What Might Have Been

By Brian Brennan

The recent headlines in Canadian newspapers have been all about things that didn’t happen. In Toronto, the headlines have been about a mayor who didn’t step aside or undertake to seek help after admitting he’d smoked crack cocaine while “in a drunken stupor.” In Ottawa, they’ve been about three government appointees to the Canadian Senate who didn’t do the honourable thing and resign after auditors found they had fiddled their expenses. (The miscreants have since been expelled.) In Calgary, they’ve been about an Olympic-ranked Canadian speed skater who failed to win a medal in a routine World Cup race.

What these headline writers need to do is take a leaf out of the book of Ken McGoogan, a Toronto author who – far from focussing on things that haven’t happened – delights in celebrating the achievements of Canadians who have actually made things happen.

His book is called 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. He groups his subjects under such headings as activists, visionaries, humanitarians, artists, performers, athletes and scientists. The featured activists include:

F&O McGoodan book

  • Tommy Douglas – A socialist politician who proved that universal medicare could work in Canada and serve as a model for national health systems in other parts of the world.
  • John Kenneth Galbraith – A liberal economist who wrote books about market deregulation and corporate greed, and served as economic adviser to three American presidents.
  • Louise Arbour – A lawyer and judge who served as chief prosecutor of the international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, responsible for bringing the likes of Jean Kambanda and Slobodan Milošević to justice.
  • Maude Barlow – An environmentalist who has written books warning of a global water crisis, and served as water adviser to the president of the United Nations General Assembly.

Other well-known individuals in the book include Alice Munro, Frank Gehry, Glenn Gould, James Cameron, Joni Mitchell, Oscar Peterson, Wayne Gretzky, Michael J. Fox, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Céline Dion, Margaret Atwood and Jane Jacobs. While I think it’s stretching things a bit to say that some of these people (e.g. Peterson, Dion and Gretzky) “changed” the world, as the book title says, it’s also fair to say that all have done Canada proud as performers on the world stage. Our best and brightest have been making their mark internationally for many years, and McGoogan’s book shows there’s plenty more (Naomi Klein, Irshad Manji, Craig Kielburger, Samantha Nutt) where the originals came from.

That’s why I sometimes tire of these current headlines accentuating the negative. Granted, there’s not much positive you can say about a mayor, Rob Ford, who refuses to acknowledge he has a substance abuse problem, or about a trio of senators, Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, who think they’re still entitled to their entitlements. But a speed skater who’s had a bad day? This merits front-page treatment? I’d prefer to read about Guy Laliberté, a former street musician who reinvented the circus and called it Cirque du Soleil.

Copyright © 2013 Brian Brennan

Further reading:
50 Canadians Who Changed the World, by Ken McGoogan (HarperCollins 2013)