In recent years there have been lists of “great Canadians”, but these lists seem to consist mostly of people who became newsworthy in the last six months. The people who draw up these lists are probably unpaid interns in their early 20s. I’m going to suggest two individuals who should be at the top of any list and who also have strong Winnipeg connections.
My first candidate is Sam Steele. Those over 55 reading these pages have learned about Sam Steele in their history books. Sadly the under-55 crowd has not. Let’s take a moment to describe Mr. Steele (a great name!). In 1866 Steele joined the military during the Fenian raids. Steele also participated in the Red River Expedition in 1870 to fight the Red River Rebellion. He missed action but started on his destiny to become a Canadian legend.
Early Canadian hero
Steele was the third officer sworn into the new North West Mounted Police; he returned to Winnipeg and started recruiting. Steele saw action while protecting Canadian sovereignty during the North-West Rebellion. He also met with Sitting Bull after his victory over General Custer to try and negotiate the return of the Sioux to the United States.
It was Sam Steele who was asked to keep control of the Klondike, in the Yukon. He imposed strict rules to keep the independent-minded prospectors in line; many of them were American. His hard line of discipline helped protect sovereignty and law and order.
He went on to lead the Strathcona Horse in the Boer War and led the Canadian forces in the First World War. Sir Sam Steele received many accolades in his time. He died at 71 and is buried in Winnipeg.
Sam Steele should be on anyone’s list of great Canadians.
Then there is Sir William Stephenson, born in Point Douglas, Winnipeg. He distinguished himself in the First World War as a flying ace, and went on to become a successful business man. He used his international contacts to feed Winston Churchill information on the German war machine. In 1936, much of the material provided to Churchill was used in his speeches in Parliament to warn about the Nazi threat.
This incredible individual gained the trust of the U.S. president and the British prime minister. In fact he was one of only a handful of people to see the ultra-secret Enigma information deciphered by Bletchley Park in Britain. [The German’s used their Enigma machine to encode radio dispatches dealing with their military and diplomatic operations. Britain’s ability to decipher the code was kept top secret.]
This “Quiet Canadian” became one of the great spy masters of history and helped lay the foundation for the intelligence operations of MI5, MI6, the CIA, RCMP and the FBI. It is said that Ian Fleming based part of his James Bond character on this Winnipegger, who would become known as The Man Called Intrepid.
There are obviously too many people to list who have not received the accolades or the awareness of their actions and lifetime work. At this time of the 100th anniversary of the First World War, it’s worth reflecting on those who sacrificed everything so that others might move on.
Three million missing years
Sixty thousand young Canadians, mostly in their teens or early 20s, did not have the opportunity to live full lives. If we say that the average age was 20 and life expectancy was 75, that gives us 3,300,000 person years not lived. These people who were obviously of the utmost character would have been great politicians, journalists, teachers, artists, scientists, fathers and leaders.
The above calculation is of course ridiculous. We cannot know the true cost or loss to civilization of all those who died in the Great War on every side. However it’s worth stating that the greatest Manitobans are those who have died for our country. Therefore the number one person on any existing list should be below all those that have given so much
I try every year to take a walk through Brookside Cemetery off Notre Dame Street. If you’re looking for an interesting and sobering outdoor activity this summer, I recommend a stroll through this cemetery, and if you can talk your grandkids into tagging along, it could be a very good learning activity.
By: Steven Fletcher, MP for Charleswood-St. James-Assiniboia. He served as Minister of State for democratic reform and then for transport between October 2008 and July 2003.
(Image: sir-william-stephenson.jpg Caption: A statue of Sir William Stepehnson stands in the CIA building honouring his exploits during the Second World War. Photo courtesy of the U.S. federal government.)