Source: Kingston Whig-Standard
Author: Wayne Grady
The Order was established by then governor general Roland Michener in 1967, two years after then prime minister Lester Pearson gave us the Canadian flag. Michener was the first recipient of the Order, followed later that year by 73 others, among them three writers: Gabrielle Roy, F.R. Scott and Hugh MacLennan.
To celebrate the anniversary, Kingston writer Larry Scanlan was commissioned to write They Desire A Better Country: The Order of Canada in 50 Stories. The title is the translation of the Order’s motto, Desiderantes Meliorem Patriam, which appears on those little, snowflake-shaped pins that recipients proudly wear on their lapels when attending anything that can be called an occasion.
To find the right author for the book, a committee appointed by Governor General David Johnston asked three writers to submit a 750-word essay on Jean Beliveau.
“I may have had an advantage here,” Larry says modestly, “in that I’ve written about hockey and I do so admire Beliveau, not just for his prowess on the ice but for his generosity. He was the kind of man who, when asked by the father of a young cancer patient for a signed photograph, would go quietly to the hospital to visit the child.”
Larry was an obvious choice for another reason. One of the criteria for receiving the Order of Canada, besides excellence in a particular field of endeavour, is service to the community, the kind of selfless dedication to others that goes beyond individual accomplishment. In 2010, Larry wrote A Year of Living Generously, in which he examined the role of volunteering and philanthropy in society — he himself worked in places like Africa, New Orleans and South America in order to experience and assess the impact of generosity not only on the community but also on individual volunteers.
The 50 recipients whose stories appear in the book, chosen from the nearly 7,000 people who have received the Order since its inception, represent a wide variety of fields, and exhibit a degree of generosity and commitment that sets them apart. They include public figures (Louise Arbour, Mary Boyd and well-known Kingstonian Alia Hogben), politicians (Joey Smallwood), entertainers (Susan Aglukark, Celine Dion, Oscar Peterson), artists (Yousuf Karsh, Lawren Harris, Kenojuak Ashevak), sports figures (Jean Beliveau, Hayley Wickenheiser, Clara Hughes), entrepreneurs (Jeffrey Skoll, Lise Watier), scientists (David Schindler, Ian Stirling). I’m cherry-picking names here; the range and depth of the stories are as wide and deep as Canadian society itself. Expect the expected as well as the unexpected.
“I was rubbing shoulders with greatness,” says Larry.
Forty of those profiled in the book are living, and Larry contacted many of them while writing their stories.
“I was struck over and over again,” he says, “by the difference these people have made, by their refusal to dream small, by their energy and passion.”
Hogben is a prime example of someone whose energy and passion have made a difference to the quality of life of many Canadians. Born in Burma, raised in India, she came to Canada in 1937 as the daughter of the Indian High Commissioner. She has since been director of the Canadian March of Dimes, worked for the Children’s Aid Society, and then became head of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, which, Larry writes, “seeks to empower Muslim women in Canadian society and to promote an interpretation of Islam that is humane, egalitarian and equity driven.”
American politics being what it is these days, one can imagine how crucial an organization like the CCMW has become.
“We are overwhelmed by the worldwide tidal wave of literalism, patriarchy, and conservative religious interpretations” that deny social justice, says Alia. “To be passive — or worse — silent, is not an alternative.”
Each of the recipients profiled exhibit this kind of social conscience. Montreal-born software engineer Skoll, for example, who invented eBay, used his fortune to start a film company devoted to producing films that “promote progressive social values.” His company has given us such films as An Inconvenient Truth and Fast Food Nation.
Author Lawrence Hill, whose novels The Book of Negroes and The Immigrant are international bestsellers, has established the Aminita Fund, which supports programs for girls and women in Africa and assists with efforts to bring refugees to Canada.
Larry’s stories bring out not only the generosity and talent of his subjects, but also what he calls their “feistiness.” He cites Hughes, who went from being a “wild child” to winning six Olympic medals in two sports, and Gilles Kegle, who rose from living rough on the street to becoming “the Mother Teresa of Quebec City.” Environmental scientist Schindler likened dealing with politicians to “playing chess with gorillas.”
Each of these 50 people are great Canadians, truly representative of the many who have received the Order in the past 50 years, and They Desire A Better Country is consequently a celebratory and inspiring book.
Wayne Grady, who has been working on his second novel, Up from Freedom, is returning to Kingston this month from Mexico, manuscript in hand.