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THOMPSON: What are Canadians really like?

October 01, 2018 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


On occasion, I am asked by American friends, “What are Canadians really like?” It is an odd question, of course, because it assumes one monolithic cultural personality shared by more than 37 million people.

But to be fair, I am asked by some Canadian friends, “What are Americans really like?” Neither question is particularly answerable unless you have a really long attention span.

I eschew most of the known stereotypes in answering the question about what defines Canadians. Yes, it’s true various Canadians play lots of golf, hockey and some love curling and ice fishing. Some love poutine and maple syrup, too. Not all Canadians are “nice” and few actually live in an igloo.

Likewise, I pass on most American stereotypes in responding to Canadians about what defines Americans. No, all Americans aren’t rich. We aren’t all arrogant. Some of us actually speak other languages…and even know geography pretty darn well.

My answer most often is an anecdote or story that captures something special about being Canadian or American. One of the stories I most often tell both Americans and Canadians is this single story.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, just fifteen minutes after terrorists using hijacked commercial airliners flew into the World Trade Center Twin Towers in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Arlington, VA, United States air space was closed.

Every aircraft - domestic and international flights arriving and departing U.S. destinations - was forced to land immediately or was diverted from American air space. More than thirty-five thousand passengers and crewmembers found themselves in Canada for days…most in B.C. and Alberta.

The story that I believe best defines what it is to be Canadian was set in Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador. Within minutes of the attacks in the U.S., commercial airliners flying Great Circle Routes - the shortest distances between two points - to and from places like Paris and New York and London and Washington, D.C., started landing in Gander.

I dare say, most Canadians from western provinces have not been to Gander. It’s expensive - about $1,320 - and it takes 15 to 20 hours. It might be a likely destination if you know someone who lives there…a distant cousin, perhaps…that you really love.

I was there in 1972…when I was in the U.S. Air Force. I remember flying in…a rocky and green island poking out of the North Atlantic. The couple days there with members of both the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force, I pretty much saw Gander…which probably had fewer than 7,000 residents at the time. It was quiet then, of course, decidedly different from six days in September of 2001.

By noon on Sept. 11, 38 commercial airliners with 6,725 passengers and crew descended on little Gander. The population has grown since I was there…to about 10,000 people in 2001…and just under 12,000 today.

Imagine the logistical nightmare of any small town anywhere when the population swells by two-thirds. And yet, the people of Gander…and even smaller nearby hamlets like Appleton and towns like Lewisporte - real Canadians - set about doing the near impossible.

In a matter of a few hours, there needed to be 6,725 meals and beverages, 6,725 places to sleep, clothes for 6,725 people (because the baggage from 38 planes couldn’t even be unloaded)…and that was just day one.

In addition, local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals manager Bonnie Harris crawled inside luggage holds to find and care for 19 cats and dogs and a pair of apes bound for the Cincinnati Zoo.

Beyond the very real needs of all these people and animals…material things…there was a need for compassion…and consolation…and friendship. Not a single Canadian of Gander and the surrounding communities failed to help. Many were up 20 hours a day…for six days.

When the 6,725 people left…almost all on Sunday, Sept. 16…they were no longer strangers. They had become friends. Indeed, most of them considered themselves…family.

Every year since, hundreds of Americans and people from other lands, return to Gander on Sept. 11. In addition, there have been countless vacations…weddings…anniversary trips. There are about 10 motels in the area…but most people who return stay with the Canadians who put them up, fed them, clothed them and befriended them those six days…just like family.

Of course, almost everyone from Gander has visited their American friends in the States. Vacations, wedding, anniversaries…you know, family things.

The story is amazing… but it doesn’t end there. No, you see, as you might expect…the Canadians of Gander didn’t accept a dime for their extraordinary show of compassion. So, an American - Shirley Brooks-Jones - a passenger on one of the 38 flights leaving Gander that Sunday…a Delta flight headed to Atlanta…returned the love.

She raised $15,000 in cash from her fellow passengers…and the next year…28 Lewisporte Collegiate high school graduates were given college scholarships. It did not end there. In the years since, 284 local high school grads - Canadians - have gone to college on nearly $2 Million in scholarships from grateful Americans.

A few years ago, a musical written by Canadians - “Come From Away” - appeared in Toronto and around Canada…including Gander…before opening on Broadway. It has since been nominated for a Grammy Award, won a Tony Award, broke attendance records and made money…something few musicals ever do.

It continues on Broadway today…and a Canadian production company is starting a run in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton, among other cities in Canada. Next season, “Come From Away” hits London’s West End and Australia…and a feature length made-for-television movie is in pre-production by American producer Mark Gordon.

Perhaps you can see - whether I’m asked by a Canadian or an American - why I choose this story to define - almost perfectly - Canadians and Americans.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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