Who are Canada's Heroes?

Canadians were asked to list the most inspirational figures from the last 150 years of their history. The list, perhaps to the consternation of the Conservative government, primarily featured non-Conservatives. Much has been written in the media about the notable lack of conservative “heroes,” only our first Prime Minister, Conservative John A. MacDonald, made the top ten. There were other notable absences, such as a lack of women, Indigenous peoples, and many other groups that today are a part of the makeup of Canada. Most of the journalists responding to the news raised the idea of what was a Canadian hero?

It should be clarified that the list was not a comprehensive survey of Canadians about who they identified as heroes. The news came after the Canadian Press requested an April 29 briefing note from Canada Heritage to its minister, Shelly Glover. The briefing note delivered the results of an online forum that asked five questions about Canada's upcoming 150th anniversary in 2017. About 12,000 Canadians volunteered to participate. The question that created the list of “heroes” was “Which Canadians have inspired you the most over the last 150 years?” Canadian Press journalist Dean Beeby wrote the story that was picked up by newspapers across the country. His first line transformed the list from one of inspirational Canadians to heroes: “Canadians have handed the Harper government a Top 10 list of the country’s greatest heroes, featuring some of the Conservative party’s greatest adversaries, past and present.” In the government documents, there is no mention of heroes or “greatest Canadians.”

The difference in interpretation as well as the nature of the online forum changes the conclusions considerably. The 12,000 Canadians who did participate are unlikely to represent the views of Canadians as a whole, instead they reflect the views of Canadians who participate in Heritage Canada's online forums. Perhaps too their answer would have changed if the question asked for their list of the greatest Canadians heroes, not just sources of inspiration. Beeby's crucial first line, which appeared in nearly every story on the topic last week, also turns the report into a repudiation of the Conservative government since the list has so few conservatives. Undoubtedly the more accurately written article titled “Canadians inspired by famous and well-known Canadians” doesn't have the same ring to it.

The consequence of Beeby's tone is evident in the articles responding to the news. Commentators continued the discussion focusing on Canadian heroes, despite the list actually focusing on inspiration not heroism. Many disagreed with who was or wasn't a Canadian hero. You can look for yourself at the many responses, such as CBC's Kim Wheeler who offered a list of indigenous heroes, and the Ottawa Citizen asking if there are better heroes out there, while readers of the Toronto Star also disagreed with Canada's supposed heroes. With a few choice sentences, Beeby shaped the discourse around a document which had little to nothing to do with Canadian heroes and their supposed preference for non-conservatives. A fact that is not surprising, given that roughly 2/3rds of Canadians do not support the Conservatives and are probably more aware of non-conservative historical figures regardless (if only because there are more of them).

Leaving aside the public fascination with ranking subjective answers to subjective questions, the idea of a hero is a concept historians have struggled with as well. Historian Thomas Carlyle gave a famous series of lectures in the late 1830s which was later published as a book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and Heroic in History. Carlyle helped popularize a Western history shaped by Great Men. The Great Man Theory has had an enduring influence on historical study and it is easy to forget while reading most history that powerful white men influenced its course by virtue of their societal domination, not their inherent superiority. In Carlyle's words, a Great Man was “the light which enlightens, which has enlightened the darkness of the world; and this not as a kindled lamp only, but rather as a natural luminary shining by the gift of Heaven; a flowing light-fountain, as I say, of native original insight, of manhood and heroic nobleness; -- in whose radiance all souls feel that it is well with them.” This description resulted in a list of heroes that included Odin, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon, Dante, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Martin Luther and the Prophet Muhammad.

There's far too much to be said about Carlyle than the space we have here, but suffice to say the Great Man Theory continues to influence our society's conception of heroes. Heroes change the course of history. The public is likely to encounter the heroic tale of a “Great Canadian” rather than the truth – that we are all just human beings and through determination and circumstance, some of us accomplish more than others. Of course a hero's tale is a far more compelling history, and in a world where enrolment in History programs is dropping, maybe it's unwise to completely discard the facade of a heroic narrative that might pique a student's interest. Maybe we can offer that narrative while remembering a quote from the work of Bertolt Brecht.

Brecht was a German playwright who rose to fame in the 1920s and 30s during the Weimar Republic. He fled his home when Hitler and the Nazis came to power in 1933, first living in Denmark, then moving to Sweden, then Finland, before leaving to the United States. Eventually he returned to live in East Germany after the war until his death in 1956. In the late 30s, he wrote his play Life of Galileo, which offered a fictional portrayal of Galileo's disagreement with the Church over his scientific discoveries, particularly his evidence that the Earth orbited the Sun. It followed his discoveries, his persecution by the Church and eventually the recanting of his views. While the larger work focuses on the relationship between science and religion and probably deeper allusions to questions about accepting knowledge at face value, there is one line which has stood out given the context of Brecht writing in 1938-39.

In one of the final scenes of the play, Galileo's student Andrea is asking his teacher if his actions were heroic. “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero,” Andrea tells Galileo. Galileo replies, “No Andrea: Unhappy is the land needs a hero.” Written in light of fascist Germany and the idolatry of National Socialism towards its Fuhrer Adolf Hitler, Brecht's line takes on a much greater significance. A hero can be a dangerous thing he warned the audience. To raise an individual so far above others can be a perilous path to follow.

Certainly, the latest foray into listing the “greatest Canadians” is nowhere near the precarious circumstances of Germany in the 1930s. By no means are we suggesting that Canada is any way similar to Brecht's experience, but his point remains a worthwhile one. Hero is a title that should not be given lightly. Who we choose as Canadian heroes, as pundits have noted, reveals much about who we are as a nation as well as individuals. The apparent need to proclaim Canadian heroes reveals something too. Perhaps, as the response to Beeby's article demonstrate, the term is too loaded to be useful.

Some might respond that we should instead praise the “everyday heroes” who defend our societal values by fighting crime, or risking their lives to save our property from fire , or some form of potential individual sacrifice for the greater good. That is worthwhile but it is usually sidelined by the more compelling story of a single individual. “Hero” is most often granted to one person who has achieved more than everyone else, who has fulfilled a Herculean task, or at least a task that seems Herculean to us. At what point do we praise the hero because of an inherent difference between them and us, and not as examples of ordinary people who do extraordinary things?

Heritage Canada had it right by asking about which Canadians have inspired us. Heroes inspire us to be better and to do better, not because they are better than us but because we are the same. It's unfortunate journalists did not ask why these figures were inspirational, but instead asked how they were greater than other Canadians.