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Interview: Beyond 150 author Charlotte Gray

By Colin Noden on November 28, 2017



The Canadian Museum of History is the place to be on November 30.

I’m going to hear Charlotte Gray, but I’m going to pack in a day of fun before that.

Here’s what I’m going to be doing: Get in free (free admission from 5-8pm). Take another tour of the Canadian History Hall (it’s amazing). Fill up a bag with Christmas goodies from the 85 vendors at the Christmas Market (starting at 11am). Sip on a cup of hot chocolate, while I watch the tree lighting at 6pm.

And then at 7pm I’m going to head under the escalators in the Grand Hall and off to the right where I’m going to finish the evening by treating my mind with some time with Charlotte Gray. Why don’t you join me?

I tell my American friends that Charlotte Gray is kind of a big deal here in Canada. When I found out she was speaking at the Museum of History on November 30, I saw the opportunity to snag an interview. And what a time we had! I was up most of the night chasing thoughts she had unleashed in my mind.

Charlotte has a unique style of writing which makes history relatable and relevant. She recreates the world of her historical subjects and then analyzes them within that context. Picture Bert Massey picking his way through the slush and puddles of Toronto, as he walks home to be murdered (The Massey Murder). Or Bill Haskins, trying to ignore dying men around him as he endures a -40 degree trek down a frozen river after abandoning his claim (The Klondike).

What do you think about this description of the man who unleashed a new age in First Nations empowerment? “ A stocky man hunched forward, clutching an eagle feather in his right hand. Elijah Harper’s brow and cheeks shone with nervous perspiration; sweat trickled down his neck under his dark ponytail; his bulky shoulders and arms strained against his suit jacket. Then the former chief of the Red Sucker Lake First Nation rose to speak. His voice was so soft that many of those present strained to hear it. But his words were blunt.” (The Promise of Canada-150 years)

Charlotte Gray’s words can also be blunt. But not in an opinionated way. She writes detailed word pictures, then lets our own emotions emerge. She trusts that once we are immersed in a detailed past, and have this precise detailing of her subjects, the resulting emotions we have will be more valid.

Ms. Gray is speaking as part of the Beyond 150 series of events in the Resource Centre, which is located in the hallway, just under the escalators of the Grand Hall. She has recently written an interesting book called The Promise of Canada. This will be the foundation of her discussion. The press release says she will explain “why popular history is more important than ever.”

We have to ask ourselves, What is the glue that will hold Canada together? We spent the first few decades since Confederation building railways and roads. Today, we are digitally connected with each other. How can we use these connections to help us understand each other better?

And let me tell you, after my conversation with Charlotte, I know she is deadly serious about this. Popular history is not an oxymoron, or some academic put-down you might hear at a university cocktail party. It is something that will keep this country united and on track. Something interesting, entertaining, and inspiring, written with laser accuracy. That sounds a lot better than the snooze-fest classes we grew up with.

Bring your questions and an open mind. During my conversation with Charlotte, I became aware that she is chomping at the bit to finally express her opinions, which are usually restrained in her academic work. She has thought through the prickliest of questions about Canada and your future. I got direct answers and not the usual intellectual bafflegab.

For example, the sesquicentennial : “Roaring Success or Fizzle?” was how Charlotte summarized it. “Many small community functions were quite successful, but the big government sponsored events weren’t successes.” Did the government lose sight of the people’s perspectives? Were we expected to just joyfully party without having a firm grasp on why?

Was it a year of celebration, or one of holding our breath to see how we make it through the next fifty? What will Canada look like when we hit that bicentennial date?

She hopes that you will leave the Resource Centre with transforming thoughts whirling in your head. If the hour I just spent with her is any indication, you are about to have an evening of illumination and challenge.

And just maybe, if you are up to it, a no-brainer way to be a name for the history books of the future. Seriously? A no-brainer way to be a nation changer? First of all, Charlotte doesn’t promise this. In fact she quickly threw the notion back at me.

“There are people in the book, especially in the later sections, who did set out to change Canada, and used all their brains to do so. Tommy Douglas, Elijah Harper, Preston Manning…”

Point taken. I could argue that these activists were responding to their own basic natures and abilities. (I can say that now because I’m alone at a keyboard) And that the “no-brainer” part was the decision to understand, and be true, to their character. Tommy Douglas had a voice that had to speak out, and Elijah Harper had a heart that needed to be exercised.

I couldn’t help but notice that in her book, The Promise of Canada, the people she chose were influential because they were true to themselves and responded to the challenges of their time with positive action.

For example:

  • Two farm boys who escaped the drudgery of that life to become legends in their fields and our psyches. BeaverTails®, Roots® clothing, or our canoe mythology would probably not exist without one of them. And the other, was our most famous mountie.
  • Three women who quietly molded our identity while expressing what just seemed obvious to them. Building a legacy despite circumstance, discrimination, and cultural intimidation.
  • And other modern Canadians who continue to change us just by being who they are. Like the son of immigrants, who walked away from offers of an LA lifestyle. Returning “home” to Canada, to become one of our most positive politicians.

The study of the individual living under the influence of their time is a theme that makes Charlotte Gray’s books unique and popular. “I hope it builds a real appreciation of those who came before us. There is a continuity to our history which gives us the framework for moving forward.”

We are a prosperous and protected country. The question is what to do with this prosperity and protection?

Oh, now we’re coming to our nation’s favorite question. What is a Canadian?

This question is more serious these days as we are in a time of displacement for many people.

Charlotte noted, “Australia has called itself ‘The Lucky Country” because of the isolation and protection the water gives them. But, Canada is also lucky in that way. Three of our shores are protected by ocean, and we have a stable nation below us.”

“We are a prosperous and protected country. The question is what to do with this prosperity and protection?”

For the most part, people come to Canada when we invite them. But what are we inviting them to be a part of? Sure there is the safety and opportunity. But are the responsibilities also so clear?

What about the messes we’ve made in the last 150 years? What is it about being Canadian that will motivate new Canadians to step up and help us clean up? What is going to make wealthy immigrants and successful second generation Canadians dig deep and help those who have just arrived to be as successful as them?

“Generations of Indigenous Peoples have been damaged. It’s going to take more than your lifetime to rectify this. We have to be honest about the work ahead. Reconciliation has to begin with conciliation.”

“We need to fund full integration of immigrants. This means financial help. It’s not enough to allow people access and then force them into a life of poverty.”

I told you Ms Gray doesn’t shy away from the hard questions. And her answer was shocking. Remember, this is the lady who has spent her career looking at individuals in order to understand history.

Institutions. “We need institutions of value instead of aspirational values.” “Canada has gone under extraordinary change, especially in the last 25 years. But our belief in the common good has remained constant. This means believing that everyone in Canada should have good healthcare and education. Having institutions in place will ensure this is delivered regardless of who is in power.”

Infrastructure.“We have to ask ourselves, What is the glue that will hold Canada together? We spent the first few decades since Confederation building railways and roads. Today, we are digitally connected with each other. How can we use these connections to help us understand each other better? And how can we ensure that remote communities have access to the internet?”

So, right about now you are probably wondering how all of this is going to be paid for. I know that’s what I was thinking.

It’s a matter of putting our money where our hearts are. Funding the services we believe make us Canadian, to all Canadians. Those who come to Canada should be told that is part of the price of entry. And they should be warned.

“Canada has remained immune to toxic populism”, said Ms Gray. By that she was referring to other nations’ reoccurring problem with “ethnic demagoguery.” We don’t have mini revolutions spurred on by racial hatred. However, as she writes in her book The Promise of Canada, we have a history of powerful populist movements which have taken down governments. These are usually born when “the little guy” suffers at the hand of the wealthy.

These smackdowns can come from the political left or right. They occur when Canadians feel that the sacred trust that makes us Canadian has been broken by their leaders and people of wealth.

Ms Gray expressed her growing unease concerning this. Storm clouds may be gathering. The trouble with aspirational values is that people are going to expect them to be fulfilled someday. And when that day comes…watch out.

Wow. That’s what I got from a fast hour with Ms. Gray before she had to start packing for a trip. I could tell she had lots more to say. Which is why I’m looking forward to Nov 30th. You’ll find me in the Resource Centre, resting my feet, feeling mellow from hot chocolate,and ready to refresh my vision of Canada for the upcoming year.

I hope to see you there!

The Canadian Museum of History (100 Laurier Street, Gatineau) will have free admission on Thursday evening, including free admission to the Christmas Market. For more information about Charlotte Gray’s Beyond 150 event, visit the Facebook event. Admission is free and the event starts at 7pm.