This will be my only 9-11 column. Once one passes a certain age, one can choose to live one’s life according to a calendar of grief or choose to move on. I choose the later.
Ten years ago, every airplane headed for the United States was diverted, prevented from landing on American soil. The majority of them, from east and west, were accepted without question by the Canadians at airports as divergent as Gander in Newfoundland, Halifax in Nova Scotia, Vancouver in British Columbia and Edmonton in Alberta, airports much smaller than the Delta hub in Atlanta or the mega-airports in Los Angeles and New York.
Tens of thousands of passengers were sheltered at least overnight, fed, given access to sanitation facilities, had prescriptions filled for free and had alternative travel arrangements made. The Canadian people did not have to do this. They just did. They also flooded Red Cross facilities to donate blood that, to their great sorrow, was not needed by the victims of that day.
Months later, when Canadian Prime Minister Jean Crétien visited the United States, a reporter asked President Bush if he had thanked the Canadian people for their help that day. Bush replied that there are things that “go without saying.” Barbara Bush must have been too busy being a political wife to teach her children manners because “Thank you” should never “go without saying.”
Stanley Ann Dunham and her parents, Madelyn and Stanley Armour Dunham, did a much better job teaching manners, and this past week, President Obama corrected a wrong. He sent a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper thanking Canadians for everything they did that day, saying Canada was “our true friend during one of the darkest moments in U. S. history.” He wrote, “We remember with gratitude and affection how the people of Canada offered us the comfort of friendship and extraordinary assistance that day and in the following days by opening their airports, homes and hearts to us.”
He paid special tribute to the people of Gander, Newfoundland. Gander is the site of a relatively small airport which has the unpleasant distinction of being the place where planes going from Europe to America on the North Atlantic route are landed if there is a problem with a passenger on board. It doesn’t matter if it’s a unruly drunk, a sick child or a suspected terrorist – the plane lands in Gander. That’s in addition to the way Gander’s 9,900 residents accepted 38 planes carrying 6,600 passengers on 9-11.
President Obama also thanked the Canadians for their assistance and sacrifice in the “war on terror.” Canada has lost 157 soldiers and 5 civilians in Afghanistan. A section of Ontario’s Highway 401 has been designated the Highway of Heroes, and Canadians line the roadway and stand on overpasses to observe the passage of vehicles carrying their war dead from the base at Trenton to Toronto. It is a stunning contrast to the way America’s war dead were slipped into the country with only the immediate honors accorded them in secret ceremonies at Dover air base.
Without a formal declaration by the United Nations, however, Canada refused to participate in the invasion of Iraq. They have provided support personnel there, but no active combat troops. That decision, not to be part of the “coalition of the billing” in Iraq, caused many right wing Americans to condemn Canada the way they condemned France, though no one to my knowledge suggested renaming Canadian bacon “freedom bacon,” or boycotting maple syrup.
I was in Canada shortly after an American warplane dropped a bomb on a group of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, killing four and seriously wounding eight. It is indicative of the Canadian character that the people we met, hundreds of them in three days of family reunions, did not blame America for the incident, just the administration. Canadians differentiate between the people of a country and their government in a way Americans do not differentiate between terrorists and the religion they espouse. Though Canada’s war casualties are a shared grief, the primary grievances among Canadians about the last ten years are just two – the stupidity of the way the border is being handled and the arrogance of a President who failed to acknowledge their superbly co-ordinated aid on our most traumatic, paralyzing day.
Canadians are used to being ignored by America, used to having our shared history and culture forgotten, used to being made fun of by Americans. There is a fine line between being mocked for a funny accent and over-abundance of niceness and being disrespected. President Obama has redressed that wrong.
On 9-11, 372 people from 56 other countries died. Twenty four of them were Canadians, the same as the number of Japanese. They were the sixth largest nationality to experience losses that day. These figures do not include the origin nations of nationalized and legal immigrant Americans among the 2,669. The United Kingdom’s 66 dead would have included about a dozen more, but the staff of Sarah Ferguson’s office was on the street awaiting her when the first plane hit and she loaded them all into her limo and drove away. India lost 41, the Dominican Republic 47, and South Korea 28. Peru lost its entire foreign trade delegation and with it, the means for marginal-income Peruvians to market their handcrafted goods. Six Muslim nations are among those 56. In commemorating this day, we should also remember that we were not alone that day.
On September 12, 2011, not a single act of terrorism was carried out anywhere in the world. That is something else we should remember.