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A collage featuring a silhouette of an assaulter with a gun at Petawawa, Ont., a portrait of Cindy Blackstock; Robb Nash with a guitar showing tattooed names on his arms, and Gina Cody in a hard hat on top of a Toronto condo.

> The Big Read

Extraordinary Canadians

Peter Mansbridge and co-author Mark Bulgutch delve into the lives of 17 everyday heros who are shaping the future of the country. / BY Kim Honey / November 23rd, 2020


Famed CBC anchor and chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge has been asked several times by three different publishers to write his memoirs, but he always refuses.

“I’m not saying I won’t write one,” he says. “I’m saying this isn’t the time and I want to come up with a non-traditional way of telling my story.”

But when publisher Simon & Schuster asked Mansbridge to profile exceptional Canadians, he was immediately interested in the idea.

“People often ask me, ‘who’s your favourite interview?’ And I surprise them by saying it’s not some celebrity, it’s not some well-known person. I tend more to be fascinated by the people who don’t have a name because their stories are … less scripted,” he says in a recent interview from his home in Stratford, Ont., where he’s been giving speeches via Zoom and producing a daily podcast called The Bridge during the COVID-19 pandemic. “You do the celebrities and the big names and they tend to be pretty predictable.”

For the record, Mansbridge, 73, estimates he’s done close to 20,000 interviews since he started his career with the CBC in Churchill, Man, in 1968. He retired in 2017 after 30 years as chief correspondent and anchor for The National. Over the years he’s covered 13 Olympic Games, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the war in Afghanistan, every Royal Visit by the Queen since 1970 and every federal election since 1972. Before the pandemic, he was traveling the world to produce two documentaries a year for CBC.

When the publisher called, Mansbridge was in Europe working on the 2019 doc The Future of War, so he brought on his friend, long-time CBC producer Mark Bulgutch, to co-author the book.

The result is Extraordinary Canadians: Stories From the Heart of Our Nation, a collection of narratives from 17 people Mansbridge and Bulgutch interviewed multiple times over the past year and distilled into first-person accounts.

“For me history is so much easier to understand, appreciate and accept when it’s told through personal anecdotes rather than the sort of traditional, kind of textbook, way,” Mansbridge explains.

The following are summaries of four stories Mansbridge and Bulgutch tell, from an account of a night raid on Taliban bomb makers by a member of Canada’s elite Joint Forces Task 2 team to Indigenous children’s advocate Cindy Blackstock.

Cindy Blackstock was 21 when she graduated with an arts degree from UBC in 1987 and started working for B.C. Child Protection Services. Photo: Courtesy of Cindy Blackstock.

Justice For Indigenous Children

The book opens with Cindy Blackstock, a Gitxsan activist and Indigenous children’s advocate who began her career straight out of university as a social worker for B.C.’s Child Protection Services.

She was only five when she noticed people were chatty and friendly when she was with her non-Indigenous mother, but when she went to a diner with her Gitxsan father, they would “sit for a long time before we got served, and even then, it seemed to me, we were served grudgingly.”

Blackstock recounts in searing detail how she felt “caught between two worlds,” and somehow escaped residential school only to go to a public school where she heard non-Indigenous classmates dismiss First Nations people as drunks who were on welfare. “Hearing this was often horrifying,” she says. “It was, as I look back on it now, a constant form of bullying – in fact, constant racism.”

Mansbridge interviewed Blackstock, the executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, about its 2016 victory before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which ruled the federal government’s Department of Indian and Northern Affairs discriminated against First Nations people living on reserves by underfunding child and family welfare services.

“She was one of the first people I thought of to at least talk to, because I knew nothing about her backstory,” Mansbridge says. “I just found that whole story about her childhood quite gripping, and then the story of her early work equally gripping.”

Blackstock told Mansbridge about the first time, as a 21-year-old social worker, she had to remove children from their home and put them in foster care. To this day, she wonders if she made the right decision to take three First Nations girls under the age of six from a mother with “severe addiction issues.” A few months later, she learned their mother was a residential school survivor, “although in those days we didn’t know what that meant, what scars she most certainly carried.”

Blackstock still wonders what became of those girls, whom she eventually placed with extended family members. “Sometimes at night I lie awake and wonder: ‘Was there something else I could have done?’”

 

Extraordinary Canadians
Levon Johnson describes a night raid much like this one, where JTF 2 commandos were dropped into the Afghanistan desert by helicopter and hiked to their target. Photo: Courtesy of JTF 2.

Commandos in Arms

“Congratulations. You are going to be a professional killer.”

So begins the story from Levon Johnson, a pseudonym for a member of Joint Task Force 2, an ultra-secretive unit of the Canadian Armed Forces’ special operations branch that is our equivalent to the U.S. SEAL teams and the British SAS.

Mansbridge has been trying to get access to JTF 2 for 20 years, and he got close in 2011 when they agreed to allow him to film a Canadian training mission, but a month later they were deployed to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.

It took three different meetings with the top brass in Ottawa to negotiate permission to tell one of their member’s stories in the book. “It’s an important part of our history that I don’t think most Canadians know about,” Mansbridge says.

He heard a half a dozen accounts and settled on the story from Johnson, who the author calls “the real deal.”

“I don’t think most Canadians have any idea of the kind of things that elite unit was doing, which was basically going in, in the middle of the night and eliminating people who they considered a real issue.”

Johnson recounts the night on his first mission to Afghanistan when he fired his first shot in combat. A helicopter had dropped four teams of commandos in the desert, hours from their base in Kandahar, and they had to hike for two and a half hours with 30 kilograms of gear on their backs to the target, a warren of houses where four of the Taliban’s top bomb makers were hiding out. As Johnson notes, of the 159 Canadians who died in Afghanistan, 98 of them were blown up in their vehicles by bombs called Improvised Explosive Devices.

The “horrifying experience” opens with Johnson facing down the gun of an enemy fighter. After he kills the man and he falls to the ground, Johnson sees two little children covered in blood huddled behind him.

“I thought I was going to throw up. And then, everything changed. Both kids opened their eyes, got up, and scurried away. In that moment, I became human again. ‘Oh, man, this is real life,’ I whispered.” Although he couldn’t dwell on the moment during the battle, “those emotions did return,” he tells Mansbridge in the book.

The chaos of the night unfolds in minute detail, and there is something oddly lyrical about the JTF 2 member’s account, considering the work he does requires him to be precise, methodical and dispassionate.

“We had special night vision equipment; they had candles,” he says. “… I felt good knowing we owned the night.”

Mansbridge describes Johnson, who is married and has two kids, as unassuming.

“If you met him in the grocery store, this is the last thing you’d think he did for a living.” Johnson says his family is used to him leaving on a moment’s notice, often after the kids are in bed, without knowing “where I am, what I’m doing, or how long I’ll be gone.”

Even though Johnson’s been in JTF 2 for almost 20 years, he knows one day the secret life he leads will come to an end. “When my wife looks at me and says, ‘Enough,’ it will be enough.”

 

Gina Cody
Gina Cody, the first female engineering PhD at Concordia University in Montreal, on top of a Toronto building overlooking a condo development in 2010. Photo: Brian Dexter/Toronto Star via Getty Images

 

Engineering Pioneer

Gina Cody has worked twice as hard as everyone else ever since she was a teenager in Iran, when she would stop at nothing less than being first in her class. It continued in Montreal, where she was the first woman to graduate with a PhD in building engineering from Concordia University. And when she got to Toronto and started working for an engineering company, the pattern was set. “I knew that was how I would be accepted as a woman,” she says of her long work hours.

Often the only female on job sites, in the office and at industry events, she built up and eventually bought out CCI Group Inc. Some of her stories are terrifying – a male crane operator once started moving the boom when she was on top doing an inspection – and some are just telling, like the emcee at an engineering conference who opened by addressing the audience with, “Lady and gentlemen.”

Cody retired in 2016, but her name is now synonymous with engineering at Concordia, where the faculty was renamed the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science after she made a $15-million donation in return for a commitment to increase diversity in engineering.

“The message had to be clear: Women can succeed in an engineering and computer science school,” she says. “They are at no disadvantage. It takes brainpower, and there’s nothing wrong with women’s brains.”

 

Robb Nash
Robb Nash’s arms are covered in tattoos of the signatures of teens who turned in their suicide notes to him. Photo: Jeff Gordon

 

Saving Teens from Suicide

Robb Nash was out with his Grade 12 buddies, buying flowers for their dates to the Christmas social at his Steinbach, Man., high school, when they were in a horrific car accident. Nash’s head was crushed and he remembers nothing of the three months he spent in hospital after doctors rebuilt his skull with titanium.

Nash fought back through rehab, two years in the throes of a deep depression and suicidal thoughts to become a touring rock musician. But when a charity asked him to bring his guitar to schools and share his story, it changed his life. The Robb Nash Project is now dedicated to teen suicide prevention.

He recounts a gig at an Ontario school where the principal knew there was a student in the audience who planned to die by suicide, but didn’t know who it was. After Nash’s presentation, a girl handed him her suicide note, saying she planned to kill herself that weekend but had changed her mind. Since then, he’s elicited 900 notes from his young audiences. To remind him of his purpose, he’s had some of their signatures tattooed on his arms. At a hockey game, a woman recognized him and asked if she could see his arm. “That’s my daughter’s name there,” she tells him, weeping. “I’ve always wanted to thank you for saving her.”

Extraordinary Canadians was published Nov. 20 by Simon & Schuster Canada.

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