Terry Fox and the New Canadian Identity – Dispatches from the Brains of Canadians

Terry Fox and the New Canadian Identity – Dispatches from the Brains of Canadians

Few people have captured the imaginations of Canadians quite like Terry Fox. But is that what their brains say?


As a kid growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, the presence of Terry Fox was as familiar and ubiquitous as pizza and donut days at school. Each September, young and old alike lined up to run in Terry Fox’s memory and raise money for cancer, a cause to which so many of us have a personal connection. Schoolyards and public parks played host to the events that themselves spawned small economies – bake sales, book sales, barbecues – all in the name of a young man who attempted the seemingly impossible.


Now, thirty-six years on from Terry Fox’s courageous marathon of hope – his cross-Canada run to raise money for cancer research – are Canadians still captivated by Terry Fox?


To find out, Brainsights analyzed the brain activity of 200 adults. The participants watched 60 minutes of video content whilst wearing electroencephalographs (EEGs), which measure brain wave activity every 2 milliseconds. The device measures participant attention, emotional connection, and memorability, all at the subconscious level. This allowed us to quantify emotional resonance in a powerful way without relying simply on asking people.


After compiling the data, we segmented the results by a range of variables to understand where and how different Canadians responded to narrative, characters and themes.


Among the 60 minutes of content were five short-films – Heritage Minutes, produced by Historica Canada – that focus on people and events of significance in Canadian history.


When compared to the four other Heritage Minutes* that were screened during the research study, the Terry Fox Minute recorded the highest performance overall. Why?



Terry Fox Heritage Minute


What is it about this Canadian icon that continues to inspire the hearts and minds of Canadians?


The story and character of Terry Fox has something for everyone. But the data pointed to something surprising: Fox’s story resonates most strongly with those born outside of Canada. The brain activity of newcomers to Canada suggests that Fox’s run was, in some ways, a metaphor for their experience.




In fact, New Canadians, who comprised about 35% of our sample, were 11% more engaged overall with the Terry Fox Minute than those born in Canada. Statistically, this is considerable: it is 11% more attention, 11% more emotional connection, and 11% more memorable for this group. That is the difference between ‘breakthrough’ and ‘wallpaper’.


Could this be the novelty of Fox’s story – and Canadian history more broadly – for new Canadians?


Perhaps. But then we’d have expected to see a similar trend across all Heritage Minutes, and that wasn’t the case. Furthermore, new Canadians were 20% more engaged with the Fox spot than any other Heritage Minute, so there’s something unique about this story and character than connects across cultures.


An analysis of the moment-by-moment neural response paints a fascinating picture. There’s a key moment in the Minute, between seconds 15 to 19 where Fox’s voiceover says ‘I take one mile at a time, 26 miles a day’. This moment connects 31% more strongly with those born outside of Canada compared to those born in Canada.


'I take one mile at a time, 26 miles a day'

‘I take one mile at a time, 26 miles a day’


Moments later, the voiceover again quotes Fox: ‘I want to set an example that’ll never be forgotten’. This scene once again registers more strongly for those born outside of Canada than those born in it – 20%, in fact.


The final significant difference in response between new Canadians and those born in Canada is in the finale of the spot (seconds 46-59), where the legacy of Fox – the movement his efforts inspired – plays out with vintage footage of his run. The moment is 16% more effective with new Canadians.


The 'Marathon of Hope' - The legacy of Terry Fox

The ‘Marathon of Hope’ – The legacy of Terry Fox


These differences in response reveal something beautiful about Terry Fox’s story and what it means for Canada: that it is in many ways analogous to the newcomer experience, an experience that defines the Canada of today.


Newcomers who have immigrated to Canada are a diverse group, but one thing they all share is that the place they now call home is not the same as their place of birth. By choice or by chance, they’ve had to forge for themselves a life and a legacy in another country, taking their figurative marathon one mile at a time, and hoping to set an example that will be remembered in the next generation.


What Fox’s story illustrates is that even against all odds, the values of hard work, sacrifice, and a belief in one’s purpose can bring lasting and meaningful impact to the world.



*The five Heritage Minutes that we selected covered a range of Canadian icons and topics, including medical research (Wilder Penfield), residential schools (Chanie Wenjack,), media theory (Marshall McLuhan), women’s rights (Nellie McClung) and cancer research (Terry Fox). Three of the Minutes were released in the 1990s (Penfield, McLuhan and McClung) and two were recent releases (Fox and Wenjack).


All images and Heritage Minutes from Historica Canada Youtube

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