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Out of Order

January 26, 2010
tags: ,

With all that is going on in Canada these days, a little story seemed to catch people’s attention. The governor general’s office announced that it was stripping Steve Fonyo of his Order of Canada.

If you are wondering who Steve Fonyo is, that’s part of the story; he’s a cancer survivor who, at age 18, ran across Canada on one leg and raised $14 million for cancer research. Since then, his life has been marred by drug addiction and criminal convictions – hence, the stripping of the award. Those are the rules, and he undeniably broke them.

If you are wondering what the Order of Canada is, that’s also part of the story. It’s an award given to Canadians, on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II, for doing something distinguished or meritorious. But it can be revoked if you screw up later in life.

The Order is a three-tier award; you can be a Companion, Officer or Member of the Order, depending on your level of awesomeness. Yes, it’s an easy award to bash for its obtuseness, but… many people who get it seem to appreciate it, and that’s OK with me. I wouldn’t mind being a Member one day; being an Officer or Companion seems to be more trouble than it’s worth.

But the more I think about Steve Fonyo, there seems to be something fundamentally wrong about the whole thing. Sure, the award demands a lifetime of good behaviour… but Fonyo was made an Officer of the Order in 1985, right after he had completed his run (and when he was only 20 years old). He had done nothing as an adult except to graduate from high school and run across the country. They didn’t HAVE to give him the award right then and there. If the Order is meant to be a lifetime award, then it should be given to someone who’s actually had a chance to live their life.

It seems that the government wants it both ways. They gave Steve Fonyo a lifetime achievement award – but threw themselves an Oscar party to capitalize on his fleeting fame*. When Jose Canseco was 23 years old, he became baseball’s first 40-40 man and won the MVP Award; imagine if Major League Baseball had also inducted him into the Hall of Fame, on the assumption that he would have a a Hall of Fame-career – but with the option of revoking his induction if his career did not turn out as expected.

Fonyo was clearly awarded for one thing and one thing only – running across the country and raising money for cancer – and none of those basic facts have changed. No one denies that he ran across the country on one leg, and no one denies that he raised $14 million for cancer research. Nothing he has done has brought that single feat into question or disrepute – he’s just an addict. It happens.

From the sounds of it, Steve Fonyo has had a bad time of it the last 25 years, and I generally don’t have much sympathy for impaired drivers. But it’s not Steve’s fault that he was given this “lifetime” award when he was 20; that is on us (or the people who represent us, or the Queen, or however it works). To revoke the honour 25 years later brings more dishonour on the award than on the guy who’s lost it – an act of indecency.

* Fonyo’s fame was star-crossed to begin with. His run was, of course, a copy of what Terry Fox had tried to do four years earlier. Many Canadians never really embraced him like they did Fox, and perhaps were not thrilled that he finished what Terry did not.

In fairness to Steve, SOMEONE had to finish what Terry had started. It was an inevitability of history, like Columbus discovering America, or Brett Favre throwing an across-the-body interception. Someone had to do it, and that someone turned out to be Steve. It might have been better had he come along five years later, when memories of Terry Fox were more faded… but that’s not the way it shook out.

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