What Terry Fox & Canada Day taught me about patriotism

 

‘I am proud to be Canadian because this country is strong, bold and beautiful. Canada is multicultural and accepts immigrants for who they are and accepts their country and colour, sharing its beauty with every country in the world. Canada has very generous people who are willing to give to other countries and Canada is peaceful.’

Marika, 9 True patriotism: Kids tells us why they’re proud to be Canadian. Canadian Living Magazine.

 

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I wasn’t sure about the act of patriotism before visiting Canada.

That is maybe due to the fact I have never truly loved one country.

I was born in England and lived there for a few years before I moved with parents to Calcutta at the age of 9.

While I love India for all it’s beauty and faults, it has never truly felt like home to me.

I guess it is difficult to build a strong attachment with a place when you travel as much as I do.

Nevertheless, the ideal of patriotism is something that I admire in people. It is an ideal alien to me, but one I would like to desperately believe in.

I love watching global sporting events like the Olympics or the World Cup. Seeing the emotions on the faces of athletes and their countrymen as their national anthem plays is something that always leaves a lump in my throat.

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I came to Canada, Ottawa specifically to celebrate their ‘National Day’ here as part of my Must Love Festivals project. I had no clue what to expect about the event and about Canada in general when I arrived on a quiet rainy June afternoon earlier this year.

‘Come to Canada with an open mind’,  was the brief but wise advice from the taxi driver, Francois who escorted me to my hotel from the airport. He was originally from Albania. Canada had been home for 20 years.

‘We live in a world ruled by fear..’ he continued… ‘We listen to everyone and no-one. We’re too scared to open our minds..our eyes and see places without a preconceived opinion. So yeah..that’s my tip. Be open. And most importantly have FUN. We are a city and nation that likes to have FUN.’

I was moved by his words but at the same time unsure. He said the word FUN loudly and fiercely, the same way your father would awkwardly tell you to have fun when he dropped you off at school.

As we edged into the city, rolling past lush green meadows and mirror like clear lakes, the streets looked a bit quiet to me. It was the day before National Day. I expected to see a trail of beers cans, an invisible thread of happiness, leading me to the scene of the fiesta. It was only when I arrived on the street of my hotel in downtown Ottawa, did I spot a merry throng of 16 something youngsters. Their faces were painted red and white. They were thoroughly inebriated, slightly unsure in their movements but in good voice as they clambered their way upto Parliament Hill, the site of the main festivities. The big stage was empty except the audio guys doing a soundcheck. The hill was glowing in the dark with the red and white flashing strobe lights. The stage was set for the festivities. It was quiet but there was already a buzz of anticipation on everyones faces. I went to bed, excited about what lay ahead.

 

'How will you be remembered?' : National War Memorial, Ottawa

‘How will you be remembered?’ : National War Memorial, Ottawa

 

I woke up early next day feeling morose. By the time I headed to the breakfast table, I had perked up. The cold shower did the trick. I daubed myself with a sunscreen factor 50. I was carrying a Canadian paper flag that I had found lying in my room. Ravenous, I stuffed myself with Canadian buttermilk pancakes with maple syrup which were delicious. I think I ate one too many, they were that good. I needed to walk and digest it. I stepped out of the hotel and suddenly find myself swimming in a sea of humanity, riding on a rising tide of red and white, a surging wave that reached its crescendo on Parliament hill. Everywhere my eye looked, from the ground to the towering skyscrapers of Ottawa’s downtown, there was red and white. The decibel levels were going up a few notches. There was a multitude of red and white blow horns. Is there a strange level of agreement in the world that the louder you are, the more patriotic you are?

The air was heavy with the smell of hotdogs. It is the fast-food of choice on Canada day. All kinds of hotdogs. Polish hotdogs. Hotdogs with poutine. Hotdogs with strange toppings like Kraft Dinner or sour cream and Doritos.

 

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There were people of all ages, people from all walks of the world. I can’t remember seeing such a huge, culturally diverse crowd of people anywhere on my travels. It was a heart warming moment to be just standing there in front of Parliament Hill as a list of the country’s most celebrated musicians lined up to entertain the crowd. I then drifted off a little to escape the crowds.

National Day celebrations, Ottawa

National Day celebrations, Ottawa

 

 

On every street corner, there was a little party going on. DJ’s, some guys beatboxing, guy in a kilt busting his lungs and playing the bagpipes (trying to raise money for his masters degree) and then a 70 something guy swing dancing with a young lady in a hot red dress and the biggest white heels you can imagine.

The rest of the day is a series of serendipitous happy events. I took a break from festivities and head to the Musee Des Beaux Arts, the National Gallery of Canada. All museums are free on Canada day, a great opportunity for tourists and locals alike, to make the most of the day and see some of the city’s fantastic museums for free. How cool is that? I stumble into the final day of the local Ottawa Jazz Festival which was again FREE and had some fab musicians.

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In the evening, I savour an most amazing fireworks display from Parliament Hill.

In almost every scene I saw before me on that day,  Francois’s words eerily echoed in my ear.

‘We are a city and nation of people that likes to have FUN.’

Being patriotic can be fun? Somehow the act of being patriotic I feel has taken a bit of a beating in recent years. It could be to do with the fact that people mistake patriotism for nationalism.

When I think of patriotism , I reflect on the fiercely fought independence referendum in Scotland recently where there were strong arguments placed for and against the idea of Scotland being its own nation. The ‘Yes’ campaign, some argue was being driven by a blind wave of nationalistic fervour rather than rooted in any real economic reason. Others would argue that the yes vote was not about nationalism but actually based on apathy of the current economic system and the real lack of choice in British politics.

I lived in Scotland for 9 years and it is probably the closest thing to what I might call ‘home.’  (Give me a few years in Madeira and maybe my opinion will change).  So when the debates took place about whether Scotland would be independent, I was really hooked. There are strong emotional ties there because I have many friends still there. The more I heard about the bitterness, negativity and scare mongering from the ‘no’ campaign, the more my heart longed for the ‘yes’ campaign to win. My emotions here were not being driven by nationalistic fervour but more the need to believe in someone who is willing to be positive and offer a vision of the future. Offer us hope.

Ultimately that’s what we humans live for. Hope.

Statue of Terry Fox.

Statue of Terry Fox.

 

 

“In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” ~ Abraham Lincoln

Hope. If there was one person in Canadian history that was the embodiment of hope, then that person was Terry Fox.

I didn’t know who Terry Fox was until I came to Canada. I remember seeing his striking statue in front of Parliament Hill on National Day and wondering who he was. A young determined looking boy with a wonderful curly mop of hair. Kids were draped around his neck to get a birdseye view of the festivities. Elders stood solemnly at his feet in silent reverence.

The following day, before leaving Ottawa I paid a visit to the Canadian Museum of History. It is a beautifully laid out museum, rich in detail and offering a wonderful insight into the magnificent layers of Canadian culture and history. It was here I discovered the man behind the statue. There was an entire exhibition dedicated to him and his epic ‘Marathon of Hope.’ Who was Terry Fox?

“Terry” Terrance Stanley Fox was a Canadian athlete, humanitarian, and cancer research activist. In 1980, aged 21, with one leg having been amputated because of cancer,  he embarked on a heroic cross-Canada run to raise money and awareness for cancer research. Although the spread of his cancer eventually forced him to end his quest after 143 days and 5,373 kilometres (3,339 mi), and ultimately cost him his life, his efforts resulted in a lasting, worldwide legacy. He set out with a goal to raise $1m through his run and along the way that became a goal to raise $1 for every Canadian, which at the time would have been $23m. He reached that goal before his untimely death. Till date, $650m has been raised.

I don’t whether I was tired. Sometimes travelling solo can be an intense, lonely and emotional experience.  However there were a few moments, walking through that exhibition that I started choking and feeling a swell of tears ready to burst from my eyes.

That jug of water got me.

At the start of the Marathon of Hope Terry dipped his leg in the Atlantic Ocean and collected this water. He intended to pour it in to the Pacific Ocean at the end of his journey. Ultimately, Terry never made it to the Atlantic Ocean. However, his mother Betty Fox kept that jug of water in her home where it lay for three decades. After Mrs Fox’s death in late 2012, it is one of the dozens of artefacts from Mr. Fox’s life that were gathered together for the first time, in this exhibition. The exhibition also features two of Terry’s prosthetic legs, the camper van that he, Darrell and friend Doug Alward ate and slept in. You can see personal items that Terry wore or used on the journey including his worn out Adidas shoes.

The exhibition was an intimate, very moving and personal journey into the short but amazing life of Terry Fox.

One that will stay with me for many years. It has been 35 years since his untimely death. However, the spirit of Terry Fox burns brightly in every Canadian. He continues to inspire a new generation of people, young and old who continue to run and walk and cycle to raise funds for the Terry Fox Foundation.

So what did Terry Fox teach me about life, patriotism and being Canadian?

In the end, patriotism is not just about holding your national flag aloft and singing your national anthem. True patriotism aspires to be something more than that. It is about sticking together as one nation and overcoming all odds, however daunting they maybe. It is about empowering yourself and your fellow countrymen.

It is an ideal, a dream that we can live in and create a better world if we demand it. Ultimately Terry’s dream is the dream of every Canadian. Mine too. Possibly even yours?


 

I was a guest of Ottawa Tourism Board as part of the Must Love Festivals project. Big thank you to Jantine and the team at Ottawa Tourism , Tim Blostone for inviting me to Ottawa. Big love and thanks to Nim and the team at Canadian Tourism Commission  for making this trip possible. Plus last but not least, thanks to our kind sponsors, Expedia  for continuing to support the Must Love Festivals project and our quest to find interesting, quirky festivals around the globe.

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