Unsung heroes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 October, 2004, 12:00am

In some distant corners of the globe, I suppose, the fact that Canadians are about to vote for the greatest Canadian of all time is about as exciting as tidal conditions in the Bay of Biscay, or a list of the top-10 textbooks in Belgium.

But make no mistake, this is big news in the world's second-biggest landmass. And what makes it extraordinary is that a contest of this kind is so against the Canadian grain. We are the most self-effacing people on Earth. So self-effacing, in fact, that when Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor made international headlines 25 years ago by rescuing six US diplomats in Iran, some senior civil servants were actually embarrassed by all the attention.

This brings me to the list of the 10 finalists. It includes four dead politicians, a hockey player, two broadcasters, a dead doctor, a dead inventor, and the man who should be declared winner by acclamation, Terry Fox. Fox was the one-legged runner who still inspires hundreds of thousands of people to run every year for cancer research.

Mr Taylor should, by all rights, be a finalist. But he is not on the list. He is not even in the top 100, which is a scandal. Mr Taylor is representative of that period in history when Canada and the US were the closest of friends, and even shared an international vision. It is an era worth remembering.

It was 25 years ago, Jimmy Carter was in the White House, his political stock about to plummet. A group of revolutionary students in Tehran were in control of the US embassy, and they were holding more than 50 Americans hostage. The crisis would last more than 400 days.

Mr Taylor was the only bright spot in a dismal and depressing story. In an act of remarkable derring-do, Mr Taylor and his staff, risking their own lives, hid six Americans who had escaped the student dragnet. Mr Taylor eventually smuggled them out of Iran to safety, disguised as a film crew. The handsome ambassador returned to a triumphant reception in the US. Today, he is a trivia question.

Canadians have a habit of keeping their heroes in the attic. Most Canadian children would not even recognise the name Norman Bethune today (he is the doctor who marched with Mao Zedong). But, singer Shania Twain, actress Pamela Anderson and actor Craig Kielburger (who?) are high on the top-100 list. One could blame this on the internet, the sorry state of education, or even the passage of time.

But the contest has two fatal flaws. It is undemocratic - you can vote as often as you want by phone, text message, or on the internet. And it is biased - there are no women in the Top 10. So, in the best Canadian tradition, I am sitting this election out.