Book Review: The Promise of Canada: People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country

Jared Milne
5 min readAug 27, 2023
(Golden Brown/Shutterstock)

Hockey and lacrosse are two of Canada’s national sports. One of our other national sports is arguably trying to figure out what it means to be Canadian. I’m certainly no exception. There’s also been a cottage industry of books on the subject. One notable example is Charlotte Gray’s The Promise of Canada: 150 Years-People and Ideas That Have Shaped Our Country (Simon and Schuster, 2016), published just before Canada’s 150th birthday. Gray analyzes the lives of nine prominent Canadians:

  • The Francophone Father of Confederation George-Etienne Cartier, who advocated for the recognition of Francophone rights and the idea of a ‘political nationality’ that people of different cultures could all share;
  • RCMP officer Sam Steele, who helped maintain order in the Yukon during the 19th-century gold rush;
  • Artist Emily Carr, who helped develop a uniquely Canadian style of art;
  • Economist Harold Innis, whose “staples theory” described how natural resource development shaped the Canadian economy;
  • Politician Tommy Douglas, who pioneered the concept of Canadian Medicare;
  • Author Margaret Atwood, whose writings helped shape Canadian literature;
  • Supreme Court judge Bertha Wilson, whose views shaped much of Canada’s thinking on Constitutional rights;
  • Ojibway and Cree politician Elijah Harper, whose role in defeating the Meech Lake Accord was a criticial step in demanding that Canadian society respect Indigenous peoples’ rights; and
  • Politician Preston Manning, whose founding of the Reform Party provided an outlet for years of frustration with the Canadian political system in Western Canada, particularly Alberta.

Gray profiles each of these figures in their own separate chapter, paralleling their lives with what was happening in Canadian society and how they contributed to it. This method helps Gray trace Canada’s slow path from seeming like a unilingual appendage of the British Empire to a country with its own distinct art, culture and economy, as well as one that’s had to reckon with deep regional cleavages and the broken promises and injustices against various parts of its population.

[Gray] describes Canadian nationhood as a sort of ‘secret handshake’, a sense of having a national identity despite a lack of overt emotional ties or a ‘mainstream’…

Figures like Cartier, Innis and Douglas helped define the politics of the new country and the forces that shaped it; Steele, Carr and Atwood all contributed to the growth of a Canadian cultural identity with images of the RCMP, an artistic tradition that was also built by artists like the Group of Seven and a national literature with its distinct themes like ‘survival’; Wilson, Manning and-most damningly-Harper all strove against the injustices various communities faced in Canadian society.

Gray skilfully fills the narrative with quotes from the writings of the people she profiles if they’re deceased. If they’re still alive (in the cases of Atwood and Manning) she provides quotes straight from the people themselves in her interviews with them. One of the highlights of the book is how Gray puts these quotes in context, tying the person she’s discussing into the larger things happening in Canada. This really reinforces the larger arc Gray is describing, and how each of her subjects shaped the country.

Gray concludes the book with a final chapter discussing the Canadian identity. She cites her meetings with everyone from the Scottish-descended artist Douglas Coupland to Rwandan-descended musician Shadrach Kobango, and their views of how Canadian identity has evolved. She describes Canadian nationhood as a sort of ‘secret handshake’, a sense of having a national identity despite a lack of overt emotional ties or a ‘mainstream’, as Justin Trudeau put it. That identity, even if we don’t usually celebrate it as openly as our American neighbours, is constantly changing and evolving, meaning many different things to many different people.

Gray also discusses how many people from different cultures have found Canada a welcoming home and been able to build new lives here…but she also describes the complacency, smugness and racism that can (and often do) lurk behind our friendly exteriors, as well as the lack of what some see as larger community bonds among Canadians. She still ends the book on a hopeful note about Canada as a home for many different cultural groups trying to live together, and how newer Canadians are building on the historical legacy the people she profiled have left us.

…The growth of Canada as a country also led to its own rich cultural and intellectual heritage through the work of people like Carr, Atwood, Wilson and Innis. Does all that have to be thrown away to make things right?

It’s probably appropriate that The Promise of Canada was published during our 150th anniversary. It reflects some of the larger trends that have been happening in Canada, most notably the questioning of ‘Canada’ itself. Academic and cultural voices seeming to decry Canada itself as somehow having no moral right to exist have become increasingly prominent in the last few years.

The critics base their claim on the historic crimes various cultural groups have suffered, from the residential school system to the Chinese head tax to Canada refusing to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution to the destruction of Africville to the imprisonment of Japanese, Ukrainian and other citizens from ‘enemy’ countries during the World Wars, and the ongoing racism and discrimination many people, particularly Indigenous people, still face today…

…but as The Promise of Canada shows, the growth of Canada as a country also led to its own rich cultural and intellectual heritage through the work of people like Carr, Atwood, Wilson and Innis. Does all that have to be thrown away to make things right? That’s why I’m concerned about the seeming condemnation of Canada in itself-the academic and cultural voices making those claims have points that absolutely need to be addressed, but the rhetoric some of them use just widens the gaps between them and ‘ordinary’ Canadians, leaving me wondering how exactly we’re supposed to address the issues they raise.

The Promise of Canada illustrates both sides of the coin. Elijah Harper’s chapter almost seems to stick out from the rest for showing just how deep the injustices committed against Native people run in Canada, while the others reflect Canada’s more positive contributions to the world, and the countless personal stories and bonds that formed from them.

Both of those sides are tied together. Does rejecting one side of Canada mean rejecting the other side too? That’s what I think a lot of Canadians might wonder when they hear the academic and cultural critics I mentioned before. How do we address the injustices in Canada’s history while still recognizing the positive aspects of our heritage and identity? The question, and how it affects what means to be Canadian, remain unanswered.

People will likely be trying to figure out what it means to be Canadian as long as there’s a Canada. The nine people Charlotte Gray profiles in The Promise of Canada are not the only ones who left their mark on Canada, but they’re emblematic of the paths we’ve taken to get here. They remind us of how much our history, in all its shapes and forms, has contributed to the people and the country we are today.

As Gray says, sometimes the ‘secret handshake’ is with our own history.

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Jared Milne

Passionately devoted to Canadian unity. Fascinated by Canadian politics and history. Striving to understand the mysteries of Canada. Publishes every few weeks.