The Next Chapter

Charlotte Gray on 9 Canadians who are key to our national identity

The historian and biographer on her book The Promise of Canada, which profiles nine people who have shaped our national character.
Charlotte Gray is the author of The Massey Murder and Gold Diggers. The Promise of Canada is her latest book. (Mark Raynes Robert)

Historian and biographer Charlotte Gray started writing about politics when she arrived in Canada from Britain in 1979, and she went on to learn everything she could about her adopted country. She felt that Canada's history was somewhat neglected, and so she started to write the kinds of books that she would like to read about the past.

Charlotte Gray's new book, The Promise of Canada, looks at nine individuals she believes to be important contributors to Canada's ongoing conversation about national identity. She spoke to Shelagh Rogers from Ottawa. Below, you'll also find Charlotte's complete list of who she included in the book, and why.

How she chose the Canadians featured in the book

It was actually the most wonderful jigsaw puzzle. You'll notice that among those nine, there are absolutely no prime ministers, because too often history has been told just through the decision-makers at the top. You'll also notice that three of those nine are women, which I thought was really important, because in the biographies I've done of people like Susanna Moodie and Pauline Johnson, I've been so conscious that the role of women in our past has been very underplayed.

But more than anything, what I wanted was to be able to use these little biographies as stepping stones through the last 150 years. Stepping stones not just in a linear fashion through the years, but also as a hopscotch across the country, looking at different voices and different places. I was trying to look at another layer — underneath the surface events of the last 150 years, what was going on in terms of the quiet assumptions that were being built into the national character?

Charlotte Gray's comments have been edited and condensed.

The 9 Canadians profiled in Charlotte Gray's The Promise of Canada

George-Étienne Cartier, a brusque Montreal businessman and leading politician, wanted a national identity that transcended religious and ethnic differences. His inclusive vision, which is the foundation of our federal system of government, has kept this country together ever since the BNA Act was signed.

Barrel-chested Sam Steele was one of the NWMP officers in the late 19th century who established the Canadian rule of law on the Prairies. The RCMP was Canada's very first national institution, coming to symbolize Canada's reputation as a country of peace, order and good government.

Emily Carr, a woman on the far western edge of the continent, found herself facing almost overwhelming odds against her hopes of becoming a major artist. By finding her place within a landscape of rain forests, wide skies and Indigenous art, she gave Canadians then and now a larger sense of our own.

Harold Innis returned from the First World War determined that Canada should be more than an outpost of Empire. His insistence that this country was defined by its geography, and made economic sense, was welcomed by Canadians threatened by American domination.

Tommy Douglas, a wiry Baptist preacher, fought the kind of national battle that elsewhere involved a bloody conflict. Tommy's weapons of choice? Stethoscopes and wit. After the Second World War, his success in establishing a national health care program would entrench within the national psyche a belief that government could be a force for the good.

As nationalism blossomed in the 1960s, Canadians hungered to hear their own voices. With insight and steely wit, author Margaret Atwood gave us confidence in our collective imagination. 

Pierre Trudeau's "Just Society" was embraced by Canadians, but it was Justice Bertha Wilson, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, who put some muscle into the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She injected judicial heft into his promise of rights for all citizens and protections for minorities.

Elijah Harper, a residential school survivor and tenacious Oji-Cree band chief, helped to defeat a major constitutional change in which First Nations had no say. He symbolized and demonstrated the will of Indigenous people to live on their own cultural terms.

Western discontent rumbled when Quebec separatists dominated headlines. Preston Manning, an earnest consultant from Alberta, demonstrated the enduring appeal of populism in Canada as he led the movement to rebalance Confederation and reduce government.

Every generation has reinvented this country's image, but nationality is barely mentioned by those under 35; they derive their identity from their sense of self. In the Age of Instagram, what will continue to bind us together?

Among the contemporary Canadians whom Charlotte features are:

Douglas Coupland, the globally acclaimed artist and author (Generation X) whose Vancouver childhood has shaped his world view.

Naheed Nenshi, Mayor of Calgary, who champions community action, and knows how fragile pluralism can be.

Annette Verschuren, the entrepreneur from Cape Breton, who walked away from a career in a multinational corporation and launched within Canada a start-up in a new industry. 

Lise Bissonnette, the fiercely intelligent Quebec editor who has watched her province fight for its autonomy within Canada.