The Idea of Canada – a review

David Johnston, The Idea of Canada, Letters to a Nation (Penguin 2016).

A challenging topic is addressed in an interesting and highly readable style. The contents certainly justify the title, which should be required reading for all foreign diplomats posted to Canada, and probably all Canadian officials posted abroad. Although not written as a history of Canada, it is one, with morsels of the historical record in each chapter. Each is written as a letter to some Canadian or foreigner past or present who has excelled in some manner. Many could be expanded into a chapter for understanding some aspect of Canada.
The Idea of Canada could also be used in school and university classrooms for the presentation and discussion of Canadian history, a subject woefully under-taught at the moment, judging by what students today seem to know about their country. It would also require that teachers having a better knowledge of Canada, which I fear may often also be missing. My understanding of the country is vastly improved by this book. Especially how the parts fit together and how values have emerged.

The author’s hero is Samuel de Champlain (1574 – 1636), one of whose skills was to learn about coping with all aspects of the environment, from those already living in what was to become Canada. (Note, these natives were themselves immigrants from earlier years as humans moved out of the African continent. All Canadians are immigrants of some generation. I am one from 1956). As an individual, Champlain achieved on land and sea with the limited technology available, at least by today’s standards, what NASA is achieving in exploring space supported by vast amounts of public funding.

Foremost in David Johnston’s life is his family, especially six womenfolk and twelve grandchildren, who continue to educate him. Through their lives and work they provide linkages to various aspects of Canada, especially those related to current conditions.

In the letters the author has written to a wide variety of persons, the combination of people, places, values, and events become both summarized  and intertwined, providing material for understanding Canada’s history. Few are able to take these pieces and fit them together so that the jigsaw becomes a comprehensible picture of a society, and what can be viewed as a nation. The author has done this.

The sections of the book are entitled What Shapes Me, What Consumes Me, and What Inspires Me. Summarized in each section are topics such as education, caring, innovation, philanthropy, volunteerism, and support for families and children. Many of these are in letters written to Canadians who have won awards in one of these areas.

Readers will have their own “aha” moments. One of mine was p.179  “…I’m a regular churchgoer, I tend not to get caught up in the doctrinal aspects of religion. To me church is a way to connect with friends and neighbours to get a sense of the views of others…..” (Though both my grandparents were vicars, I am not a regular churchgoer, but I understand how the various aspects of religion may satisfy individuals and contribute to societal wellbeing, as does club membership).

It would be easy to extend this review, but I recommend that readers read the book themselves, find out what interests them, and use it for discussion purposes. Each chapter is short, well written, understandable and thought provoking….easy to pick up and put down.

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