Extraordinary Canadians

In a new biography series, Canada is reimagined as a liberal Protestant nation

group of mythical Canadians standing together

Occupying my bookcases at home are a handful of multi-volume biographies, which look very handsome, I must say, standing on the shelves. They add heft to the appearance of any library. In some wintry season in the future, I might actually read them. But who wants to plow through Norman Sherry’s three-volume biography of Graham Greene when you could spend the same amount of time reading several Greene novels?

The 1999 launch of the Penguin Lives series, which includes short biographies of everyone from Marcel Proust to Elvis Presley, proved to be a useful corrective to the trend toward massive biographies. A Canadian version was bound to appear, and sure enough we now have Penguin Canada’s Extraordinary Canadians, edited by John Ralston Saul. The idea behind this series, as with Penguin Lives, is to select journalists and literary figures, rather than academic experts, to deal with the various subjects — the better to obtain livelier, more personal, and perhaps more relevant historical portraits.

Five entries in the series, each about 200 pages in length and each admiring of its subject, appeared in 2008: Lester B. Pearson, by journalist Andrew Cohen; Emily Carr, by novelist Lewis DeSoto; Big Bear, by novelist Rudy Wiebe; Lord Beaverbrook, by novelist David Adams Richards; and Nellie McClung, by biographer Charlotte Gray. Four others have just been added: Adrienne Clarkson’s Norman Bethune, historian Margaret MacMillan’s Stephen Leacock, novelist M. G. Vassanji’s Mordecai Richler, and novelist Nino Ricci’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau. In the coming months, Penguin will publish biographies of Glenn Gould (by cultural commentator Mark Kingwell), René Lévesque (novelist and translator Daniel Poliquin), Lucy Maud Montgomery (novelist Jane Urquhart), Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin (John Ralston Saul), Marshall McLuhan (novelist Douglas Coupland), Tommy Douglas (fiction writer Vincent Lam), Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont (novelist Joseph Boyden), and Wilfrid Laurier (journalist André Pratte).

The concept of the series is a good one, especially the emphasis on brevity. But the larger question is Saul’s choice of extraordinary Canadians, a choice that is part of his ongoing campaign to shape our notions of Canadian history and identity. He has pursued this mission through such forums as the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, of which he and Adrienne Clarkson are co-chairs. Most of all, he has pursued it through his own writings, notably his 2008 book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada. In that book, he argues that Canada is a “Métis nation,” based on the early mixture of French and Aboriginal civilizations. “The central inspiration of our country is aboriginal,” he writes. “How we imagine ourselves, how we govern, how we live together, how we treat one another when we are not being stupid is deeply aboriginal.”

Viewed in this light, Saul’s choices are remarkable for how far he deviates from his thesis — a deviation that is certainly not accidental. “These are not randomly chosen great figures,” he informs the reader in the introduction to each entry. “Together they produce a grand sweep of the creation of modern Canada, from our first steps as a democracy in 1848 to our questioning of modernity late in the twentieth century.” The contributions of his chosen extraordinary Canadians from this period onward, he states, are “the building blocks of our society.”

Saul thus writes off 240 years of Canadian history prior to LaFontaine and Baldwin, the 240 years in which the Métis nation was founded, in which it flourished, and in which it faded into history. There is no entry on Samuel de Champlain, arguably the most influential figure in Canadian history, nor on the great fur traders and explorers of New France, such as Joliet and La Salle, who embodied the Métis nation if anyone did. They all had the misfortune of being born well before 1848 and of not being “modern.”

If the Canada in this series is not Métis nation, what is it? Call it Canada, liberal Protestant nation. The pedigree is clear. Lord Beaverbrook was the son of a Presbyterian minister. So was Norman Bethune. Lester Pearson was the son and grandson of Methodist ministers. Stephen Leacock was the grandson of an Anglican minister. Nellie McClung was steeped in her childhood religion, which she never abandoned. “She inherited her father’s Methodism,” Gray writes, “which allowed her to believe that a benevolent deity was looking out for her interests and that a dynamic faith could change society.” As an adult, she taught Sunday school, preached the social gospel of forward-looking Protestantism, and used the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union as a vehicle for her reforms. Emily Carr’s father was a pious Presbyterian who insisted on family prayers every weekday, Bible readings, and Sunday school classes.

Of course, three heroes whose biographies have been completed were definitely not Protestants: Pierre Trudeau, Mordecai Richler, and Big Bear, the nineteenth-century Cree chief. Trudeau biographer Ricci concedes that his subject was a “staunch Catholic,” but reminds us that Trudeau only became the Trudeau we know after he had adopted “personalism,” a postwar social philosophy articulated by French thinker Emmanuel Mounier, and a creed more Protestant than Catholic in its emphasis on the individual. “Implicit in the philosophy,” Ricci writes, “was an almost Protestant notion of personal conscience that would serve as a bulwark for Trudeau in his battles with the priest-based Catholicism of Quebec.”

Rudy Wiebe, author of the 1973 novel The Temptations of Big Bear, makes the latter figure an honorary Protestant as well, giving Big Bear’s native “spirituality” what sounds like a Mennonite baptism. “O Great Spirit, pity us, O Only One, hear us,” Wiebe has Big Bear praying; the words, not in quotation marks in the text, appear to be Wiebe’s own. “O Great Spirit, grant wisdom,” he has Big Bear saying on another occasion. “O Great One, O Only One, have mercy.” Wiebe quotes an Indian commissioner attributing to Big Bear a good, sound Protestant work ethic as well: “He is a very independent character, self-reliant, and appears to know how to make his own living without begging from the government.” In his courtroom speech, after Riel’s rebellion, Big Bear proclaims, “I always believed that by being the friend of the white man, I and my people would be helped by those who had wealth. I always thought it paid to do all the good I could.” That last sentence, in particular, has an authentic Methodist ring.

Whether these Protestant subjects retained their childhood religious affiliations (as in the case of McClung), discreetly abandoned them (as in the case of Pearson), or fiercely rejected them (as in the case of Bethune), the do-gooder, liberal aspect of the religion, the “Christ was a true democrat” belief of McClung, remained. The most striking instance of this comes from the life of Bethune. Referring to Protestant evangelicals like his father, the Communist Bethune remarked, “Their slogan was ‘The world for Christ in one generation’ and this is my slogan, whether people like it or not.”

Due in part to his thorny personality, Bethune endured his share of opposition and hardship, but he found success to be his birthright, first as an eminent surgeon in Montreal, and latterly as a medical officer in Mao Zedong’s army. “He was welcomed and given the keys to the kingdom, a freedom offered only to the top echelon of the party,” Clarkson writes of Bethune’s relationship to the Red Army. “He could do no wrong.” In Bethune’s youth, sending missionaries to China had been an obsession of Canadian Protestant churches; in his own person, Bethune proved to be the ultimate Chinese missionary.

Leacock’s politics were very different from Bethune’s — he was a “pink Tory,” according to MacMillan — but he adopted the same progressive outlook. Leacock, whose career as a humorist was hugely successful, believed that the human race was gradually improving, including in the quality of its humour. He believed that the old, cruel slip-on-a-banana-peel type of humour was giving way. “It runs counter to other instincts,” he wrote, “those of affection, pity, unselfishness, upon which the progressive development of the race has largely depended.” The shade of Leacock’s Anglican minister grandfather doubtless smiled on this evocation of a gentler humour, particularly the “pity” and “unselfishness” part.

Even Big Bear’s non-dogmatic connection to the Great Spirit seems to have stood him in better stead than Louis Riel’s baroque Catholic visions. A prosperous career was not in the cards for any nineteenth-century Cree chief, but at least Big Bear, in Wiebe’s account, had some success in public relations — “Big Bear found that he could speak to ordinary Whites through their newspapers,” he writes — and, unlike Riel, Big Bear avoided confrontation. He “was a devastating warrior who also had the courage to stop killing,” Wiebe concludes, with a touch of Mennonite theology in the wording. It is doubtful Big Bear would have put it quite that way.

No one, of course, not even Lester B. Pearson, can completely levitate through life. Often it is the near and dear of the levitating one who show signs of being footsore, like Pearson’s wife, Maryon, whom Cohen describes as sparing no one “her withering judgements”; or Nellie McClung’s husband, who endured bouts of depression. “Just call me Mr. Nellie McClung; I don’t mind,” he told people, with no apparent resentment. Saddest of all is the fate of Leacock’s only child, young Stephen, who ended his days as a town drunk in Orillia. The impression most of these biographies convey, however, is that the lives of their subjects were indeed successes, and they were successes in part because they became part of a progressive historical movement. Their Protestantism — overt or, in Big Bear’s case, imputed — morphed into a spiritual imperative, minus the threat of hell, to improve society.

This moving up through progressive stages of history is not an “aboriginal value,” but it is an imperative recognized by certain forms of liberal Christianity. These Canadians are extraordinary because they all helped push us in the direction we think we want to go. “I have often noticed a sort of robust self-assurance exuded by women I’ve met here,” writes the British-born Gray, “and now I realize that Nellie has had a lot to do with this trait.” Cohen says of his hero: “Today the government of the Right Honourable Lester B. Pearson looks surprisingly experimental and singularly transformative. It was the making of a compassionate, progressive bilingual country. A modern Canada.”

The good news continues. “The Emily Carrs of today have cell phones and computers,” writes DeSoto. “Some of them become celebrities who represent Canada in international exhibitions like the Venice Biennale, give interviews to glossy magazines, command high prices for their work, set trends, and define styles. That they are able to do so, women as well as men, in a way that Emily Carr never dreamed of is due in no small part to the example of her courage and determination to be an artist.” Even Big Bear turns out to be a winner of sorts. According to Wiebe, Riel came to Big Bear for help with his idea for a Métis-Indian coalition to invade Canada — a project doomed by history, if ever there was one — and Big Bear replied, “Let’s fight the Queen with her law, not with guns.” It’s as if Big Bear saw, in a mystic vision, briefcases full of photocopied documents, far more deadly than Winchester rifles in the hands of a good land claims lawyer.

Then we come to Lord Beaverbrook, the great press baron from New Brunswick, and Winston Churchill’s most valuable cabinet minister as head of war production and supply during World War II. “He was by far the most influential and important Canadian of the twentieth century and, arguably, could be credited with almost single-handedly saving Western civilization,” writes his fellow product of the Miramichi David Adams Richards. Surely here is the man on the right side of history, a builder par excellence of modern Canada.

Except, according to Richards, William Maxwell Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook, was a bad boy, a “scallywag.” His hero was John Calvin, the antithesis of liberal Protestantism, with his iron belief in predestination and his virtual certainty that most people born on this earth are numbered among the reprobate before they ever draw breath. Beaverbrook seems not to have adhered to any form of Christianity in later life, but Calvin shadowed him the way the Methodist belief that it pays to do good stuck to people like McClung and Lester Pearson.

Success came to Beaverbrook in a way that it came to very few Canadians, but success for such a man was always a bitter fruit. “From the age of twelve on, he seems to have been so much on his own that it makes me sad when I think of it,” writes Richards. He was always the smartest man in the room when it came to money, but according to Richards he had an “almost pathological bent for trouble,” especially with his lifelong indulgence in pranks. If he were a boy today, Richards suggests, he “would have been put on medication.”

Richards, whose novels are, along with Atwood’s, the most powerful evocations of betrayal and isolation in our literature, cannot help casting this restless man as an outsider, vulnerable to treachery. “I came from that… backward province too,” Richards writes of New Brunswick. “I took in the same offices of adventure, and displeased the same kinds of people, and made my way in a world that was as often as closed toward me as his was toward him.” When Beaverbrook transferred his theatre of operations to Great Britain, he was “stabbed in the back” once again — this time not by fellow Canadians, but by “the crème de la crème of British society.” Richards casts his subject as a tragic figure, a self-destructive eccentric rather than a pioneer on the happy highway of progress.

The Canadian past is full of this kind of narrative, of cranks and gallant losers and people who took the wrong turn in history, as well as the narrative of admirable reformers and spiritually uplifting role models who maintain that “Christ was a true democrat.” Perhaps Penguin Canada should expand the series to include Disappointed Extraordinary Canadians — people like the nineteenth-century bishop Ignace Bourget, a commanding figure whose extreme fealty to the Pope and to a “priest-based Catholicism in Quebec” is clearly not regarded by Saul as one of the “building blocks of our society.” Similarly, the once world-renowned Canadian writer Sir Charles G. D. Roberts, the “father of Canadian literature,” still calls for attention despite his unrelentingly tragic animal stories, a “building block” the modern Canadian literati can do without. Nor should we forget the brilliant Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, head of the Hospital for the Insane in London, Ontario, and a fanatical devotee of the poet Walt Whitman — he hosted Whitman at his Ontario home for four months. Bucke coined the term “cosmic consciousness” and devoted his life to the insuperable task of converting Canadians to this mystical state of awareness.

If the series doesn’t allow for these different kinds of narratives in the future, if we do not see more portraits of people whose lives went against the grain, it will be a rather boring promenade of extraordinary Canadians.

Philip Marchand