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Eh for effort

Author gives kudos to often unsung Canadian inventors

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It's the Canada Day long weekend, and it's about time we felt proud of ourselves, eh?

While Americans wrap their inventors and innovators like Henry Ford and Ray Kroc in their stars and stripes, Canadians are reluctant to flaunt the red maple leaf.

Yet in widely divergent fields of endeavour, from medicine to agriculture, from sports to diplomacy, and from hand-held tools to the out-of-this-world Canadarm used by NASA's space shuttle, Canadian know-how rooted in both official languages has changed the world, and author John Melady wants us to feel good about that.

Melady is a former high school vice-principal now living in the village of Egmondville in Huron County, Ont.

He has written several books about Canada's place on the world stage, including Pearson's Prize: Canada & the Suez Crisis (2006).

His latest effort, Breakthrough!, explores in two dozen chapters the legacies of Canadians who have made a difference, and interestingly we learn that Manitoba was the home or workplace of several of them.

Melady writes about Charles Saunders, a scientist who worked on an experimental farm in southwestern Manitoba in the 1890s and developed a new strain of wheat that matured early enough to beat the early frosts, helping to make the Prairies the breadbasket of the world.

Too bad he makes no mention of Baldur Stefansson, a Manitoban who in the early 1970s developed canola, an oilseed that today rivals wheat as a cash crop for western farmers.

But he does acknowledge Wilfred Bigelow, who grew up in Brandon and became a leading heart surgeon in Toronto. He developed the pacemaker in 1950.

Other individuals Melady profiles have already been the subjects of other books, as well as movies.

There's former Winnipegger and University of Manitoba professor Sir William Stephenson, the famous Second World War operative widely regarded as the template for British author Ian Fleming's super spy James Bond.

What many readers may not know is that Stephenson developed the wire photo in the early 1920s, which modernized newspaper publishing.

Even Jacques Plante's crusade against the NHL's inane rule that once prevented goaltenders from wearing masks is rightfully considered another game changer.

Melady weaves short biographies of his subjects into accounts of their accomplishments. He personifies their deeds by stamping particular character traits on the invention or innovation.

This is especially true in a chapter outlining the accomplishments of Armand Bombardier from Quebec, whose single-minded desire to build a machine for winter travel is reflected in the dogged dependability of his first Ski-Doos, forerunners of millions of snowmobiles now in use worldwide.

Sadly, some inventions and innovations by Canadians have taken a back seat to good old Yankee derring-do, a fact Melady addresses in his preface.

"We have invented with little fanfare, financing or expectation," he writes, "and we share our creations."

He recounts how a polite Canadian named Norman Breakey lost his place on the inventor's podium in 1940 because he lacked investors to help defend a patent.

Instead, Richard Adams, an American whose presidential surname helped open deep pockets, was able to defend his claim to the same patent, eventually becoming fabulously wealthy because of Breakey's innocuous but highly useful gadget called a paint roller.

Melady tells equally engaging stories about varied devices like the snow blower, pressurized cockpit suits for pilots, and the crash position indicator, which morphed into the black box now used on all commercial airplanes.

Regretting that so little is known about Canadian inventors, Melady writes that "other countries put their heroes on pedestals; we forget ours." He refers specifically to Sir Sanford Fleming, "who gave us the concept of standard time."

Fleming's efforts in the 1870s at having the world divided into 24 time zones are often downplayed in school curricula, where he is celebrated mainly for his role as chief engineer of the CPR. Canada's long east-west railway was finally completed in 1885.

Two chapters are especially enlightening.

One deals with Dr. Frederick Banting's discovery of insulin, which is every diabetic's life saver, the other with Tim Horton's wildly successful coffee and doughnut chain, which diabetics ought to steer clear of.

Melady avoids any correlation between those two Canadian success stories, but a researcher who is less proud and polite might not.

Readers will find Breakthrough to be an example of content trumping form. It is one of those rare books where the sum of its parts surpasses the presumed value of the whole.

It's a relatively short read, and its typography and cover art give it an amateurish appearance. It is also marred by some distracting typos. For instance, in the chapter on Bombardier, one sentence reads, "(W)hen he saw the little snow machine the Father Ouimet had..." while another begins, "He also was also interested... ."

However, Melady's anecdotes are lively and those, combined with the blurry photos, give the project a typically humble Canadian authenticity.

Those who treasure Canadiana will overlook the flaws of Breakthrough! and find more reasons to celebrate Canada Day.

Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher in Winnipeg. He plans to wear red on Monday.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 A1

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