Heroism -- Canadian Style (National Post, Sept. 06, 2003)

The second anniversary of 9/11 won't be as emotionally charged as the first, but the day will be saturated with ritual, speeches and media commentary, as is appropriate for the annual commemoration of America's greatest national tragedy.

For me one of the most interesting consequences of 9/11 was the sudden re-emergence of male heroism as a notion with no pejorative overtones. For the first time in many years, the population was united in the reflexive conservatism that accompanies great terror. So initially the deeds of the NYFD, and of gallant Tod Beamer ("Let's roll") and others on Flight 93 who diverted their doomed aircraft from Washington received a correctly full measure of gratitude. These were America's anointed: unequivocally authentic heroes.

Widespread disdain for the military, a holdover from the Vietnam War and the Counterculture's virulent anti-patriotism, just melted away. For the first time in living memory, the troops were receiving the respect they have always deserved.

But as "normal" life resumed, the temporarily paralyzed liberal media found their tongues again, and warming to their task, dumbed down the category of "heroes" to include the 3,000 WTC victims, who made no comparable selfless choice for risk or sacrifice. Our Canadian media eagerly followed suit for the handful of Canadians amongst them.

Others protested this descriptive miscarriage, but grief is easy prey to the kitsch that trumps logic and clarity. Suddenly everyone who died on 9/11 -- or even got extremely dusty -- was a "hero."

Curious to review the word's progress, I googled in "heroism and 9/11," and found 18,700 sites. I didn't get very far, though, because I was caught by a link to "Canadian Heroism." Irresistible in the circumstances, you'll agree. I never did go back to the other 18,699 entries.

Heroes of Yore and Lore: Canadian Heroes in Fact and Fiction, produced by the National Library of Canada, is, according to its home page "team," the distilled essence of the meaning (to Canadians) of the word heroism. Marshall McLuhan is quoted: Canadians are "the people who learned to live without the bold ego-trippers of other lands." In case this caveat that Canadians don't really believe in heroism didn't resonate clearly enough, the introduction adds, "On a grander scale, as a nation we have been notoriously reluctant to elevate ordinary individuals to the realm of myth and heroism."

The NLC offers five categories of heroism for consideration, a list so quintessentially Canadian that it verges on parody: The Pursuit of Excellence; The Realm of Myth; We are the Land; Voices of the People; and The Mythmakers. (I looked in vain for "Defenders of the Nation" and "Resistance to Evil").

From all of Canadian history, 22 individuals were chosen to represent heroism. Of the 22, several are mythical or literary characters: Kivioq (a legendary Inuit traveler), Sasquatch, and Anne of Green Gables, to name a few. Hockey player Howie Morenz was chosen because he "scored 270 goals and his style made him one of the most beloved players ever." Marie Rollet-Hébert (yeah, me neither) was chosen because in 1632, when Quebec was returned by the French after a three-year occupation by the English, the Jesuits described hers as "the only French family settled in Canada."

Then there's good old Louis Riel, who "remains a controversial figure in death as in life" but "has come to be seen as a combination of martyr and hero in the eyes of many Canadians." The NLC team forgot to append "and a traitor to many others."

Even though he wasn't real, I eventually found my concept of a hero in Johnny Canuck. The entry begins, "Despite our present-day guardedness toward unchecked patriotism, the national superhero remains a fascinating part of Canadian tradition." A political cartoon, Johnny Canuck emerged in 1869 as "a younger, simpler cousin to America's Uncle Sam or Britain's John Bull." He came back in the Second World War as "Canada's defender from the Nazi menace." Go Johnny Canuck! Good stuff!

But in 1975, we are hastily reminded, Johnny morphed into Captain Canuck who worked with his Quebec counterpart Capitaine Kébec; together they "avoided conflict whenever possible. He thus embodied the Canadian awareness of the duality and limitations of our country."

Given the surging admiration for America's service men and women, I hoped to find one Canadian example of bravery in combat. Perhaps the team considered some plucky grunt who slogged on to glory in the rocket's red glare, but in the final triage abandoned him for the more compelling Alexis-le-trotteur (1860-1924), "the flying horse of the Saguenay ... an eccentric who firmly believed he was meant to be a stallion, born human by mistake."

And it goes without saying that we could never jettison spunky Anne of Green Gables for a mere war hero.

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