Here’s a list of ten Canadians that I admire. Some might fit into a “Greatest Canadian” list and others not. None of them are perfect, and some unquestionably have their dark sides. But today I’ll focus on the positive. In alphabetical order . . .
Irving Abella (1940 – ) I include Abella because his book “None is Too Many”(co-written with Harold Troper) is a story that shocked many Canadians out of their self-righteous complacency. It came out in 1983 and I, like many young people, had been fed the story of Canada the Good, welcoming of strangers and managing a peaceful multicultural society. The book presented a dark history that we were not taught, namely the story of antisemitism in Canada and the resulting exclusion of Jews from Canada throughout the Nazi era and right up to the late ‘forties. As Abella himself has noted, advance chapters of the book influenced the welcoming of Vietnamese refugees in the late ’70s. If we are to be a mature nation we need to know our whole past, and not just the nice parts.
Frank Calder (1915-2006) Frank Calder was a Prayer Book Anglican, but that’s not why he is here. He was also a graduate of the Anglican Theological College, a Nisga’a from the Nass River near the Alaska border, and an MLA in the British Columbia Legislature, but that’s not why he’s here. He’s in this list because of the case Calder v. British Columbia (AG) in which he sought to establish the claim of aboriginal title over the Nisga’a traditional lands, a title which had never been extinguished or negotiated away. He started the action in 1969 and by 1973 it had reached the Supreme Court of Canada, which ruled in his favour. It is the basis for subsequent decisions, including Guerin v. The Queen, , Delgamuukw v. British Columbia , and Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia . It led to the Province of BC, the Government of Canada, and the Nisga’a to negotiate the Nisga’a Treaty.
Emily Carr (1875-1941) I live in her neighbourhood. The house she was born in is down the road, the House of All Sorts (a boarding house she ran when money from art ran short) is around the corner, and she died in the building we now know as The James Bay Inn, also down the road. A statue of he and her monkey is at the corner of Douglas and Belleville, andshe’s in a mural on the side of Island Blue (an art and blueprint store). She was known in her late life as an award-winning author, but she was first and foremost an artist. She recently had her art exhibited in London and it was described as “riveting“. I agree.
Anne Carson (1950 – ) Anne Carson is probably the most important living Canadian poet (pace Atwood, et al). Her day job is being a Classics Professor at U of Michigan, as well as Visiting Professor at a host of universities. She was educated at the University of Toronto and taught at McGill before ending up in Ann Arbour. Her translation of Sappho is considered the standard, and it brings brilliance to the ancient fragments. A very private person, she nevertheless explored grief in Nox, a meditation on her brother’s death, using the Latin text of a poem by Catullus and her translation of it.
Helen Creighton (1899-1989) Helen Creighton scared the hell out of me. I’m sure she was a lovely person in the flesh, but as a folklorist she not only collected songs on her old reel to reel, but ghost stories. She published them in Bluenose Ghosts, and when I first read them I had trouble going to sleep. She’s probably best known for discovering Farewell to Nova Scotia, but to me she’ll always be Nova Scotia’s scariest lady.
Terry Fox (1958-1981) Terry Fox never made it to Mile Zero in Victoria, as his Marathon of Hope (1980) was cut short just outside of Thunder Bay by a recurrence of the cancer that had already taken his right leg. However, in 2005, the City of Victoria and private donors erected this statue, over the objections of some daft citizens who thought it did not belong in Beacon Hill Park. Fox had hoped to raise $24 million dollars for cancer research – one dollar for every Canadian. A telethon after he stopped his journey accomplished this goal, and he died in 1981. Since then the Terry Fox Run has raised over $650 million. But the thing that gets me is – the guy ran a marathon EVERY FRIGGIN DAY! Some people make running a marathon a life goal, and I haven’t even done that – the best I can do is run a slow 10k. But he ran a marathon, every day, until illness struck him down. To me he’ll always be Canada’s greatest athlete.
Donald Marshall (1953-2009) Donald Marshall probably never wanted the notoriety, but he became an unlikely hero for two reasons. First, as a young man he was wrongfully convicted for murder. Because he was a Mi’kmaq and it was 1971, the police and crown attorneys had decided that he was already guilty, despite lying witnesses and exculpatory evidence. After eleven years the conviction was overturned, and resulted in changes to the rules of evidence. Courts of Appeals and the Nova Scotia provincial government minimized any persecution, and only after a Royal Commission was the truth unearthed and appropriate compensation offered. The Commission found that the legal system had failed Marshall at every step. Marshall subsequently challenged federal laws and regulations regarding fishing. He held that First Nations fishing rights were entrenched in treaties and could not be overruled by fiat of the federal Department of Fisheries. After being initially convicted, the Supreme Court of Canada found in his favour in R v Marshall (No 1)  R v Marshall (No 2) .
Nellie McClung (1973-1951) was born in Ontario and died in Saanich, BC, but she was a Prairie Pioneer. In her forties she became one of the leaders of the Woman’s Suffrage movement in Winnipeg, achieving success in 1916 with Manitoba being the first jurisdiction in Canada to enfranchise the female sex. She moved to Alberta, served as an MLA in the legislature, and devoted herself to campaigning for Temperance. In 1927 she one of the “Famous Five” women who sued to clarify the provision in the BNA Act about persons, and as to whether that included females, and thus whether women were eligible for high political office. The Supreme Court of Canada thought not, but in 1929 the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council argued that a strict reading of the Act was not correct, as “The exclusion of women from all public offices is a relic of days more barborous than ours.”
Rachel Notley (1964 – ) Anyone who can overturn forty-one years of a conservative dynasty and establish a socialist paradise in Alberta gets my respect and admiration.
Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1919-2000) Based on his record from 1968-1979 Trudeau would have gone down, at best, as a middling Prime Minister. He had not really dealt with the issue of separatism, the hope for which so many votes in English Canada depended, and he was a lousy manager of the national economy (think “wage and price controls”). After the brief interregnum of Joe Clark, he came back, immediately engaged in the 1980 Quebec Referendum and won a resounding victory for the “Non” side. Then he began the challenging task of “patriating” the Constitution. Canada had been independent of British rule since the 1931 Statute of Westminster, but the federal government and provincial governments had never agreed on an amending formula for the Constitution. As well, Trudeau was concerned with the fragility of human rights in Canada, having seen them abused during the Duplessis era in Quebec. In contrast to the communitarians of Quebec, where the intellectual and political elite claimed to speak for the people and demanded control over a plethora of rights and policies, Trudeau saw rights as inhering in individuals who might not want to be led by the nose. Thus the patriated constitution also had a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that owed a lot to Trudeau’s Personalist philosophy. Discrimination on the basis of sex was inserted as well, accomplishing in Canada what the movement for the Equal Rights Amendment in the USA could not. Finally, the patriated Constitution enshrined existing aboriginal and treaty rights. It all happened so fast – the Canada Act was proclaimed on Parliament Hill by the Queen in 1982. Without a doubt Trudeau is the most influential Prime Minister of my lifetime, and probably stands with Macdonald, Cartier, and Brown as the creators of the nation as we know it. All Prime Ministers since have lived in his shadow, and we might never see his like again.