AN ICONIC TRAGEDY

The horrific bus crash that took the lives of 16 players, coaches and team personnel from a Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League team has sparked a national outpouring of grief that is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon.  Since the April 6th crash, Canadian media has been filled with stories that have acquainted readers, listeners and viewers with every detail about the Humboldt Broncos team and town and the names, lives, billets and hometowns of each and every one of the deceased and several of the injured.  The public has responded with a wide variety of tributes, from the touchingly symbolic (leaving hockey sticks outside our doors at night) to the breathtakingly tangible (just under $12 million raised to date through a record-breaking GoFundMe campaign to benefit victims and their families).  And it all seems entirely appropriate.  Sixteen people, thirteen of whom were between the ages of 16 and 21, lost their lives; another thirteen have been grievously, and is some cases, permanently injured.  It is by any measure, a massive tragedy.

Yet there is something extraordinary at work here.  The nation, and perhaps parts of the world, have been galvanized in the face of this tragedy in a way that is unprecedented.  These sixteen motor vehicle fatalities will, after all, be less than 3/4 of 1% of the motor vehicle deaths that will occur in Canada in 2018 if this is a typical year.  Even adjusted for the age of the bulk of the victims, it will still likely only account for just over 3% of motor vehicle deaths among Canadians between the ages of 16 and 24.

Even as a single tragic event, the scope and breadth of the public grief is unprecedented.  It is even greater than that which followed the Lac Magantic train crash and explosion that killed 47 people, including an identical number of victims between the ages of 16 and 21, on July 6, 2013.  It is also a far greater chorus of grief than that which greeted the September 18, 2013 collision in Ottawa of an OC Transpo bus and a train.  While the latter involved only six fatalities, the prospect of a bus colliding with a train in the middle of a city is a far more personal horror story for Canada’s largely urban population than an accident involving a coach bus at a rural intersection.

But perhaps it is exactly that distinction that is at work here.  A train rolling down a grade and exploding in a town or a bus colliding with a train at a level crossing are horrible tragedies that can happen anywhere.  A coach bus full of young hockey players from a small town heading across the Prairies to a playoff game in an unusually cold Canadian spring hit by a transport truck carrying a load of peat moss killing 16 and injuring 13 others: that is an iconic Canadian tragedy.  Gordon Lightfoot could (and might) write a song about it; Gordon Pinsent could (and might) play the wizened and wise old coach in the movie.  It is not just a tragedy; it is viewed both within Canada and abroad through a sentimental and nostalgic lens as a quintessential Canadian tragedy.

The Humboldt Broncos have shown yet again that, despite fifty years of unceasing urbanization, massive diverse immigration and American cultural imperialism, Canadian iconography endures in the hearts of its citizens and the world.

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