The nature of heroism

Heroes do what no one else would even think of doing

Roy MacGregor January 12 1981

The nature of heroism

Heroes do what no one else would even think of doing

Roy MacGregor January 12 1981

The nature of heroism

Heroes do what no one else would even think of doing


Roy MacGregor

This is a spot to consider a Hamilton meat-packing plant in 1919, the Gaza Strip in 1956 and Canada in 1981. It is a small cemetery in western Quebec, a secluded knoll within the call of the La Pêche River as it falls desperately toward the larger Gatineau River. It is a fine winter’s day: the wind polite through white pine, the sun sparking off fresh snow and dancing in the mica of a simple grey stone in the northeast corner of the graveyard. This is the resting place of Lester Bowles Pearson, OBE, PC, CC, OM, prime minister of Canada 1963-1968, Nobel Peace Prize 1957, 1897-1972. The “honest broker” lies here, the lisp, the crooked smile, the man who—it was said by Gunnar Jahn, chairman of the Nobel Prize committee-had “saved the world” when he engineered the Gaza Strip ceasefire and an end to the Suez Crisis of 1956. He was

Canada’s first diplomatic hero. And his belief in compromise is sorely missed today amidst talk of raising defiant flags in the East and cutting off energy supplies from the West. This, after all, is the country he gave a flag to, a country that might well now use his diplomatic skills. Failing that, with federal-

provincial relations deteriorating to a point near blood and guts, Canada in 1981 might be interested in the experience Mike Pearson picked up in 1919 at Hamilton’s Fowler Packing plant, where he apprenticed as a sausage maker.

A hero serves best when people are brought together, and though it happens rarely it did happen twice in Canada in 1980. And it is only appropriate that Pearson, Canada’s first diplomatic hero, would be the inspiration for the second: Ken Taylor.

The morning toast has gone cold, uneaten. Former ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor sits in the far corner of an Ottawa restaurant, the warmth of his smile framed by large soft flakes of snow sliding down the window behind. Suddenly he rises slightly, increases his smile and says “thank you.” Six metres away, two matronly women with separate checks in their hands are stopped before the cash register, smiling proudly and lightly applauding him. Taylor seems as pleased with their re ception as he has been with the wild standing ovations in New York's Yan kee Stadium or the Seattle Kingdome. "I had no idea whatsoever that this kind of thing would happen," he says later. The decision he took in November of 1979 to harbor six fugitive Americans in the Canadian embassy in Iran had been simple and straightforward, the only decision possible; yet almost to the end of January, 1980, when he, his wife, Pat, and three remaining employees were fi nally forced to flee Tehran with the "houseguests," he had believed the Americans would make it out alone and he would stay on, silent. But it was not to be. And this simple act of courtesy toward a country that, since the bad taste of Vietnam, has seemed to have an international breath problem, would

heart became larger during that time.” Doug Alward saw his friend grow from a curiosity to a modern version of the National Dream. “We noticed a change in Oshawa,” he says. “There were two or three thousand people in a shopping plaza. It was like he’s becomchange Ken Taylor’s life forever. Canadians would cheer proudly, but the Americans would lift him to near mythic heights, a new champion as noble and pure as Luke Skywalker. Even today, a year later, the tally of heroism continues to mount: 15 major awards, 16

keys to the city, 64 plaques, 111 resolutions and proclamations, 135 appearances and tens of thousands of letters. “It was important recognition for Canada,” Taylor says, “and important for Americans to be able to say thank you.” But heroism? Taylor argues that there is a great difference between what happened to him and what he considers to be a true act of heroism—Terry Fox’s

Marathon of Hope. “He didn’t have to do anything,” says Taylor. “I did what I had to do professionally, instinctively. Terry Fox took an individual decision and, against all odds, attempted it. The fact that he didn’t reach Vancouver doesn’t matter one iota.” Doug Alward was with his best friend on Sept. 1, 1980, the moment when, near the end of that Monday’s run, Terry Fox had trouble getting his breath and began choking. They were heading down the Thunder Bay bypass toward Red River Road, more than halfway home, and suddenly it was all over. The cancer had caught up. Alward had been following in the Ford van, as he had since the day in April when Fox had symbolically dipped his artificial right leg into the cold Atlantic in St. John’s, Nfld., and set off to run to the Pacific, just to prove a point. It is now nine months later, and the cancer in Terry Fox’s lungs is currently in

check after six chemotherapy sessions. His friend Alward sits in a suburban Port Coquitlam restaurant trying to find words to match the deed. A small, intense man, he speaks slowly, warily, the long conversation thinned by awkward pauses as he tries to understand

what had happened. Somewhere between St. John’s and Thunder Bay, Terry Fox became as much an idea as flesh, and when the flesh gave up the idea ran on. Why? “Because,” says Alward, “there was something genuine at the root that people recognized.” “Terry Fox touched a nerve,” says Patricia Donihee-Darling, a Fredericton city employee typical of those affected. “Something like the Marathon of Hope has the ability to cross all barriers in this country.” Fox recently told Maclean's that the single thing that made him different from ordinary people was “determination,” and it came, not from a higher calling to heroism, but from a basic, all-too-earthy experience. “In the clinic when I lost my leg,” he says, “there were four in a room. I had to listen to doctors tell people they had a 35per-cent chance of living, and then to hear that person tell their family. My ing a rock star. ... I worry about the media. If you make too much of a hero and put too much emphasis on the impossibility of the run, then that will make an ordinary kid think he can’t do it. It’s important for kids to realize he’s just like you and me. He did his best, and that’s what makes him a hero.”

“I awoke one morning and found myself famous,” Lord Byron wrote following the 1812 publication of the first two cantos of his poem Childe Harold's Pilgrim%age. Ken Taylor suffered the same fate Sand found his new stature so confusing *that at one point he ducked into a New York City bookstore to purchase a paIperback on heroism. The book was little Shelp. Heroes, to Taylor, were either *dead, like Mike Pearson, or were those who are recognized for individual acts of bravery (see box, page 30). Just what it meant to him he wasn’t sure. He found himself turning to a window to hide an amused smile as a police pontoon boat whisked him from a Boston sail-past to the airport for a hurried flight to another ceremony at Yankee Stadium. He found himself leaning into a whisper aboard a destroyer in San Francisco harbor and nodding agreement to the stranger’s words: “You are as much a hostage as those people in Iran.” He had, entered the living hero’s dilemma when one’s mere presence disturbs the natural order, the real world moves further and further from reach.

Few will understand this more than Wayne Gretzky who, while hardly a hero of Fox’s or Taylor’s stature, is not without his worshippers. It is only a Tuesday morning hockey practice for a team firmly in last place, but even so they wait to see him, perchance to touch. They are four, all girls, their nerves squealing through silver braces. When Gretzky, who is barely a halfdozen years their elder, finally comes through the Edmonton Oilers dressing room door they are frozen; he leans against the wall and waits, confident in the hero’s sureness that his reputation alone is an altar. They come eventually, respectively, grateful for a few moments of his time. “When I was a kid I used to try and get every autograph I could,” he says later, “so it certainly doesn’t bother me. It goes with the job. There are impositions—like I can’t go anywhere now in the country without being recognized. Mom and Dad taught me a long time ago that this is the price you pay and that it is your duty. Mom used to say, ‘Get up off that chesterfield and sign those autographs!’ ”


Gretzky, like all sports heroes, appeals to the child in people. Ralph Waldo Emerson argued, “The search after the great is the dream of youth,” and in the United States much has been made recently of this type of thinking to explain why heroes seem so rare these days. In other words, America is maturing. Mercifully, this is not a convincing argument, either in the matter of America’s growing up or in the minds of Canadians. “Heroes are important today,” says Winnipeg artist Ted Howarth, whose idol is Marcel Duchamp. “You have to see and believe in great things in order to emulate and do great things.”

It is this belief in heroes that has made them seem tied to the times, fading in and out of fashion. The great heroic figure of the big-business-oriented 1890s, Napoleon, was the bum of the socially conscious era that followed, his name synonymous with evil. Joan of Arc, burned and thought forgotten in 1431, did not become a saint until 1920. Laura Secord’s 19-mile walk in 1813 to warn of an impending American attack did not become popular Canadian history and myth (the British soldiers already knew) until 48 years later when the Prince of Wales, hearing of her exploit while on a tour of Upper Canada, sent the old lady £100. And why would Charles Lindbergh be idolized for decades following his 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic when, 52 years later, three mostly forgotten men would go to the moon and it would be regarded as a victory for machines, not men? Why would Marilyn Bell be a heroine for a 1954 swim across Lake Ontario and yet Cindy Nicholas, who may one day conquer the Milky Way, have little impact whatsoever? Because the hero is much more than the event, that’s why. Ken Taylor is a hero; his wife, Pat, is not; yet they did exactly the same thing.



The reigning expert on heroism is the English philosopher Thomas Carlyle, whose 1841 book, On Heroes, HeroWorship and the Heroic in History, argued that a given individual will rise to a heroic act in whatever manner is appropriate for the age. “The lightning, without which the fuel never would have burnt,” Carlyle called them, and though his arguments were later twisted to support the rise of the likes of Hitler, the purer portions of his thinking survive today. Asked to consider today’s young Canadians were there a call to war, St. John’s resident AÍ Harvey, president of the Dominion Command of the Royal Canadian Legion, answers confidently, “If there is a need for heroism, it will come out.” Traditionally, the adjective “heroic” has not stood alone, but has been joined by “flawed” (from Achilles’ famous heel to Lester Pearson’s performance as a prime minister) and, too often, “tragic” (from John Kennedy to Terry Fox). Japan has a soft spot for what are called “noble failures,” and perhaps Canada could be granted one for what might be termed “magnificent losers” (Mackenzie, Papineau or Riel). That Canadian glory seems lacking was evident in a 1979 Saturday Night “admiration” poll of 840 Ontario university students, when the only Canadian to make the top 10 was Anne Murray. She came 10th. Above her were the likes of Johnny Carson and Walter Cronkite. Pierre Trudeau stood 18th, below Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, Ken Dryden and Pierre Berton.

Pierre Trudeau, however, must deal with something he has taught his own six-year-old son, Sacha, to call “pests.” The press. Trudeau’s burden is unlike, say, King Alfred the Great, the 9th-century Anglo-Saxon ruler who so completely controlled communications that his people never knew he spent the last half of his life a neurotic invalid, convinced his sexual lust would destroy him unless he fought to keep his seed within. The people thought Alfred great and courageous, a true hero, because he told them he was. That these are indeed difficult times to be heroic is readily shown by the single soldier’s name immediately recognizable from the Vietnam War: Lt. William Calley, he of the My Lai massacre.

If no man is truly a hero to his valet, then we are all becoming valets. Debunking—whether it be Errol Flynn spying or John Kennedy studding—is the new filter of would-be heroes. Davy Crockett, for example, would simply not have survived with different press coverage. People would be repulsed at his

cruel slaughter of Indians rather than line up at the Alamo to view the gun he reportedly used to kill 350 bears one summer. The movies somehow forgot that Crockett was among the first to fall at the Alamo and may not, in fact, even have been armed. He was a myth of his own creation, the result of an overblown, ghostwritten autobiography, something he would not get away with today. These are the days when Bobby Hull’s legendary statistics include goals, assists and divorce settlements. “Very few people, perhaps none,” Shirley Temple Black, the former child actress, later politician, has written, “can stand the scrutiny of their personal lives that goes on with the kind of investigative reporting we have today.”

And yet, whereas such suspicion of heroes is a new phenomenon in the United States, West Coast critic George Woodcock argues that this has always been the case in Canada. In that light, Fox and Taylor become even more rare than they seem. “Canadians distrust heroes,” Woodcock has written, “partly because heroism is always a kind of imposition; the hero dominating us by his strength.... We are suspicious because, as Canadians, we see ourselves generally imposed upon or, as [Margaret] Atwood put it, colonized. But more than that, we suspect the sheer gigantic irrationalism of the heroic, for we like to consider ourselves ^reasonable people.”

Ernest Hemingway thought Canada to be “a dreadful country.” A man obsessed with heroism, he had come here in 1923 to work for The Toronto Daily Star and he soon gave up on his new home. There remains an absurd vision of him, on assignment, sitting up all one night in a room at Sudbury’s Nickel Range Hotel, reading Joseph Conrad: an

American hero reading a Polish hero who wrote about flawed heroism in Africa. Beyond Hemingway’s hotel, more than the immediate terrain was barren; beyond Canada, however, would lie Spain, Cuba, New York, glory, celebration and fortune. How unlike Malcolm Lowry in 1950, morose in his shack in Dollarton, on the British Columbia coast, unable to listen to the CBC radio documentary that would flatly call him “Canada’s greatest writer” because he couldn’t even afford a new battery for his radio.

We have not had a great deal of time for our heroes. “Hero,” says Pierre Berton, “is a terrible word. I don’t like it; I don’t use it. I don’t write about heroes, I write about people. Politicians aren’t heroes. Businessmen aren’t heroes. Sportsmen aren’t heroes. There’s a difference between a hero and a celebrity.” Berton, who undoubtedly knows more about this than anyone, will list only a very few he considers true Canadian heroes: Tecumseh and Sir Isaac Brock of the War of 1812, Sir William Van Horne and Sir George Stephen of the railway, and Terry Fox. “Terry Fox

is cast in the heroic mould,” says Berton. “It involves a sacrifice. There’s nothing in it for him apart from, perhaps, kudos, and I’m not even sure about that.”

There is, of course, a long list down through Canadian history of material for argument: Almighty Voice, the Cree martyr who refused to give in to civilization; Brother André, the Quebec caretaker who became a renowned healer; Sir Frederick Banting, the discoverer of insulin; Madeleine de Verchères who, at 14, held off 45 attacking Iroquois for eight days in 1692; Percy Williams, the runner who overcame rheumatic fever to win two Olympic gold medals in 1928; Nellie McClung, who helped establish in court that Canadian women are indeed “persons”; painters Emily Carr and Tom Thomson; First World War fighter pilot Billy Bishop; humorist Stephen Leacock; naturalist Jack Miner; Dr. Norman Bethune, the great martyrhero of China who developed the first mobile medical facilities for the field of battle; Marshall McLuhan, who died lastweek(seebox page 16)andwhoaltered the world’s view of itself; the various medal winners and on and on and on. There are also living Canadians apart from Taylor who might stake their claims: Paul-Emile Léger, who forsook being a cardinal in 1967 to work with lepers in Africa; Jean Vanier, whose L’Arche movement operates more than 50 homes for the mentally handicapped around the world; Paul Henderson, whose series-winning heroics during the 1972 Soviet-Canada hockey series transcended the usual limits of sports.

Curiously, Canada’s most internationally accepted historic hero, Gen. James Wolfe, who died at 32 during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, is far less acceptable at home, where even the first two stanzas of a song, The Maple Leaf Forever (“In days of yore, from Britain’s shore,/Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came”), are often abridged and softened before anyone dares sing it in Quebec. “Canada seems to have trouble producing heroes,” says Vancouver’s Danny Power, an audio producer. “To be a Canadian hero someone has to touch the hearts of everyone both in Western and Eastern Canada. It has to be someone who’s a good guy for everyone.”

Sports heroes, though arguably not true heroes, have always been much safer in Canada. Here, talent is the measure of greatness, and Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe have been acclaimed within Quebec as Guy Lafleur and Jean Beliveau have been beyond. When Ontario-born Howie Morenz died in 1937 following a broken leg he suffered while in Les Canadiens uniform, the funeral was held at centre ice in the Montreal Forum, with 15,000 mourners in the stands and tens of thousands lining the streets outside. And yet, where the true hero’s stature so often grows with time—need we mention Jesus Christ?— the sports hero is far more temporal. Their acclaim peaks at the same time as their athletic ability. One who understands this is Tony Gabriel, the Ottawa Rough Rider tight end who has been the sole Canadian over the past decade to be chosen top player in the Canadian Football League. He plows his fame back into something like the March of Dimes, of which he is this year’s honorary campaign chairman. “When I finish, maybe next year,” he says, “perhaps someone will still once in a while come up to me and ask for an autograph, just remember.”


Sports are the most obvious, but this may well be the age of the special-interest hero, whether it be the women’s movement (Flora MacDonald), business (Conrad Black), conservative (Sterling Lyon) or that peculiar group that believes the automobile has a role to play in sports apart from getting to out-oftown games (Gilles Villeneuve).

“When I think of heroes,” says Naida Lindner, an English student at the University of British Columbia, “I think of someone who quit drinking after 20 years of being an alcoholic, or another who managed to rise above a rotten childhood. People who’ve been heroes in their own private way.” For Fredericton car dealer Bill Jones, heroes are “people who have been successful in their own endeavors,” like Rowland Frazee, a fellow Maritimer who is president and chief executive officer of the Royal Bank of Canada. For Yvon Blondeau, head of a large Montreal security firm, heroes are found in the financial pages—“men like Bronfman.” Winnipeg criminal lawyer Hersh Wolch looks up to Chief Justice Samuel Freedman of the Manitoba Court of Appeal. Canadian heroes might be the likes of Edith Pinet, an Acadian midwife from northeast New Brunswick who has delivered more than 3,000 babies. Or it might be Jim Gladstone, the former world calf-roping champion from Cardston, Alta., who acknowledges his heritage by passing up numerous far more lucrative rodeos when they conflict with much smaller native rodeos. “Some of the smaller rodeos need help,” he says. “And if I can, I do.”

“Heroes are really very personal,” says John Le Roy, a Vancouver anthropologist. “Essentially, the heroic quest is an inner journey.” He would find agreement from Gena Hahn, a professor of computer science at McGill University. “It’s easy to be heroic when you’re angry or frightened, like a terrorist in a war, or when outside forces are pushing you, like with Ken Taylor. It’s much harder to push yourself from the inside to carry through what you’ve set out to do.”

No Canadian will ever understand that better than Terry Fox. The country has been left with an image of 10,000 people pressing in on him at Toronto’s city hall, of policemen openly weeping. But beyond that image was the beginning, inside, the other 8,220 km required to cross the country seemed impossible. That first very painful practice kilometre made all the rest seem out of touch. But he worked at it, 30 km a day for 101 consecutive days before he even thought of beginning. “Every night you could see him hopping along in the early nights and rain,” remembers Bob McGill, Fox’s former high-school basketball coach and himself a former cancer victim. “And there were no cameras, no television lights back then.”

When the lungs gave in at Thunder Bay, he had gone 5,375 km. By year’s end, the contributions were still running strong—$20.6 million, at last count—and people like Wayne Gretzky were calling him “the bravest human being we’ve ever seen in this country.” “I’m not a dreamer,” Fox said at one point during the run, “and I’m not saying this will initiate any kind of definitive answer or cure to cancer, but I believe in miracles. I have to.”

In the Bible, miracles are instantaneous, total and successful; but though Terry Fox has turned to reading the gospel and believing, a miracle for him is the coin-sized tumor in his right lung beginning to shrink. His health may still be in doubt but his mission, at least, is complete. As for his stature, it is all spelled out in Timothy Findley’s brilliant Canadian novel, The Wars. “You see,” Findley wrote, “he did the thing that no one else would even think of doing. And that to me’s as good a definition of a ‘hero’ as you’ll get.”

With files from Thomas Hopkins, Wayne Skene, Peter Carlyle-Gordge, David Folster, Geoff Hunt, Tom MacGregor, Mark Budgen, Vic Parsons and Anne Beirne.