Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

The Promise of Canada

Charlotte Gray once got into trouble for referring to Library and Archives Canada as “a morgue,” but on October 17th, the scene at the LAC was most definitely alive. After being introduced by Festival director Sean Wilson and LAC director Guy Berthiaume, Gray asserted that the past is where Canadians must look if they are to find a coherent present. It is precisely in the archives, she argued, where we will find both our current identity and our future together. Gray’s newest book, The Promise of Canada: 150 Years – People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country is a deliberately open-ended story of a nation whose story is still evolving. Structured as a series of nine short biographies, The Promise of Canada portrays the country as the product of its citizenry. The choice of which individuals to include is obviously subjective, and Gray acknowledges that the presence of neither prime ministers nor hockey players will undoubtedly be a shock to some readers. Instead, the better- and lesser-known figures included in Gray’s book portray a country where stereotypes fall apart on closer inspection, where the act of inclusion – whether in publishing, legislation or storytelling is an act of nation-building. Gray presents The Promise of Canada is an immigrant’s sesquicentennial gift to her new home country. That gift is not just the story of the nine figures profiled in The Promise of Canada, but the start of a new conversation about what it means to tell the story of a nation.    

Gray began her presentation with some of the highlights from her research: phenomenal images by painter Emily Carr; political intrigue and scandal-worthy gossip about George-Etienne Cartier and the moving life story of Elijah Harper, who rose to prominence as an Aboriginal leader in the Manitoba legislature in the 1990s. Gray tied each individual’s story neatly to her main themes of Canadian national identity: a commitment to federalism; an evolving dialogue of inclusion and multi-culturalism; the on-going human relationship with Canada’s vast and unforgiving natural landscape. The themes of immigration and outsider status also work their way through the Gray’s project, as does the recognition of a certain national tendency towards pragmatism and away from heroics. (Why, Gray asked, do so many Canadian narratives feature the lone survivor as a protagonist, as if public attention was merited only by the accident of survival from disaster?) Humorously conceding that her book is a reflection of her own interests and experiences, Gray invites readers to make their own lists of influential people and ideas. The Promise of Canada is a lively remedy for what Gray sees as a public tendency to disengage with Canadian history.

For the second half of the evening, the OIWF invited Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella to converse with Gray about her writing process. Abella, whose own impressive biography would probably merit inclusion in a sequel volume, led Gray and the audience through a series of thoughtful questions which could hardly be answered in a single night. This reviewer is still thinking of new answers for Abella’s questions, which included: “What holds Canada together?” and “Who helped embed Canadian qualities, whatever they might be, in the national psyche?” Gray responded with a distinct awareness of her role as a biographer, as well as great clarity about her own perspective as a British immigrant to Canada. Gray, who arrived in Canada during a “wobbly moment” of national identity in the late 1970s, has had time to think deeply about the role of individuals in creating a nation. Yet the story of Canada, like that of any other vibrant nation, is never complete. Each generation, Gray and Abella agreed, write their own story of their homeland, be it native or adopted.