November 18, 2004

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Just who are the greatest Canadians?

The CBC's Greatest Canadian Project says more about who watches CBC and responds to polls than it does about who is great, but it has served one useful purpose: to stimulate us to ponder the nature of greatness in Canada.

Who is great, and what is greatness? The CBC's Greatest Canadian project has narrowed down the list of great ones to a top 10. Over the next few weeks they will slim that down to a single human being, the greatest Canadian ever.

Except the voting CBC viewers eliminated women, aboriginals, and most non-white Canadians except for Japanese-Canadian David Suzuki. The list is heavy on scientists, prime ministers, and hockey guys, missing broad swatches of artists, comics, writers, thinkers, musicians, and yes, even professors.

The list is flawed, and the countdown to the ultimate great one has more in common with reality television shows like Survivor than with reality. The roll of greatness says more about who watches CBC and responds to polls than it does about who is great, but it has served one useful purpose: to stimulate us to ponder the nature of greatness in Canada.

My fallback position when pondering is to query the dictionary. At least some members of the CBC list qualify lexiconically as great, defined as “very large in size.” All make the grade when the definition is expanded into at least one of “powerful, influential, and distinguished.”

Still, dictionary definitions are deceptive, tolerant of this embarrassingly exclusive set of good old great boys. Each of these eminent Canadians may be individually accomplished, but the collective group of 10 diminishes the inspirational potential of what greatness should be about.

I've had the opportunity to approach greatness from a different perspective, through my work in SFU's undergraduate semester in dialogue, as well as with Action Canada, a leadership development program affiliated with the Wosk centre for dialogue.

The undergraduate program uses dialogue to focus student education on public issues, and is designed to inspire students with a sense of civic responsibility and encourage their passion to improve Canadian society. Action Canada accepts up to 20 of Canada's best and brightest young emerging leaders each year as fellows who join together in a program focused on leadership development and the pursuit of public policy projects of significance to Canada.

These two programs have generated my own list of great ones, and inspired my mood about greatness to shift from cynicism about the CBC to optimism that we are indeed a country blessed with greatness. My growing sense of hope has emerged from moments populated by moving examples of caring, courage, engagement, and character - moments that have revealed the everyday interactions between us that define greatness in a healthier manner than the insipid CBC list.

One element of greatness emerged from an offhand comment made by a student in the undergraduate semester. The dialogue that day had veered vaguely into the great mysteries of human existence. Finally, an impatient student, tired of our descent into intangible platitudes, asked another student to define the meaning of life. Without missing a beat, she responded “The ultimate goal of living is to reduce pain and suffering.”

Indeed, the undergraduate semester students and the Action Canada fellows are heavily represented by those whose actions present daily testimonials to caring about others. Action Canada fellows include a surgeon dedicated to improving aboriginal health care in Canada and a gynecologist providing care for women in remote areas of the Himalayas, a law clerk in the Supreme Court who is launching a micro-enterprise project in Africa, a graduate student who organized a program to donate residence food to Toronto's homeless, and two of the initiators of Engineers without Borders, among many examples of contributions.

Undergraduate semester students are not as far along in their career pathways, but nonetheless are replete with volunteer accomplishments. They can be found quietly assisting at shelters for battered women and camps bringing together Palestinian and Jewish youth, toiling in basements refurbishing computers for donation to impoverished Canadians, serving as big sisters to juvenile prostitutes through Youth Court, living in remote Latin American villages encouraging local enterprise, and assisting in recreational programs for the physically and mentally disabled.

Helping others may not be a uniquely Canadian contribution to greatness, but I have been struck by a made-in-Canada ethic that applauds accomplishment while diminishing focus on the accomplisher. A particularly compelling insight into this side of Canadian greatness occurred during the inaugural meeting with the first Action Canada cohort of fellows.

A number of prominent Canadians from political, NGO, aboriginal, academic, and other spheres were asked to come to dinner one evening and present short verbal essays about their visions of leadership. Ed Broadbent, MP and former leader of the NDP party, uncorked a message that I've since had printed, framed and posted on my office wall: “Real leaders want to do something, not to be somebody.”

The lack of ego among many of the guest speakers in the undergraduate semester and Action Canada has been palpable, expanding the concept of greatness beyond accomplishment into character. I think, for example, of Ken Lyotier, founder and director of United We Can, a program in Vancouver's downtown eastside that describes itself as a “street charity that means business.” A bottle depot for returnables provides jobs for 24 individuals, all with barriers to re-entering the workforce, and to hundreds of bottle collectors across the city. The crossroads and lanes program employs residents to clean neighbourhoods and public spaces, while the computer club offers free computer and internet access to low-income residents.

Lyotier is remarkable not only for growing a simple concept into a multi-million dollar enterprise generating income for the needy, but more for his continued deflection of much-deserved attention from himself onto his organization. He is almost invisible on their web site in spite of his central role and has declined numerous offers to be nominated for prestigious awards.

I think also of George Harris, director of the Gulf Islands Film and Television School (GIFTS), a residential media training program located on Galiano Island. They offer intensive workshops and programs in filmmaking for teens and young adults, inspired by a desire to imbue students with confidence in their own creative visions and to remove technological and financial barriers to media access.

It was only when he was hard-pressed by the undergraduate semester students that Harris revealed the precipice of bankruptcy over which his program teeters, supported primarily by his personal financial donations that allow disadvantaged youth to explore their creative potential.

A portrait of Canadian greatness has emerged from these and innumerable other experiences with students and fellows, a picture represented by quiet contributions and deflection of praise away from the doer and onto the deed. These moments have produced glimpses of greatness in the everyday, extraordinary accomplishments conducted without fanfare or expectation of recognition on a CBC list of the great.

Modest Canadians may be less obvious than the heralded great ones, but their stories of voluntary contributions, humble personalities and unheralded deeds are compelling, and their diversity exhilarating.

True greatness is more readily and realistically rooted in the not-so-rich-and-famous than among celebrities. If I were a public broadcaster, it is among the ordinary that I would begin building my list of greatest Canadians.

Mark Winston is a professor and fellow at the Morris J. Wosk centre for dialogue, and directs the undergraduate semester in dialogue.

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