Lives Less Ordinary

Peter Mansbridge’s unsung heroes

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...