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One Canada Day found me in Canada, so I asked a Canadian whether an event, like the Declaration of Independence, was being celebrated, or just the general fact of Canadianness. The Canadian was puzzled and consulted with fellow Canadians, who agreed that July 1 had something to do with Confederation, although of what no one was quite sure.
Lacking exciting political events in their history, Canadians pride themselves on their disasters. When I landed in Halifax, the driver who took us into the city proudly pointed out the cemetery for Titanic victims and recommended a restaurant in the funeral home building that had received the corpses of Titanic victims. He also sketched the horrors of an explosion that occurred in 1917 when an ammunition ship caught fire in the harbor. Crowds rushed to the scene to watch the fire, ignoring the warnings of sailors to flee. The ship’s explosion was the biggest man-made explosion before Hiroshima. The water was blown out of the harbor and drowned those on shore who had not been killed by the blast. Thousands of houses were destroyed, many set on fire by overturned stoves, incinerating the trapped inhabitants. Flying glass shards blinded those who were looking out windows at the moment of the blast. The sound of the explosion was heard 200 kilometers away. A six-day blizzard compounded the suffering. In all, 2,000 people died, 9,000 were injured, and 25,000 were left homeless—out of a national population of 8,000,000. If the United States had suffered proportionally in September 2001, New York would have had 60,000 dead. Canada’s numbers are smaller, but the trauma has been greater.
I was therefore not surprised to come across, in a tourist book section, Disaster Canada, which recounts major Canadian catastrophes since the beginning of the nineteenth century. A fine catalog they make. The numbers of victims were not inconsiderable, especially when understood for their impact on a country so much less populous than the United States. In 1914, the passenger liner the Empress of Ireland was rammed in the fog by a Norwegian ship while it was still in the St. Lawrence River. Over 1,000 passengers died. In today’s United States the equivalent death toll would be 30,000.
Crisis, war, and disaster can bring out the best in human nature. As soon as Boston heard of the Halifax disaster, it rushed supplies and doctors and medicine, saving hundreds of lives. To this day, Halifax in gratitude gives Boston its city Christmas tree. The heroism of the Halifax police and firemen was equal to that of New Yorkers under attack on September 11.
But human behavior under stress is not always edifying: When in 1881 the coastal steamer Victoria capsized, the survivors, whose playful running back and forth had caused the disaster, struggled to shore only to be met by a farmer who ordered them off his land. Drivers transporting the corpses tripled their fees. When in 1898 the liner La Bourgoyne went down, the French crew survived dry, but only one woman passenger lived—the others had allegedly been stabbed by the crew to keep them out of the lifeboats.
Canadian disasters have almost always been brought about by human stupidity, shortsightedness, carelessness, or greed, and often the victims shared partly in the blame. Having shown they are fools, men then show themselves to be heroes. The opportunity to be a hero is often the result of someone’s (perhaps even the hero’s) having been a fool. This felix culpa, this happy fault, makes most narratives of heroic behavior in disaster edifying, so long as one does not look too deeply into the circumstances. Where there are heroes, there are usually knaves and fools, and sometimes they are even the same people.
The human race, no matter how much it messes up the everyday world of family and business, likes to congratulate itself on how well it does in trying circumstances. Sometimes extraordinary virtues are exercised by louses, such as Arthur Schindler, an adulterer who stole Jewish property but later became a righteous Gentile for his rescue of Jews from the gas chamber. However, training in virtue in ordinary times and ways is the best preparation for exercising virtue in extraordinary situations. In addition to the trials Canada shares with all humanity, God has given this country an excellent school of fortitude in its weather (Mon pais, c’est l’hiver), and Canadians (and we) could do without the human bungling that has provided all too many opportunities for the exercise of heroism.