1480 Forty visions of Canada
Inspiring Canadians: Forty Brilliant Canadians and their Visions for the Nation
by Mark Bulgutch, with a foreword by Peter Mansbridge
Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2022
$24.95 / 9781771623148
Reviewed by Ginny Ratsoy
If Inspiring Canadians’ title doesn’t already mark this book as upbeat, both Mansbridge’s preface, centred on a touching anecdote from his reporter days, and Bulgutch’s brief intro, which states the book “starts from the premise that Canada is a wonderful country, blessed as few others are” (p. xi), certainly do.
However, despite the time-warp feel of the prefatory sections, the individual first-person interviews are informative and, often, incisive. Topics are eclectic — from the opioid crisis, health care and racism to making Canadians laugh and embracing everything from the Internet to the CFL. Interviewees seem to be qualified spokespersons for their respective fields — for example, Dr. Najma Ahmed (on ending gun violence) is surgeon-in-chief at St. Michael’s Hospital; Adam Fenech (on adapting to climate change) shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; Michael Tulloch (on the integrity of the rule of law) is a justice of the Ontario Court of Appeal; and Paulette Senior (on equal opportunity for women) is president and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation. Some articles provide insights and practical tips into issues sometimes not widely covered elsewhere — such as selecting charities, cherishing libraries, and combating ageism. The result is a series of effective primers on varied issues. Each article is journalistic and conversational, the pattern usually inductive, moving from a personal anecdote to cement the interviewee’s initial involvement in the topic to broader analysis of the issue at hand. The typical tone is positive, but meat, critique, and remedies are ample.
My concerns with the collection are about overall organization rather than individual content. Readers would have been better served had Bulgutch organized the articles in some discernible way. I may be missing something obvious, but I can fathom no order, apart from random. Thematic grouping would have been logical, but even alphabetical order by interviewee surname would have facilitated reader ease. Dates on each article would also have been handy, as would some background and context: how were the subjects chosen? what were the circumstances of each interview?
As summarizing all 40 articles would be cumbersome, I will focus on those that most caught my attention, offer concrete solutions, or cover topics not central to the ongoing discourse in mainstream publications.
Essays on Canadian public education remind us that the nature of curriculum is evolving and dependent on political factors. Annie Kidder uses the US as a cautionary comparator, noting that in many American cities public education doesn’t really exist today; she offers a reassuring statistic: the percentage of Canadian children attending public schools has remained fairly stable, at between 92 and 95 percent, for some time. Like Kidder, Natasha Henry, president of the Ontario Black History Society, refers to the US, reminding the reader that racism in Canada is distinct from the US’s history of racism, and arguing convincingly that increasing the study of Black History in Canadian public education systems would work for the betterment of all. Helen Kennedy, of Egale Canada, notes the political aspect to curriculum evolution: in Newfoundland and Labrador, a previous government understood the importance of sexual diversity in the curriculum, but the considerable strides made were undone by its successor.Percy Bellegarde, on upholding the rights of Indigenous People, advocates generally for multi-pronged collaboration, more specifically, investment in water and infrastructure and, most concretely, training and education: Canadian education systems should teach treaty relationships, the Doctrine of Discovery, residential school genocide, and the consequences of the Indian Act. Of course, the fact that education is a provincial responsibility adds complexity to a national vision of curricula evolution.
The need for a national strategy is explicit or implicit in many articles, certainly in those dealing with postsecondary education. After comparing Canada’s progress favourably to that of the US, UBC president and vice-chancellor Santa Ono argues that our post-secondary systems should look to Switzerland, Australia, and Asia for best practices in keeping competitive — as well as enhance funding of innovative research and retain graduate students through increasing government- industry- university partnerships. University of Toronto biochemist Reinhart Reithmeier advocates improving Canada’s science culture through more funding for scientific research.
Elsbeth Heaman, history professor at McGill University again compares Canadians’ knowledge of their own history with Americans’, this time unfavourably, but argues that, Canada, not having a revolution at the centre of our founding myth, has greater leeway to expand the narrative. Heaman is optimistic, observing that more complicated and inclusive stories are replacing older ones, an instrumental step in answering questions that lead us to a peaceful, thriving society. The tone of all three is positive: we are doing well, but could do better.
Two articles on education generally implicitly talk to each other. Mack Rogers’ statistics that 48 percent of Canadians read at less than a Grade 8 level and Canada placed 11th of the 23 countries tested for literacy by the OECD are even more concerning when we consider that the federal government in 2016 defunded national literacy organizations, which are down to 3 or 4 from 15. After reminding us that improved literacy would positively affect everything from health determinants to our GDP, Rogers espouses increased awareness, a national strategy, and workplace programs. Julie McKenna, deputy library director in Regina, provides concrete examples of how the Regina system fosters literacy: branches with lower literacy levels by replacing the Dewey Decimal System with the bookstore classification system have raised circulation of non-fiction materials by 95 percent. They also work with daycare and community centres, and directly with families. Abolishing fines and expanding mandates to include everything from pedometers to 3D printers, libraries recognize their role as what McKenna calls “the last public space” where patrons can engage with books, equipment, and other community members, all without a commercial transaction.
Multiple aspects of societal inequality are well introduced in Forty Brilliant Canadians and Their Visions for the Nation, with common appeals for emphasis on research into best practices and federal legislation and funding. Laura Tamblyn Watts, lawyer, professor, and CEO of CanAge, points to employers and the federal government as agents of ageism; her solutions are concrete: promote aging in place, don’t put stairs where they don’t need to be, replicate the social justice movements of other demographics, and, as Canada is the only country in the OECD not to have one, demand a federal plan for an aging country. While Michael Prince acknowledges the 2019 Accessible Canada Act, which removes barriers to employment for the disabled, at least in federally regulated industries such as banks, broadcasting and transportation, he proposes more – notably, an income program at the federal level. Again, national strategies are central to these proposals.
Regression in some critical areas is ascribed to government austerity (and, though it is not explicitly stated, Neo-Liberalism). James McAra, CEO of the Calgary Food Bank, proposes that governments educate themselves about the importance of food, increase assisted housing, and incentivize employers to provide living wages, reminding us that food banks are a 50-year-old Band Aid. Perhaps Katie Ward’s article on Canadian agriculture has some implicit lessons for government on food banks: the result of a 1970s government report recommending decreased involvement in agricultural is that we now produce only about 20 percent of our food domestically, a reversal of the situation in the 1970s, with most of our food spending going to input companies, not farmers. Tim Richter, of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, contends that contemporary homelessness is a product of late 20th Century government austerity, which reduced affordable housing. For best practices, local leaders, with federal support, should look to western Europe and the UK, the latter with twice Canada’s population but half the numbers of homeless; domestically, Edmonton, London, and St. John also serve as models. Formidable effort is required to undo damage resulting from political short-sightedness, it appears.
For citizen safety, best practices and improved legislation are also proposed. Ahmed presents a reasoned argument against comparing Canadian gun violence with that in the US, when the UK, Japan, the Netherlands, or Australia would be more aspirational comparators, outlines egregious practices of Canadian gun lobby associations, and suggests stricter legislation. Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, advises dismantling a rigid framework against drug prohibition; the powers-that- be in public health must rely on evidence to decrease drug overdoses, he states. Kwame McKenzie, a director at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, argues that increased spending on mental health would result in less domestic violence and general crime and even fewer automobile accidents; McKenzie also advocates for legislation to improve psychological workplace safety.
This collection of interviews appears to have been modelled on Extraordinary Canadians (Simon & Schuster, 2020), written by Mansbridge “with Mark Bulgutch.” While the earlier work shares some organizational shortcomings with its successor, both works provide accessible introductions to a host of Canadians with worthy solutions to societal woes. Advocates for change can tread a fine line between motivating and overpowering; the subjects of Inspiring Canadians: Forty Brilliant Canadians and their Visions for the Nation navigate the more productive side of that path.
Ginny Ratsoy is Professor Emerita at Thompson Rivers University. Her scholarly publications (co-authored and edited and co-edited books and numerous peer-reviewed articles) have focused on Canadian fiction, theatre, small cities, third-age learning, and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Her recent focus has been on maintaining a growth mindset through freelance writing and community engagement as well as promoting third-age learning as a corrective to societal ageism. She thanks Penny Haggarty for her usual keen eye: once a librarian, always a librarian. Editor’s note: Ginny Ratsoy has recently reviewed books by Ron Base & Prudence Emery, Maureen Brownlee, Maria Reva, Elizabeth Haynes, Alice Munro, R.M. Greenaway, and Barbara Black.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster