Is Toronto hero-poor?
Is Toronto lacking in heroes? I suppose that's a somewhat strange-sounding question -- surely a city of our size must be loaded with heroic folk -- but inspired by Martin Luther King Day in the U.S., I spent a little bit of time this morning trying to list off both Toronto-born heroes and those who the city might have adopted over the years. Although I could come up with a few people worthy of consideration, my list was decidedly short.
That's not, of course, to suggest that there aren't plenty of heroic Torontonians, but rather that we don't seem to be particularly idol-oriented. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that merely doing something heroic doesn't ensure that one will become a hero. That's the first step, surely -- but after a brilliant, altruistic or death-defying act or even a lifetime of patient service to a worthy cause, two additional things must happen for an individual to receive recognition as a hero: 1.) the act or acts in question must receive widespread attention (i.e. there must be media exposure) and 2.) the public must collectively agree (for the most part) that person in question is worthy of out of the ordinary recognition.
Some years back, the historian Charlotte Gray wrote an article in the Globe that tackled this subject from a national perspective. "Why are we so hero-poor? At one level, the answers to this question are embedded in the nature of Canada itself. We live in a country that has a weak national culture and strong regional identities," she argues.
If this is true -- and it very well might be -- that would mean, at least theoretically, that even in the absence of national heroes, a city like Toronto might still enjoy a well established group of local idols. And to some degree we do. Toronto has long claimed Jane Jacobs as a hero, hockey fans still recall Wendel Clark's finesse and pugilism with wistful nostalgia, Margaret Atwood is nowhere more adored than here, and Lester B. Pearson, though a political figure, is still considered one of the most important Canadians of all time.
The list could go on, but taking these individuals as examples, I'm struck by the fact that none of them actually seem altogether that heroic. Worthy of admiration? Without a doubt. Worthy of idolization by a wide segment of the local population? Perhaps not so much. Why is that? Is it because of the relative lack of risk involved in their various pursuits? A general lack of wow-factor? Or perhaps what high school kids say is true, our history is just too boring to spark passionate responses to potential heroes.
Surely it's difficult to compete with Martin Luther King as far as people worthy of idolization go, but I get the sense that we have difficulty manufacturing heroes not because Toronto doesn't produce talented and remarkable people, but because we tend to have difficulty coming to consensus or caring enough to collectively adore given individuals. But, here's a question: what if this isn't a bad thing? What if a lack of heroes is actually an admirable trait?
Perhaps the reason why the city lacks a long list of heroes that one could easily recite when prodded is because diversity is the cornerstone of our culture. Gray makes this argument in relation to Canada as a whole in the article referred to above, but Toronto would presumably take the theory to its logical limit. Along with the fact that this city has a multicultural population, scores of its residents have brought with them heroes and traditions from their countries of origin (or indeed their parents' country of origin).
Rather than rally around a small group of homegrown heroes, perhaps Torontonians quietly celebrate a vast array of heroic types, few of whom will ever become deified citywide. Lacking a homogeneous population, it's the minor narratives that serve to sustain our historical sense.
So by way of testing this theory out, who would you cite as a Toronto hero?
Photo by michelle_dirocco on Flickr.