Value history, author tells convocation audience

Twenty-nine years ago Oxford-educated Charlotte Gray married a Canadian and moved to Ottawa. Since then, the young woman who knew nothing about her adopted land has become a passionate chronicler of its past. Who could be surprised when she urged graduating students at convocation to "value our history and accept that wherever we come from we are all part of it?"

Left: Charlotte Gray and York Chancellor Peter deCarteret Cory

"As Canadians we have done a terrible job at celebrating and marketing our history," Gray told law and business graduands after receiving an honorary doctor of laws from York on Oct. 21. "We’re too diffident. We’re worried it isn’t as interesting or exciting as the history of other countries."

"But," continued the award-winning biographer, "we in Canada have a long history that starts with the arrival of the first Aboriginal Peoples, includes the establishment of modern Canada on the foundation of peace, order and good government and will not end with the political turmoil of today. It is," she emphasized, "our history that makes us unique in a world rapidly being homogenized by the likes of Starbucks, The Gap and ‘The Sopranos’. It’s our history that defines us."

She should know. Gray has written biographies of Isabel Mackenzie King, mother of Canada’s longest-serving prime minister; pioneer sisters Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill; native poet Pauline Johnson; and Alexander Graham Bell and is working on another about women’s rights crusader Nellie McClung. "I’ve had a wonderful time plunging into these lives," said Gray, who also wrote The Museum Called Canada: 25 Rooms Of Wonder.

A member of the Order of Canada, Gray has won numerous awards, including the Pierre Berton Prize for distinguished achievement in popularizing and promoting Canadian history. Her first book, Mrs. King: The Life and Times of Isabel Mackenzie King, was nominated for a Governor General’s literary award and she has since won the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction and the Canadian Authors Association/Birks Foundation Award for Non-fiction, the Canadian Booksellers Association Libris Award for Non-fiction, and the Floyd S. Chalmers Award in Ontario History. In 2003, she was awarded the UBC Medal for Biography. She has contributed to many of Canada’s major magazines and newspapers, and won several major magazine awards.

"The past helps us understand how we got here and who we are," said Gray. "The richness of Canadian history comes from the extraordinary diversity of our stories. We are losing our history and our sense of who we are because too many of us don’t understand that in the deepest sense history is us.

"As graduates of York, you are superbly equipped to start writing the next chapter of your lives. You will weave your thread into the national fabric and shape our future which, in time, will become our history. If you know your roots," she said, "you’ll find it easier to grow. That’s true for you as individuals and for our country."

To see archived Web casts of the October 2007 convocation ceremonies, visit the Convocation at York Web site.