A century ago, the French scholar Emile Durkheim explored the power of rituals in creating social ties while at the same time voicing his fear that a “new” social and economic order was destroying the old solidarities. Durkheim was a Jew who rejected his Judaism, and yet he could not escape from religion in his working life. One of the things he taught us was that being modern citizens and supposedly enlightened thinkers does not free us from the constraints of abiding with others in moral, social, cultural, or ethical networks.
Just three summers ago, we — an Anglo-American couple, along with our three children and a cat — arrived in Canada from the United Kingdom. The two of us had met in a hilly cathedral city in the north of England and married several years later overlooking the sea in California. Now we were in flat, land-locked Toronto, wondering how our family would fit in the True North. We were a bit cocky, perhaps; we spoke the lingo, after all, and the American one of us (L.C.) could not help but think of Canada as the proverbial 51st state, while the British one (S.C.) tried hard to remember it was no longer a colony. How different could the place be from our native lands?
We learned it could be very different. The annual Terry Fox Run, which takes place in September, occurred only a few weeks after our arrival and was a clue that we had arrived in a place that we did not yet understand. The walk memorialized a brave but doomed soul who had lost first his leg and then his life to cancer. Before succumbing to the disease, he attempted to run across Canada, an event called the Marathon of Hope (terryfox.org). His failed attempt, more than any success, made him an “everyman” figure, and cemented the notion that the nation must continue to work on his behalf, collectively completing his unfinished task year after year and conferring on him a sort of immortality through responsibility.
On the day of the Terry Fox Run, our children’s school hosted a visitor who had survived cancer but lost her leg in the process. She shared with the assembled students X-rays of her tumorous leg and she described its removal and then demonstrated the use of her prosthesis. The schoolchildren, who had been collecting sponsorship promises from their families over the preceding weeks, then walked a three-mile circuit of the neighbourhood loudly chanting, “Our school walks for Terry Fox” while police officers halted traffic and drivers honked in support (not annoyance).
The schoolchildren by and large seemed inured to the reification of this man, his disease, and his demise. But our offspring, newly arrived, lacked their immunity, or perhaps their empathy. Our 7-year-old, in particular, was horrified, and her participation in the event left her anxious and upset. The night after the walk was Simchat Torah, and amidst the joyous dancing and singing, our daughter had a panic attack, the first of many. She developed a morbid fear of cancer and every day experienced a new pain in one leg or the other. It was many months before she could attend school without fear and anxiety. We, her parents, were distraught: What had we done, disrupting her life and exposing her to such fright, in a strange country? The other children, their parents, even the commuters whose journeys we interrupted, seemed to feel nothing but pride, joy, and, yes, hope.
Terry Fox succumbed, sad to say, to his disease, but he clearly survives in the hearts and minds of Canadians. This national celebration of empathy, channelled through a heroicized individual, serves in some inchoate way to emphasize to us our own foreignness. In discussing the writing of this article with friends and students, “Terry Fox” was described as an example of civil religion in Canada; mention of his name and his struggle provoked reminiscences on the part of adults, and dismay, even anger, at our own lack of empathy.
We did not mean to offend anyone nor do we see ourselves as lacking in empathy; however, we are not adherents of this national ethos. Even should we one day pass the test for Canadian citizenship, particular lessons of citizenship may defy learning. Returning to Durkheim, the answer may be that we, as foreigners, remain outside the bonds of ritual and symbol that make up the national devotion to the unfortunate Terry Fox. We do not (yet) belong. Perhaps our children, or their children, will.email print