This essay appeared in the 1999 edition of Great Questions of Canada.
Article Two by Peter C. Newman
Becoming a Canadian hero is a tough gig.
Heroes can't be manufactured. They materialize unbidden, like cats appearing on laps. It's a highly existential state that can vanish in a season (remember Norbert Reinhart?) or endow a generation with a role model (remember Terry Fox?).
Trying to recognise who deserves heroic status is especially problematic in the Age of Internet, which has so far dredged up only one fin-de-siècle hero: the aptly named Matt Drudge. Within the Internet culture, anarchy is always the flavour-of-the month, with no one in charge, and every hacker capable of creating chaos out of its http://WWW.com world.
Heroics is the antithesis of Internet, a counter-revolutionary medium dedicated to destroying existing social and economic structures by placing in play data whose exclusive possession once allowed an elite to flourish. It is the ultimate equalizer -- an instrument of individual (that terrible word) empowerment; its bytes will set you free.
At a very different level, even when Canadians are placed in such potentially instant heroic circumstances as sports competitions, they tend to mumble excuses about how winning is always accidental, and that, with any luck, it will never happen again. In few other countries would a rising tennis star like Marjorie Blackwood firmly set her long-term sights on being among "the top forty tennis players," instead of going for gold.
Quebec's Olympic champion speed skater Gaetan Boucher once explained why he competed in the American way: "Canadians come to me and say, 'So, you came in tenth, eh? Well, that's not too bad.' But it is. Compare that with the Americans. They do everything to win, not to finish tenth."
As Charlotte Gray pointed out last week, the reason we are so hero-poor is embedded in the nature of Canada itself. "We live in a country that has a weak national culture and strong regional identities," she wrote, quoting historian Daniel Francis, who has pointed out that, "In Canada, heroic figures have tended to emerge from the regions or from minority struggles against the status quo" And that, "By and large, they are sticks used by one part of the community to beat on another."
In other words, heroes require contexts.
And context requires trust. Trust requires action. Yet, Canadian public life has become comatose. Nothing is happening.
Our political leaders promise they'll take care of us from erection to resurrection, then dump us between elections. They spend their time in office appointing golf partners to the Senate and sucking up to whatever Yankee sharpshooter happens to be occupying the White House.
At the same time, the corporate world has gone global with a vengeance. Daily, our patrimony dwindles as yet another defining Canadian corporation is snapped up at bargain basement prices. Within the Darwinian jungles where multinationals operate, the weakest labour codes determine factory locations; they believe civic responsibility is for losers.
(They even talk different. I remember standing in the luxurious, art-laden living room of one of these international paladins , and asking about the effectiveness of his burglar alarm system. "Keeps the place shut tighter than a bull's ass in fly time," was his matter of fact answer.)
As we move into the next century and globalization tightens its grip on the national gonads, there exists no countervailing power at the centre to impose a balance. Our politicians have become so preoccupied with retaining -- or grabbing -- power that they have forgotten they're supposed to accomplish something with its expenditure. Their opportunistic approach has drained any sustaining reservoir of good will.
Nothing -- including the nurturing of Canadian heroes -- is any longer accepted on faith. The prevailing cynicism recognises few boundaries. Even on those rare occasions when politicians admit they've lied, nobody believes them. The whole country knows even crime wouldn't pay if our governments ran it.
This dumbing down of the process by which we are governed has had serious consequences. In these final few months of an exhausted century, Canadians are faced with a betrayal of public trust on a unprecedented scale. Faced by such a massive loss of faith, Canadians have begun to fashion their own belief systems. In a sub-Arctic update of Pirandello , we've become 31 million characters in search of an author. That's how we have reached the absurd outer limit of seriously considering Preston Manning as a twenty-first century leader. An oxymoron on the hoof, if there ever was one.
It's a climate that does nothing to make the world safe for Canadian heroes. Who can achieve heroic status in an age when we are assaulted by such phenomena as a provincial premier who risks his integrity for a new sundeck; techno and rap music; psychic hot lines; Austin Powers; and Viagra-Light for old guys who just want to cuddle?
The bounce and bravado that characterize most countries' citizens' patriotic instincts prompt them to focus on inordinately courageous, charismatic and resolute figures who fit the heroic mould. These larger-than-life totems become touchstones to live by; they maintain any society's vibrancy.
Canadian heroes, on the other hand, are spawned only with the greatest difficulty. We are profoundly convinced that other, more demonstrative countries hold the franchise on such antics as being heroic. Hell, just surviving in this country is heroism a-plenty. In these northern latitudes, gallantry is for losers.
Above all, heroes must be activists, go-getters who turn individual destiny into collective history. Garibaldi, DeGaulle, Lincoln, Churchill and Mother Teresa come to mind. (Sir John A. Macdonald's inclusion is suspect. Since he founded this country while a falling-down drunk, it's not clear whether he was following some grand vision or AA's Twelve Steps.)
Some 132 years later, we are ruled by a prime minister whose idea of manifest destiny is to get to work on time. That's not putty with which to mould heroes.
Given the debased nature of our current public discourse, Canadians continue to huddle under the polar moon satisfied with their freedoms-from, instead of exploiting their freedoms-to. Our sovereignty seems threatened less by the Americans taking over every profitable activity except selling hand-carved Inuit chess sets, than by our ingrained lack of self-confidence. (Most Canadians think chutzpah is a Jewish appetizer based on horse-radish.)
This is fallow ground for heroism. Risk takers -- and every hero must be one -- can only play to a public that applauds free-floating adventurers. "In Canada," wrote the civil libertarian Alan Borovoy, aptly summing up our anti-heroic ethic, "we don't ban demonstrations, we re-route them."
Given the glacial nature of change in this country, it's doubtful the next century will turn out be our heroic age. Chances are the twenty-first century will be more of the same: we'll fumble through quadrennial Quebec referenda; pretend that national survival is a glorious option; and somehow talk ourselves into the twenty-second century.
That's hardly a heroic formula. But it helps make it through the night.