how our country attained its unique culture, diversity, values and all the things that bring us together as a country.

While overall this is a positive look at Canada's history Gray also recognizes some events that weren't our proudest moments - most egregious being the treatment of Canada's Indigenous peoples in the past, present and their as yet unknown future within our country.  Even these negative moments have influenced the formation of our country.

Since this is Canada's sesquicentennial this book is very apropos and a nice reminder about where we started, our struggles and the hard work that others did to form our country. I had my favourite Canadians within the bunch but this book has shown me that although I am a proud Canadian I didn't know as much about my country as I thought. Gray has enlightened me and helped me to reconnect with the country that I'm proud to call home.  And even though the question "What does it mean to be a Canadian?" may continue to be elusive I think that understanding where we've come from will help us to see that our uniqueness, core values and history bind us together more than separate us.

Highly recommended. 

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