Charlotte Gray concludes Algonquin Speaker Series with The Promise of Canada

By Celina Ip


Algonquin College’s 2017 Speaker Series fittingly concluded with renowned Canadian historian Charlotte Gray and her noteworthy homage to Canada, in honour of the country’s 150th anniversary.


Ever since the Speaker Series kicked off in January 2017, Algonquin College has welcomed more than a dozen illustrious speakers to deliver compelling presentations about key moments from Canada’s 150 years since confederation.

The speakers have welcomed talks from Tricia Logan who spoke about the country’s dark history with residential schools, Merilyn Simonds who shared thrilling stories of notorious criminals who were imprisoned at the now-closed Kingston Penitentiary, renowned historian and journalist who detailed the disastrous Halifax Explosion of 1917, among many others.

On Dec. 13, Algonquin College concluded its 2017 Speaker Series with a final Canadian history presentation, delivered by award-winning biographer and renowned historian Charlotte Gray.

Born in England, Gray came to Canada in 1979 at which point she was immediately intrigued by the country’s wobbly sense of national identity and she swiftly began her pursuit to find answers to the questions: “what is the glue that holds this country together? what makes it different from all other countries? and what does it mean to be Canadian?”

Gray’s 30-plus years of research are laid out in her new book: The Promise of Canada: 150 years-People and Ideas that Have Shaped our Country, which she presented on during her Speaker Series talk.

Written in honour Canada’s 150th anniversary, the book details the great achievements of Canada’s history, while acknowledging the darker shadows of the country’s past.

Gray profiled nine influential Canadians who represented ideas that significantly shaped Canada and who helped the country achieve some of the promise it continues to offer.

“Canada has constantly re-imagined itself, so I began to think about what aspects of Canadian history and society make this country unique and who helped embed those values and ideas in the national psyche,” said Gray.

Gray didn’t include any prime ministers or hockey players, but rather focused on certain extraordinary – but often overlooked – figures in our history and their particular contributions.

“I wanted to really engage people by thinking about how the country has changed and to do it through individuals. So for each of the generations rolling through the years, I chose an individual who had either helped found an institution, or developed an idea, or pushed a change that had sort of steered the country in a particular direction,” said Gray.

Beginning with politician George-Etienne Cartier, Gray explored federalism through Cartier’s vision of a country that shared a political, but not a cultural, nationality.

She discussed how Sam Steele further laid out Canada’s foundation through mountie mythology, as his rigorous application of law and order created the idealized Canadian brand of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

She shared how author Margaret Atwood created the landscape of Canadian literature, how artist Emily Carr and professor Harold Innis represented the grown of nationalism through Canadian art, and how Elijah Harper’s stand against the Meech Lake accord was just one “symbol of Indigenous peoples’ 150-year-long battle to shed the role of victims and become part of the national dialogue.”

She also profiles Tommy Douglas and the revolutionary moment when he kickstarted Medicare, Supreme Court Justice Bertha Wilson’s fight for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as Preston Manning’s key role in politics.

“Mostly what people always want to know is that as the country is changing so rapidly, can we remain a cohesive country? What I point out is that people like George Etienne-Cartier or Tommy Douglas or Margaret Atwood have built into this country incredibly stabilizing institutions or values that do help even though we're so diverse,” said Gray.

With dozens in attendance, Gray engaged her audience with her enthralling presentation that beautifully touched upon the key aspects of her book.

The main message that Gray left her listeners was the profound thought that "no single narrative makes up our history and every vision, every story is a part of the promise of Canada." 

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