Book Review: “Extraordinary Canadians,” by Peter Mansbridge
Published by Simon & Schuster, 290 pp. $36.99
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
As we turn the page on what has no doubt been an extraordinarily difficult year for a great many people in this country, Canadians are looking ahead to 2021 with a renewed sense of hope that the ordeal of the last several months may be finally coming to an end. To start the first year of a new decade off on an optimistic note, this review will focus on a recently published book that provides the stories of seventeen remarkable lives which will serve as a source of inspiration and pride for all of us. In his aptly-titled new work Extraordinary Canadians, author Peter Mansbridge chronicles the struggles and triumphs of a diverse group of men and women, drawn from every region of the country, who each in their own distinctive way is helping to make an important different in the lives of their fellow citizens.
The author’s name and face is one that will be instantly recognizable to just about everyone in this country. As a veteran television journalist, he spent nearly 50 years reporting on thousands of important news stories impacting the lives of Canadians. He’s also no stranger to military life: his father was a decorated Royal Air Force officer during the Second World War, and Peter Mansbridge himself served as a young man in the Royal Canadian Navy as a member of the last class to train at HMCS Venture in the mid-1960’s.
After his stint in the service Mansbridge worked for a time at the airport in the northern Manitoba community of Churchill, where his distinctive voice was discovered by a producer from the local CBC radio station. Recruited initially to host a late-night music program, a couple of years later Mansbridge moved to Winnipeg to take on a new assignment as a reporter. This marked the beginning of a career that would eventually take him to the top of the broadcasting field and make him one of the best-known and most respected media figures in Canada before he signed off from the airwaves for the last time on Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017.
At first glance, the people whose stories are told in Extraordinary Canadians would actually appear to be pretty ordinary. Within these pages, there are no wealthy titans of industry or high-powered political figures; no superstar athletes or jet-setting entertainment personalities. Among the seven men and ten women who are profiled, you’ll find a number who are native-born Canadians, but also others who chose to make this country their home after arriving here from disparate corners of the world including Iran, South Africa, and India. A couple are transplanted Americans who found their true calling north of the 49th parallel. All trace their origins to humble roots, and through hard work and sacrifice were able to obtain an education and launch successful careers. At one time or another in their lives, just about all had to overcome personal setbacks and rise above adversity on the road to realizing their dreams.
The cast of characters includes some who know what it is like to face real danger as part of their calling in life. A case in point is Levon Johnson, a pseudonym for a Warrant Officer serving with JTF 2 who is a veteran of three tours in Afghanistan. Johnson describes one mission in the fall of 2008, where his team was ordered to take out a high-level meeting of Taliban bomb makers. Unlike previous operations which had taken place mainly in or around Kandahar, this sortie required the troopers to hike out to a remote farmhouse in the Afghan countryside under the cover of darkness.
After engaging the enemy in an intense firefight the Canadians were successful, at a cost of just one friendly casualty: Angus, a Belgian Maltiois trained by the U.S. special forces. The loss of the dog was deeply upsetting to the commandos, but nonetheless, they had managed to get the job done, and land one more blow in the ongoing fight against the Taliban.
Janice Eisenhauer is another Canadian who has sought to make a different in the lives of the people of Afghanistan, albeit in a very different way than Warrant Officer Johnson. Having left a successful but unrewarding career in banking to follow her passion for international development work, Eisenhauer’s personal epiphany came in 1997, when she read a magazine article describing the miserable lives Afghan women led under the thumb of their Taliban masters. Resolving to make a difference, she recruited the help of a small group of colleagues, and they began to look for opportunities to do something, and explore ways to raise money to support their efforts. After having their initial inquiries ignored by a variety of prospective benefactors, in 1999 Eisenhauer and her compatriots were finally successful in landing a small grant that got them started on their way.
It was out of these origins that the Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan was born. Over the next twenty years, the organization would go on to raise over $10 million to support its activities, money that would enable 10,000 teachers to be trained, facilities in over 250 schools to be upgraded, and 3,000 Afghan women to learn to read and write. Eisehhauer and her colleagues travelled to Afghanistan on several occasions, where at times they faced dangers that were every bit as real as those that stalked Levon Johnson and his JTF 2 comrades. But she persevered in her efforts, and as a result, created new opportunities and brought renewed hope to countless Afghan women.
Other Canadians whose stories grace these pages made their mark by fighting battles of a different kind on the home front. Moses Li, an emergency room nurse at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, is a front-line soldier in the war against substance abuse and COVID-19. On the other side of the country, Bill Campbell has been waging an ongoing struggle to combat poverty and homelessness in PEI. Halfway between the two, Pat Atkinson devoted 25 years of her life to service as an elected official and cabinet minister in Saskatchewan, working tirelessly to deal with the perilous state of the province’s finances that persisted throughout much of the 1990’s.
For some of these extraordinary Canadians, it took an unexpected traumatic event to help them find their true mission in life. Robb Nash was a typical carefree teenager in Manitoba until the fateful day in 1996 when a devastating car accident left him severely injured. Despondent to the point of being suicidal, he found solace in music, starting a band and using his performances to tell his story to others. Eventually, he realized that he could use his performances to speak directly to other youth suffering from depression and mental illness, and help them deal with the many and varied troubles they were facing in their lives.
A powerful turning point came when, after one of his shows, a young girl approached Nash and handed him a piece of paper, saying she didn’t need it any more. It turned out to be a suicide note; the girl had been planning to kill herself that weekend. Since that time, Nash has collected more than 900 other similar notes; today, his heavily tattooed arms are festooned with the names of other kids he figures he has saved from similar fate.
Pat Danforth had a similar experience when, on an outing with friends to celebrate her 21st birthday, their car spun out of control, leaving her with multiple injuries that included a broken back. Confined to a wheelchair, she recalls that, “Because of my disability, I became a whole new person.” After enrolling at the University of Calgary, she soon discovered that students with disabilities regularly faced an array of barriers that their able-bodied peers did not. She went on to become a passionate advocate for the rights of other Canadians suffering from a similar predicament, and in the mid-1970’s was one of the founders of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.
Some of the stories in this book are truly heartrending. For much of her childhood, Jessica Grossman was forced to endure an almost unremitting ordeal of pain caused by Crohn’s disease. Innumerable hospital stays, doctors’ consultations, and medical tests attempted to find an effective treatment, all to no avail. At the age of 13, she made a life-changing decision when she decided to consent to a surgeon’s recommendation that she undergo a major procedure which would remove several feet of her intestines. The surgery offered the promise of alleviating her pain, but she would be obliged to wear an ostomy bag for the rest of her life.
The procedure proved to be successful, and for the first time in her life, Grossman was not only pain free, but could also eat whatever she wanted, and attend school on a regular basis. The adjustment to her new lifestyle wasn’t always easy, but Grossman persevered and successfully adapted. Today, she’s an accomplished actor and model, a university graduate, and happily married and residing in Toronto. She’s also the founder of a popular website https://uncoverostomy.org/ which over the past ten years has provided valuable advice regarding living with ostomy to over 500,000 viewers.
Extraordinary Canadians also lays bare the efforts some of these people have made to combat the prejudices and stereotypes that unfortunately seem to remain embedded in our collective psyche. Growing up in a small town in northern British Columbia, Cindy Blackstock remembers being grudgingly served by the staff of the local diner when she visited with her father, a member of Gitxsan First Nations. As a young resident surgeon Nadine Caron, a member of the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nations, had a similar experience. She remembers the disgust she felt when a more senior colleague casually remarked one day that if he never operated on another Indian, it would be too soon.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Susan Rose describes the resentment and hostility she encountered as an openly gay teacher in Newfoundland. Parents told her she was unfit to be teaching their children. Both her principal and her union were seemingly indifferent to the harassment she regularly suffered at the hands of both her colleagues and her students. When at one point she took her concerns directly to the provincial Minister of Education, he threatened to fire her if she made an issue of it.
For all three women, the various forms of discrimination they ran up against served as a call to arms. Blackstone became an activist for child welfare and is now the Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. Caron went on to a distinguished career in medicine, and in 2009 received an honourary doctorate from Simon Fraser University, the same institution where she had earned her undergraduate degree. After abandoning her teaching career in sheer frustration in 2006, Rose embarked upon a crusade to advocate for the rights of the LGBTQ+ population. In 2020, she was honoured with the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador in recognition of her efforts in this regard.
For some who came to this country in search of new opportunities, Canada proved to be the place where they were able to realize their dreams. After graduating from college in Boston in 1990 Matt Devlin desperately wanted to become a sportscaster, but he knew he faced long odds in trying to start a career in the highly competitive field. After nearly twenty years of perfecting his technique, his big break came in 2008, when he received an offer to become the play-by-play broadcaster for the Toronto Raptors. He describes the pride he felt in 2018, when he and his wife and their three children became Canadian citizens. A year later, he basked in the thrill of a lifetime, when his beloved Raptors clinched the NBA championship for the first time in the franchise’s history.
Manny Kohli is another newcomer to Canada who managed to find success and happiness in his adopted country. Raised in Punjab, he made his first visit to Canada as a teenager in the spring of 1982. Landing at Mirabel Airport outside Montreal, he was astonished by the cold, and by something he had never seen before; seemingly endless acres of snow. Though his first few months in Canada were unhappy, he returned to Montreal a few years later with his new wife, a Canadian who he had married while visiting the UK. In 1985, he and his father embarked on their first business venture, an electronics store in downtown Montreal which eventually succeeded beyond all expectations.
While attending a wedding in Winnipeg in 2000, Khouli met a fellow Montrealer who was running a business producing handbags made of animal-free and recycled products. It wasn’t long before the two became partners in a venture that allowed Khouli to pursue his lifelong interest in fashion. A few years later, their company was clobbered by the recession that followed in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, and Khouli’s partner got cold feet. Khouli obliged by buying him out, and immediately began implementing a turnaround plan that worked like a charm. Over the next few years the company introduced a wide variety of new products, sales took off, and the payroll went from 18 employees to over 200.
Other new Canadians took advantage of the opportunity to give back to the country that enabled them to build new lives for themselves. Gina Cody and her family fled to Canada in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution that engulfed Iran in the late 1970’s. She enrolled at Montreal’s Concordia University, when she earned a master’s degree in engineering, married a fellow student, and started work on a Ph.D., which she eventually finished in 1989. With the encouragement of one of her professors, she accepted a job with the Government of Ontario, and a short time later an offer to join a small engineering company came along.
Over the years that followed, Cody worked her way up the ranks, gaining valuable experience in a variety of progressively senior roles, and eventually becoming owner of the company. By 2016, she had reached a point in her career where she was ready to sell her business and retire. Ever since arriving in Canada nearly 40 years previously Cody had always felt a strong attachment to Concordia, and she wanted to do something that would give other students the same kinds of educational opportunities that she herself had benefited from. Her moment came in 2018, when she made a landmark $15 million gift to Concordia, where her name now graces the institution’s engineering and computer science school. In recognition of her career accomplishments, on New Year’s Day Cody was appointed as a member of the Order of Canada.
For Reuven Bulka, the opportunity to repay his adopted homeland took a different form. The son of parents who had fled Europe during the Holocaust, Bulka was raised in New York City where, at the age of 22, he completed his rabbinical studies. That same year, he was married to Naomi, a Montreal schoolteacher who he had met through her relatives in New York. It was 1967 and the newly married couple were seeking to get established, but the rabbi’s youth and lack of experience made it difficult to find suitable employment in his chosen field.
As luck would have it, Bulka was invited to interview for a position at a synagogue in Ottawa. He must have impressed the hiring committee, for shortly after the meeting he was offered the job, which he eagerly accepted. After many years of service, in 1985 he became a Canadian citizen, and in 1991, one of the key turning points of his career came, when he was invited by the Royal Canadian Legion to offer benediction at the annual Remembrance Day Ceremony. Deeply honoured, Bulka said yes immediately, and he has proudly participated in the annual ceremonies every year since that time.
And finally, for some of these remarkable Canadians, achievement and satisfaction were found by pursuing their passion for causes they held dear. As a young child, South African-born Frances Wright arrived in Calgary with her family in the early 1950’s to begin a new life. Growing up, she developed a keen interest in politics, and made several valiant but unsuccessful attempts to run for elected office. Along the way, she became fascinated by the story of the “Famous Five” – Nellie McClung, Emily Murphy, Louise McKinney, Henrietta Muir Edwards, and Irene Parlby – whose efforts were instrumental in obtaining the right to vote for Canadian women in 1929. The leadership shown by these women had wrought a pivotal change in the Canadian political landscape, but sadly, towards the end of the 20th century it appeared that the memory of their efforts had almost vanished from the public conscience.
In 1995, Wright and her friend Nancy Millar decided that something needed to be done to commemorate the legacy of the Famous Five before the decade was out. Setting October 1999 as their target date, the dynamic duo mobilized volunteers and raised the funds needed to commission a monument that would immortalize their heroines. Their efforts paid off, and sure enough, on October 18, 1999, the group proudly unveiled their monument in Calgary’s Olympic Plaza. Exactly one year later, they were successful in unveiling a second similar monument on Parliament Hill, which was accepted on behalf of the Government of Canada by Minister Alfonso Gagliano.
Meanwhile, Hope Swinimer channelled similar boundless energy into serving a different type of cause. Growing up in a small village on the Nova Scotia coast, she had lifelong interest in nature. After initial training as an accountant followed by a period of time working for a transportation company, she landed an administrative job at the Dartmouth Veterinary Hospital. She was particularly inspired by veterinarians who volunteered their time to attend to injured animals brought in from the wild, and frequently offered her own services to assist.
Eventually, Swinimer received her certification from the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Association, and started taking injured animals home to care for them. By 1997, she decided she needed a facility of her own, and soon thereafter established the Eastern Shore Wildlife Rehabilitation and Rescue Centre in the coastal town of Seaforth, Nova Scotia. Since that time, she’s provided care to over 40,000 injured or orphaned animals representing 250 different species. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing – she’s had periodic run-ins with the province’s Department of Natural Resources over the years – but nonetheless Swinimer has found immense happiness and fulfilment by following what she knows to be her true calling in life.
If there is any larger overall theme that resonates throughout this book, I would suggest it would probably be the notion that the potential for exceptional leadership is present within all of us. The life stories that appear within these pages are a compelling testimonial to what can be accomplished when ordinary people make an extraordinary commitment to accomplishing something that they believe is important. None of these people started out with any special advantages in life, but all of them were able to reach for and achieve great things through their own strength of character, and qualities such as courage, imagination, perseverance, and resourcefulness.
Truly, the lives and accomplishments of the seventeen Canadians you’ll meet in this book reflect the qualities of “Truth, Duty, Valour” in the very best sense of the word. In their own distinctive ways, each of these people have led lives that have been remarkable, rendered service to our country that has been exemplary, and will leave behind them personal legacies that will live on as a source of inspiration for future generations of Canadian leaders. For that reason alone, Extraordinary Canadians is a must-read, both for cadets now at the College, and for Ex-Cadets of all generations.