The hero Canadians deserve

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Why Terry Fox is the perfect candidate for the World’s Best Canadian award

By David Dyck
Photos by Mark Burnham

What is Terry Fox famous for? No, it’s not a joke, you jerk. Of course, you probably know that he contracted cancer, lost a leg, and that despite his disability he attempted to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research. Oh, and of course he went to SFU; we’ve all walked by that statue in the AQ.

What I mean is: why him specifically?

I once had a professor who said that in Canada, we have no heroes. When it comes to nations’ origin stories, England has King Arthur, France has Joan of Arc, America has George Washington, Ireland has — well, you get the idea: heroic, idealized people who give a nation a personality to get behind. For many of these countries, it’s an important factor in the way that they think about nationalism. But here in Canada, we have no such uniting figure.

“What about General James Wolfe?” you might ask, genuinely indignant at something you read in your student paper. “He won the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, defeating Montcalm and the French forever!” You’re right, it seems like a seminal part of our Canadian history, and while it did have a profound and lasting impact on Canada, French is still one of our national languages. And if you’re from Quebec, you’re more than likely a Montcalm fan anyways. If you have First Nations heritage, you might have prominent historical figures of your own. Louis Riel, hailed as a Metis revolutionary, was hung as a traitor, and the court of public opinion still hasn’t settled that one. If you’re an immigrant to Canada, that’s a whole other can of worms: you bring your heroes with you. There isn’t a lot of continuity or common history. We often disagree with each other about which heroes are really heroic, when we bother to think of heroes at all.

“Canadians are skeptical,” said my professor. “We look at something that’s meant to be impressive and ask, ‘So what? Anyone could do that.’ ” And it seems true, in a way. How do we annually remember Terry Fox’s achievement? By mimicking it ourselves. Canadian consciousness was born and raised with this attitude of skepticism, of eliminating everyone’s heroes so that we don’t offend others. We call that “being polite.”

Why we remember Terry Fox is less about Terry Fox himself and more about relating to his values. His display of compassion, patience, and perseverance showed what we as Canadians consider some of our strongest assets. Also, fighting cancer is a great cause. Almost everyone has seen that horrible disease in some form or another in their lives, as young as many of us are, and as far as I know, there aren’t any cancer advocacy groups you risk offending.

It’s a great story, and no one gets mad.