Heroes Flawed and Fake

Dear Canada,

She stands alone in her Grand Prė garden. With a look of sad longing, Evangeline gazes over her shoulder toward heaven. She has her back to the church, the Church that turned its back on her. The tragic news arrived on her wedding day and tore her from her one true love. Her people were victims of a war that saw you become British, and her people uprooted because they were French. Their homes and villages were burned.

The deported Acadians fluttered as maple keys, some lighting as far away as Louisiana. It’s why New Orleans has Cajun music and a French Quarter. Evangeline devoted the rest of her life to searching for her beloved Gabriel, finding him years later, and only in time to have him die in her arms. Today, hundreds of years later, there stands Evangeline in her national park – a UNESCO World Heritage site, no less – a vision in bronze. She is a symbol of loss and for all that’s unfair. She expresses the power of love amid the hatred of war.

Evangeline_Grand_Pre

Meanwhile, over in Prince Edward Island, a long line is snaking its way from a rambling white farmhouse with stunning green gables. It’s Anne’s house. We know Anne Shirley through books, movies, and TV. She’s loved around the world and, since being placed on their school curriculum in the 1950s, a Japanese icon. Anne is what many of us first learn about us. She is honest, loyal, feisty, fun-loving and adventurous, with unbreakable bonds to the land and people she loves.

The tourists tour with reverence. Grownups steal a moment to peer at the rolling Cavendish countryside out Anne’s bedroom window. It’s the view that inspired her thoughts, and that the ten-year old then understood with the certainty of a ten-year old’s truth. They treasure the moment. They are warmed by embers of memory sunk deep in their hearts but now flickering from down where a child’s dreams are kept safe from adulthood’s flimsy facade. Then, as is always the case with such things, everyone exits through the gift shop. Japanese parents buy Chinese trinkets to celebrate a Canadian girl. Smiling children emerge beneath straw skimmer hats with long red pigtails, just like Anne’s.

Anne of Green Gables1

Anne and Evangeline share a secret. They never existed. Evangeline was the protagonist in a Longfellow poem, written nearly a century after the Acadian diaspora. The lines are lyrical but many of its facts are wrong. Anne Shirley sprang from the imagination of Canadian novelist Lucy Maud Montgomery. Visiting Anne’s actual green-gabled house is akin to visiting Batman’s actual cave.

But these facts rob neither Evangeline nor Anne of their importance. That is the nature, gift, and mystery of heroes and icons.

Consider the very real Emily Murphy. She was enraged that women were regularly and nonchalantly denied justice within the bastion of our male-dominated society. From her home in Edmonton, she organized a movement that pressured the Alberta government to enact a law allowing women to inherit their husband’s estates. Then, upset that women were unfairly treated in the courts, she exerted pressure until earning an appointment as Canada’s first female police magistrate; the first, in fact, in the whole British Empire.

When told by an uppity male lawyer that her gender disqualified her from the bench, she and four friends, later dubbed the Famous Five, fought back. They fought rusty old beliefs disguised as facts, politicians with their eyes on polls and feet in clay, and, finally, they fought the courts all the way over the pond to Westminster. Their efforts led to women being declared Persons; no longer just the property of Dads then husbands, but Persons with rights equal to men. Women could now be judges and senators and, well, anything they wanted to be. It was a spectacular achievement. Murphy had demonstrated intelligence, determination, and a burning sense of what should be.

murphystatue

However, under the guise of Janey Canuck, Murphy also wrote magazine articles and a novel espousing beliefs that we now recognize as racist. She was clearly on both the right and wrong side of rights. Does the racist rant erase the feminist achievement and so should Murphy’s statue be taken from parliament hill?

The heroes we venerate are players in a grand story we tell to ourselves about ourselves. Their triumphs and characters represent the best of us for the rest of us and the complexity within all of us. They challenge us to look beyond ourselves to become our best possible selves. Flawed or even fake, they inspire us to improve ourselves, our families, communities and, ultimately, to be worthy of you.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

Don Quixote   by © Gordon Lightfoot

Through the woodland, through the valley
Comes a horseman wild and free
Tilting at the windmills passing
Who can the brave young horseman be
He is wild but he is mellow
He is strong but he is weak
He is cruel but he is gentle
He is wise but he is meek
Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a battered book into his hand
Standing like a prophet bold
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Till he can shout no more

I have come o’er moor and mountain
Like the hawk upon the wing
I was once a shining knight
Who was the guardian of a king
I have searched the whole world over
Looking for a place to sleep
I have seen the strong survive
And I have seen the lean grown weak

See the children of the earth
Who wake to find the table bare
See the gentry in the country
Riding off to take the air

Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a rusty sword into his hand
Then striking up a knightly pose
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Till he can shout no more

See the jailor with his key
Who locks away all trace of sin
See the judge upon the bench
Who tries the case as best he can
See the wise and wicked ones
Who feed upon life’s sacred fire
See the soldier with his gun
Who must be dead to be admired

See the man who tips the needle
See the man who buys and sells
See the man who puts the collar
On the ones who dare not tell
See the drunkard in the tavern
Stemming gold to make ends meet
See the youth in ghetto black
Condemned to life upon the street

Reaching for his saddlebag
He takes a tarnished cross into his hand
Then standing like a preacher now
He shouts across the ocean to the shore
Then in a blaze of tangled hooves
He gallops off across the dusty plain
In vain to search again
Where no one will hear
Through the woodland, through the valley
Comes a horseman wild and free
Tilting at the windmills passing
Who can the brave young horseman be
He is wild but he is mellow
He is strong but he is weak
He is cruel but he is gentle
He is wise but he is meek

 This is the second of a series of Letter to Canada, inspired by the songs of Gordon Lightfoot. If you like it, please share it on your social media of choice and see the first one, and more of my weekly columns, at johnboyko.c

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Roman Was a Russian

Roman was Russian or maybe Ukrainian. The folks of his town went from one to the other with each shift of the restless border. From the bitter cold of the 1905 winter came a worker’s revolt. Tsar Nicholas reacted first with concessions but soldiers were soon attacking trouble-makers, including those with books deemed dangerous. Roman’s uncle imperiled his family for reading, among other things, the poetry of Ukrainian nationalist Taras Shevchenko whose words inspired the oppressed to feel power and the shamed to know pride.

With rumours of soldiers on the way Roman’s parents told him to run. The eighteen-year-old hitched rides and jumped trains until finding the coast. He snuck aboard the first lackadaisically secured ship he could find and hid beneath a lifeboat’s thick tarp. After two days at sea he emerged dirty and hungry and agreed to work for his fare.

 A long and roiling journey took him to Rio de Janeiro. For nearly two years he hacked roads to resources through the Amazonian rain forest. One steaming afternoon a workmate rhapsodized of a place with more high-paying jobs than people – Canada.

Roman bought a ticket for the first northbound ship but was tricked. Declared a stowaway, he was forced into back-breaking labour as the hulking cargo vessel steamed around the world. After nearly a year of depredation he gazed longingly at the Statue of Liberty.  Excited for his first leave in months, he and two friends signed for their meagre pay but then were grabbed, lashed, and thrown onto their bunks; they’d been duped into re-upping for another year.

Just before dawn a sympathetic crewmate cut the ropes and helped them sneak to the deck where they leapt into the cold, dark water. Three unkempt young sailors shuffled through the Battery’s morning mist. A gentleman with an expensive suit and friendly smile said they looked lost. In his best but broken English Roman explained that they were on their way to Canada. The man laughed and said they must be the luckiest boys alive because he worked at the Canadian consulate. The sorry little gang were given train tickets to Montreal.

Montreal was a French city run by the English, and all on the backs of those speaking a hundred tongues. Roman found a job in a large and dirty iron works and happiness in the city’s thriving Ukrainian community. After a particularly trying shift he was told that steel factories offered safer work and better pay and that an American had just started a new steel company in Ontario. Within days he was on a train to Ontario.

Hamilton was a tough, hard-hat town. Factories hugged Burlington Bay, shady bosses held sway in the multi-ethnic east side, and everyone called the towering Niagara escarpment that watched over it all the mountain.  The place brimmed with the power and potential of the industrial age. Roman was among the first employees at Hamilton’s Dominion Steel and Casting Company that became Dofasco.  Roman was a molder. He created castings into which molten metal was poured to make machines, the bank vault now part of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and even the Hoover Dam’s turbines. He built weapons for the First World War and in the Second his three daughters were among the women who traded dresses for overalls to defeat Hitler. 

Upon retirement, Roman purchased a farm near Port Dover. He grew corn and every year turned 11 acres of grapes into sweet wine. His grandson worked the farm each summer. He walked his great-grandson among what to the little boy were towering corn stalks and he tried but failed to reassure him that chickens were not terrifying.

Today, above my piano, is a painting of my great-grand father’s Port Dover farm. It is more ideal than real; perhaps like elements of his adventurous escape. But that’s okay. Societies need myths that define and inspire and so do families. Like the tenacious Ukraine, my family is a little dysfunctional at the edges but rock-solid at its core. In the New Year, we’ll welcome a baby. The child will embody an audacious confidence in tomorrow, 1905’s legacy, and Roman’s latest gift.

Meanwhile, Russia is back fighting for imaginary lines and Shevchenko’s poems are again on Ukrainian lips.  As we watch egos and power and money at war let’s pause to consider the people in those border towns who wake up each day and do their best. I know, as do thousands of others living in Canada today that their struggle will echo for generations and in ways we can’t imagine.