What makes for an “extraordinary Canadian”? It’s a question that has been asked, both implicitly and explicitly, for a long time. Some answers come in the form of public displays, such as statues and the faces that appear on our banknotes. Revering a person or group in bronze, whether it is Sir John A. Macdonald, Terry Fox, or the Famous Five, is a statement about who we feel made an extraordinary contribution to the country. The same goes for our currency. Viola Desmond, who battled racial injustice in the 1940s, earned the most recent honour, in 2018, when she appeared on the award-winning $10 bill.
In publishing, the question has been asked more explicitly. Many readers will remember the books published by Penguin Canada, beginning in 2011, with the title Extraordinary Canadians. The series was edited by the public intellectual John Ralston Saul and featured short biographies of well-known figures — from Glenn Gould and Nellie McClung to Maurice “Rocket” Richard and Big Bear. Saul, not surprisingly, expounded on the notion of extraordinary Canadians. “How do civilizations imagine themselves?” he asked, philosophically. “One way is for each of us to look at ourselves through our society’s most remarkable figures.” For him, those were the “rebels, reformers, martyrs, writers, painters, thinkers, political leaders.” They were the ones who laid the foundation for a country.
Lester B. Pearson, Wilfrid Laurier, Pierre Trudeau — they’re all in the Penguin series. And no one will argue about the contributions they made to the building of this country. Nevertheless, as Saul noted, “Civilization is not a collection of prime ministers.”
Seven years after Penguin published its seventeenth and final Extraordinary Canadians instalment comes a book from Peter Mansbridge and Mark Bulgutch, and although the title is familiar, it prompts a fresh look at the question of who is extraordinary. There are no prime ministers to be found here, nor would most readers recognize the names of those whose first-person accounts make up the book. Matt Devlin, the television play-by-play caller for the Toronto Raptors, is perhaps the best-known personality, but he may also be the least extraordinary of the bunch.
Mansbridge’s take on extraordinary Canadians is manifestly different from Saul’s. In fact, his book is really about ordinary individuals who have done extraordinary things. “ ‘Hero’ is a description that covers a wide range of possibilities and there are a lot of stories that fall in that space between dying for your country and winning for your country,” he writes. “That’s what this book is about. It’s about people who have put the lives of Canadians of all walks of life, first. That’s what being a hero means to me.”
As I read about these men and women, a certain phrase kept popping into my mind: Desiderantes meliorem patriam — they desire a better country. It is impossible not to be impressed, humbled, and awed by the contributions of these Canadians who come from many different parts of the country, even if they’re not all Order of Canada inductees. Courage, determination, passion, overcoming adversity — these themes run throughout the book.
Extraordinary Canadians is not a love letter to the country, though it will certainly leave readers uplifted, even if both the successes and the failures of Canada are exposed. The individuals Mansbridge includes have overcome racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia, to name just a few. Nadine Caron, the first female Indigenous general surgeon, talks about her achievements but notes they came with “sharp reminders about the divide that still exists within our country.” She appreciates Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology to residential school survivors but needs something more: “something that’s somehow deeper, more personal and therefore more meaningful.”
Gina Cody, who emigrated from Iran in 1979, earned a doctorate in engineering from Concordia University, in Montreal, and led one of Canada’s most successful companies owned by a woman. Yet she was often reminded of her sex: “I can’t count how many times my executive assistant would transfer a call to me and, hearing my voice, the guy would ask, ‘Can I please speak to your boss?’ That kind of stuff never ended.”
To be extraordinary usually means persevering in the face of challenges, and the stories here prove it.
Mansbridge’s book is currently a bestseller, perhaps no surprise considering his reputation as the long-time news anchor of the CBC’s The National. But readers expecting to go inside his head or to get deep insights into the country or the nature of extraordinary Canadians will be disappointed. The book lacks an extended rumination from Mansbridge, someone who knows the country, its history, and its citizens exceedingly well. His introduction to these seventeen stories is a mere three and a half pages — not enough to do a deep dive on a worthwhile topic.
A few other quibbles: There is no context for where or when the interviews took place. How did Mansbridge and Bulgutch land on these particular compatriots? Where did they hear of them? How did they make their final selections? What was Mansbridge’s role compared with that of Bulgutch, a former senior editor on The National ? These may seem minor points to some, but Mansbridge notes that “we interviewed each person at length, for hours at times, to capture their experiences in detail. They shared everything.” Adding dates, locations, and a brief note for those talks would have added texture to each story as well as some context.
There is also something of a slapdash element to the book besides the shallow introduction: the mediocre quality of the photos; the occasional American spelling; the reference to William Lyon Mackenzie on one page (incorrect) and William Lyon Mackenzie King (correct) on another. A bit more care on the editing and production side might have given the book heft enough to match its $37 price tag.
Still, to a very large degree, Extraordinary Canadians is about what makes a great country or even a great community. The multi cultural mosaic of people assembled here truly represents the Canada of today. It reminds us that our society will thrive only if there are people leading and persevering away from the spotlight — whether it is a young woman raising awareness of ostomy surgeries or a former schoolteacher who founded a call‑in service to support lesbians in Newfoundland and Labrador. Readers can be thankful that we have so many citizens who are working hard, making sacrifices, and showing incredible determination and courage in their efforts.
While the extraordinary Canadians selected by John Ralston Saul are undeniably important to the success of this country, we should never lose sight or appreciation of the many others, from all regions of Canada, who have made — and continue to make — indelible contributions to who we are. As Mansbridge puts it, “Their lives may not result in medals, Heritage Minutes, or new names for schools, but then again, they might.”