COVER S TORY
CHARLOTTE GRAY arrived in
Canada from England in 1979.
Since then, she’s worked as a
columnist and a political commentator, and has written 10
books of literary non-fiction.
Her latest book is The Promise
of Canada: 150 Years—People
and Ideas That Have Shaped
The recipient of several awards, Gray
is an adjunct research professor in the
Department of History at Carleton
University, in Ottawa, and a member of the
Order of Canada and a Fellow of the Royal
Society of Canada.
In this Connection exclusive, Gray dis-cusses how history is so much more than
memorized dates and men in suits.
—Stephanie E. Ponder
Birthdays are great excuses for cake,
fireworks and get-togethers. And no birthday is complete without reminders of past
achievements (putting the puck in the net)
and mishaps (putting the car in the ditch).
So here we are, celebrating Canada’s
150th birthday—a chance for national fireworks and a review of some historic highlights. But what should we highlight?
When I arrived here as an immigrant
in 1979, I knew nothing about Canadian
history. I struggled to find answers to my
dumb questions. Some of my questions were
rooted in history, such as: Whose idea was
it to call this place Canada? How did this
country get glued together, given its
mind-numbing size and the diversity of its
people? Other questions were about today’s
Canada, yet turned out to be about history.
Questions like: Why are there so many
doughnut shops here? Why does Newfound-
land produce some of this country’s greatest
musicians and writers (these
days, think Great Big Sea or
Lisa Moore)? Why is this coun-
try hockey crazy?
Most of the history books I
scanned trudged from one
political milestone to the next.
I can see why, given that this is
a country knit together by political deals rather than a clear-cut national identity. There is no single
story of Canada; instead, there is a medley
of voices. Today, Canada’s 35 million citizens include Indigenous peoples who have
always been here, descendants of the first
French and British settlers, and immigrants
like me who have arrived more recently
from all over the world. We have learned to
share this land, for the most part peacefully,
through a process of compromise. But we
don’t all speak, look or pray alike.
However, political history can be awfully
(ahem) dull—conferences, legislation, royal
commissions, national agreements, constitutional deals. Historians may spice it up
with anecdotes about the eccentricities of
some of our national leaders: the drinking
habits of our first prime minister, Sir John
A. Macdonald, or the Ouija board sessions
of Mackenzie King, our longest-serving
prime minister. But that distorts the reputations of some pretty adroit statesmen.
And I wanted to know something else.
I wanted to know what it means to be
Canadian. Here I was, morphing into a new
identity and leaving my oh-so-Brit background behind, but who was I becoming?
My Canadian boyfriend (soon to be husband) gave me an immersion course, literally. One of my first weekends here was spent
in a canoe in Algonquin Provincial Park, an
experience that included such quintessential Canadian treats as pancakes with maple
syrup, rain dripping down my neck as I
paddled and skinny-dipping. I glimpsed the
vast and beautiful wilderness, stretching
north forever, that means my fellow citizens
rarely have to compete for space. But I also
understood why, in the 19th century, immigrants often felt so isolated in the backwoods
Clockwise from above: Relatives
awaiting the arrival of Canadian soldiers from overseas aboard the S.S. Ile
de France, in Halifax, June 1945;
celebrated soldier and mounted
policeman Sam Steele and his wife;
Queen Elizabeth II signing the Constitution Act with Pierre Trudeau; and
a promotional poster from 1949 announcing Canada’s newest province.
LI BRARYANDARCHI VESCANADA
BRUCE PEEL SPECIAL COLLECTIONSLIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA
Charlotte Gray’s The Promise of Canada
and Paul Covello’s Canada ABC, along with
other books written by Canadian authors,
are available in most Costco warehouses.