It was ultimately her own self-respect that led Nadine Caron to act as she did. The young medic, a member of the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation, was taking a break in the surgery lounge of a Canadian hospital when an older doctor sat down at her table, exhausted after completing a lengthy surgery. “If I never operate on another Indian it will be too soon,” he announced.
He wasn't addressing anyone in particular - but Caron, a medical school graduate in final training to become a surgeon, couldn't let the remark pass. It wasn't the first time she had encountered a racist comment, but she was angered to hear it from a doctor. She spoke out: “If you don't want to operate on an Indian and get paid, then you certainly don't want to eat with an Indian for free.” And with that, she rose and walked with her tray to an empty table across the room. Others at her table followed, leaving the oending surgeon sitting alone.
It's an extraordinary moment in Peter Mansbridge's new book, Extraordinary Canadians. But it's only one of many to emerge in this remarkable collection of personal stories about Canadians, many of them unknown to the wider national community, who have helped make this country a better place for all. Indeed, the volume's reach even extends to startling revelations about a previously hush-hush commando operation in Afghanistan.
“We obviously wanted a book that would represent the country — geographically, genderwise, background-wise, culture-wise, profession-wise,” says Mansbridge, who retired in 2017 after 30 years as anchor of CBC television's The National. “And I was often finding that the most interesting interviews were with people I'd never heard of.”
Mansbridge and his co-author, former CBC producer Mark Bulgutch, wanted to be surprised as they scoured the country in search of 17 Canadians with incredible personal stories to tell. And surprised they were. One striking example was Caron, now a surgeon at Prince George Regional Hospital in Northern British Columbia, an associate professor of surgery in the University of British Columbia's faculty of medicine and an eloquent advocate for Indigenous health.
“When I chose my path, there was not a single Indigenous general surgeon in Canada,” she tells readers of the book. “That fact made my decision dierent, even groundbreaking, but with it came sharp reminders about the divide that still exists within our country.”
For Mansbridge this was exactly the kind of story he wanted to tell. And again, it made him feel glad to have undertaken this book and to have succeeded in delivering it to his publisher, Simon and Schuster, in time for release this autumn in the midst of a pandemic.
“It's been a difficult time for everyone,” the 72-year-old Mansbridge says from his home in Stratford, Ont. “So it's a time when we need to celebrate inspiring stories, and that's what these are. These are people who have sometimes faced enormous personal challenges, but were dedicated to facing these challenges head on. Yet, they're all very different ... all these extraordinary people who come from really dierent backgrounds and situations.”
Chapter after chapter shows what Mansbridge means.
Pat Danforth, left paraplegic at 21 after a devastating accident, has spent half a century advocating for the disabled.
Frances Wright, a tireless human rights campaigner, wins her battles to see five prominent Canadian women honoured on a $50 bill and to secure new wording for our national anthem.
Registered nurse Moses Li talks about working the front lines in emergency during the pandemic.
Robb Nash, once a troubled youth with suicidal thoughts after an accident left him with short-term memory loss, forms a band with a mission to help vulnerable students navigate their way through challenges in their own lives.
Actor and model Jessica Grossman, who underwent radical ostomy surgery to relieve her of the agonies of Crohn's disease, leads a happy productive life wearing a colostomy bag and offers reassuring words about it on her website.
And Matt Devlin, play-by-play man for the Toronto Raptors, helps calm a celebratory crowd in Nathan Phillips Square after a gunman begins shooting.
Mansbridge sees himself and Bulgutch as enablers who ultimately retreat into the background to allow these remarkable Canadians to take centre stage themselves. “We were able to draw on our strengths as interviewers, doing numerous interviews with each of these people and, after transcribing them, turning this body of information quite easily into a voice.”
One name - Levon Johnson - is pseudonymous because he's a warrant ocer with Task Force 2, a top-secret special operations branch of the Canadian Armed Forces. His story chronicles a tense battle in the Afghanistan desert.
“Little has been written about our missions, and I can assure you that no blockbuster movies have been made about us,” Johnson tells readers. “But ... I've been given the freedom to talk ... This is a story of how Canadian troops held Taliban leaders accountable for how they targeted our own in southern Afghanistan.”
Mansbridge believes people need to be more aware of the existence of a Canadian equivalent to Britain's SAS or America's SEALS.
“As a journalist I spent 20 years trying to get inside that commando unit. I knew it existed, and I knew it was very secretive. Britain and the United States - they're not shy about what their commando units do. But we are very shy. I've talked to former prime ministers who didn't know the details of missions these guys went on.” So how did this top-secret operation make the present book? “The argument I used was - look, this is part of our history ... we've been away from that war for 10 years and at some point we have to tell some of these stories.”
Mansbridge warns that all is not sweetness and light in the book. “Some stories underline that there are still serious issues in Canada that we are still trying to address.”
He cites Cindy Blackstock, a Gitxsan activist and a longtime champion of Indigenous children. And he returns to the example set by Caron. “That moment in her life where she's confronted with racism from a fellow doctor and the journey that both he and she went on before they met again - it signals what we need to do as a country. That requires more than just standing up in the House of Commons and apologizing.”