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Review: Charlotte Gray’s The Promise of Canada and Jane Urquhart’s A Number of Things explore the country’s past Add to ...

The Promise of Canada: 150 Years – People and Ideas That Have Shaped our Country

By Charlotte Gray

Simon & Schuster Canada, 378 pages, $39.99

A Number of Things: Stories of Canada Told Through Fifty Objects

By Jane Urquhart, illustrations by Scott McKowen

Patrick Crean Editions/HarperCollins, 227 pages, $32.99

Next year, Canada will celebrate its sesquicentennial. (By the end of the year, you’ll be sick of the word.) Embedded in this anniversary is a chance to take stock of where we have been, and where we are, both as a country and Canadians.

Arriving at the party a little early, two of Canada’s most prominent authors have just published books that attempt to tell our manifold story.

Charlotte Gray’s The Promise of Canada examines the idea of Canada from the position of a biographer “who believes that the ideas and actions of individuals can shape larger social changes, and those changes, in turn, mould national identity.” Impressive in its purview of Canadian history, while providing portraits of a few living Canadians, such as Margaret Atwood and Preston Manning, Gray has chosen eight Canadians to probe the mythos of Canada, from George-Étienne Cartier’s role in Confederation (“One hundred and fifty years later, the federal system that Cartier envisaged is the basic building block of Canada’s uniqueness,” Gray writes) to Emily Carr’s magnificent artistic ability to Tommy Douglas’s struggle for universal health care in Saskatchewan, which later led to Canadawide coverage (“The fight to introduce medicare into Saskatchewan remains a turning point in Canadian history”).

Some of the people Gray includes are lesser known. We learn the nuances of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in a chapter about Bertha Wilson, Canada’s first female Supreme Court judge. Gray writes that “the vast majority don’t even know her name,” but also shows how Wilson’s interpretations of the Charter influenced Canada for the better. She “protected vulnerable minorities from over-intrusive state power and defended the individual rights of all citizens,” and was influential in the Morgentaler right-to-abortion case in the late-1980s. While five of the seven Supreme Court judges ruled in favour of Morgentaler, it was Wilson’s written opinion (which included the line “it is probably impossible for a man to respond, even imaginatively, to such a dilemma [unwanted pregnancy]”) that really affected women’s reproductive rights.

Canadian history isn’t all auspicious, though, and Gray especially acknowledges this fact with a chapter on Elijah Harper, the indigenous NDP MLA who, in 1990 said “no” to the process that would expedite the endorsement of the Meech Lake Accord, a proposed amendment to the Constitution of this country that sought to “recognize Quebec as a ‘distinct society’” but made no attempt to acknowledge indigenous concerns. Gray recounts how Harper launched indigenous issues into the mainstream Canadian conversation. What’s more, Gray writes, “the messenger himself embodied in his own story the whole painful history of relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians.” In Harper, we read about the indignity of residential schools, the poverty on remote reserves, as well as more recent indigenous-rights crises, such as Oka. While there is still a very long way to go in addressing indigenous concerns, “there has been significant change since 1990,” Gray writes. Some will no doubt disagree with this assessment.

Still, The Promise of Canada is a true feat and it manages to highlight some of our most important stories. Some readers might feel that Gray left out a cause, symbol, or person (for example, there’s nothing on hockey here) but she does a good job of packing in as much in as possible.

“There is no master narrative for Canadian history: there are too many stories to package into a tidy, tightly scripted identity,” she writes, and yet, I’d venture to say everyone who reads this book will learn something they didn’t know about our country. Painstakingly researched and thoroughly engaging, The Promise of Canada is a pleasurable read, and, what’s more, it’s edifying.

In A Number of Things, award-winning novelist Jane Urquhart chooses to celebrate Canada’s anniversary by looking at material objects that represent facets of our culture. For instance, Urquhart details such items as the rope said to have hanged Louis Riel; places, such as Danceland in Saskatchewan (which she calls a “cathedral of dance”); and Canadian ephemera, like a bird feeder (“Canadians,” writes Urquhart, “believe in the miracle of birds”). In recounting these objects, readers are privy to a kind of curated archive of Canadian sensibilities and histories, complete with beautiful illustrations by artist Scott McKowen.

In a chapter about “codfish,” for example, we read about the collapse of the livelihood for many Newfoundlanders in the early 1990s when the cod industry fell apart, devastating a culture. Another chapter focuses on the “Staffordshire dogs” that feature in L.M. Montgomery’s fiction, actual objects that can currently be found in the University of Guelph’s archives. We read about Montgomery’s life in Charlottetown and beyond with the china dogs as a somewhat tenuous anchor. Because the chapters are so short (most are fewer than four pages) it becomes difficult in some cases to really connect to the object being discussed. The question arises: Why the Staffordshire dogs?

Similar to Gray – who admits a personal slant when she says that she chose her subjects because their “contributions speak to me as a Canadian” – Urquhart acknowledges that she picked objects “that interested and moved me,” and that she’s not “in a position to make judgments about what should and shouldn’t be included in a list of things Canadian.” Fair enough. But where both authors rightfully concede that there is no way that they could offer a definitive picture of Canada (it is inevitable that some important things will be left out), the seemingly incongruous nature of some of the objects included ends up obscuring the book’s raison d’être. Neon, for instance, doesn’t seem like something particularly Canadian, at first. What Urquhart is referring to, however, is the Five Roses sign in Montreal (and its earlier incarnation, which had a different name). The chapter makes the argument that “words have power. We change and rearrange them to suit our purposes” – a reference to how the language legislation of 1960s Quebec shifted discourse. But seeing as the chapter is only 1 1/2 pages, detailing the idea of “neon” is pretty slight.

When A Number of Things succeeds it is because Urquhart is an evocative writer. Echoes of her novels’ strengths can be found – she writes with an ethereal, emotional tangibility that is both nostalgic and energetic. But that sublime style doesn’t always hold the book together. Still, both books – through what they’ve included and what they’ve left out – encourage readers to consider the question: What does Canada mean to you?

Dilia Narduzzi is a Hamilton-based writer. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Maclean’s and other publications.

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