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BACK ROADS BILL: How a dream lives on in a heart-shaped rock

This week, Bill takes us to visit a less well known monument to Terry Fox

It will have been 43 years since an ending that became a beginning this coming Sept. 17. Most of us still know of Terry Fox and his story but there is one element to this story that not many know of.

A few random thoughts to get started with. I have a real affection for the rocks of Northern Ontario and this year, I have been thinking about the quintessential Canadian. Sunday, Sept. 17 is forthcoming and cancer has affected us all in many ways.

On the back streets of Toronto, there are two rocks -- not so often seen -- one perched upon the other as an interesting memorial to Terry Fox.

On Sept. 1, 1980, in the afternoon, Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope came to an end, but the annual fundraising events continue to be a reminder. We know the story that happened over four decades ago.

Terry Fox was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma (bone cancer) in his right leg in 1977 and had his right leg amputated 15 cm above the knee. While in the hospital, Terry was so overcome by the suffering of other cancer patients that he decided to run across Canada to raise money for cancer research. It was a national dream.

An annual event was inspired by Fox’s 1980 Marathon of Hope, which he started in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and planned to end in Victoria, BC. After running roughly a marathon a day (42 km or 26 mi) for 143 days, Fox was forced to end his journey, (5,373 kilometres/3339 miles) just east of Thunder Bay, as the cancer that claimed his right leg had spread to his lungs. He passed away on June 28, 1981, at the age of 22.

The rock

The back roads are preferred but back streets work well enough sometimes. The one this story is about is on the south side of Toronto.

There is a three-hectare (eight-acre) park near the Concord City Place development. The area is bordered by Bathurst Street to the west, Lake Shore Boulevard to the south, Front Street to the north and Blue Jays Way and the Rogers Centre to the east. First off, within the park, (just west of Spadina Ave. and at 95 Fort York Blvd.), adjacent to the Gardiner Expressway, you will notice a red canoe big enough to stand in, (called ‘Canoe Landing Park’) then you will see gigantic fishing bobbers and a white beaver dam that glows myriad colours in the dark.

But complementing all of this, situated just north of the Tom Thomson canoe replica, is the heart-shaped stone, mounted on a larger glacial erratic, retrieved from the point where his monumental journey ended. It is all part of a one-mile run called the Terry Fox Miracle Mile bordered by Terry Fox banners.

The artwork was designed by famed Canadian writer and artist Douglas Coupland. In 2009, a Terry Fox Miracle Mile track was conceived as homage to the athlete, fully endorsed by the Fox family. The track was integrated into the park site, with 10 large photographs taken from Mr. Coupland's book on Terry Fox, entitled Terry, to mark the way. A large rock taken from the spot outside of Thunder Bay where he collapsed at the end of his epic run was placed at the beginning and end of the Miracle Mile, "like a touchstone," as Douglas Coupland has stated.

The Toronto rock is aptly named A Touchstone, it was retrieved by the author at the exact mathematical spot on the Trans Canada Highway where Terry’s run ended on Sept. 1, 1980. Coincidentally this heart-shaped rock is an erratic. It is about the size of a football and was found about 20 m (66’) from where the run was stopped. Terry is a pictorial biography written by Coupland in 2005 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Fox's death. The rock is featured on page 111.

The mileage marker

The new ‘Marathon of Hope End’ mileage marker, east of Thunder Bay is painted in blue background and white lettering, with Canada and Ontario flag logos, and if you are travelling too fast you will drive right by it on the north side of Highway 11/17, just past the Shuniah landfill road, heading west.

The commemorative Terry Fox statue and lookout is another 11.5 km (7 miles) to the west. It has become a tourism Mecca.

The nine-foot-high bronze statue is set on a 45-ton granite base, with a foundation of local amethyst. The monument depicts the provincial and territorial coats-of-arms and the Canadian emblems, the maple leaf and beaver, for the monument attempts to show how Terry himself, through his strength and commitment, "united Canadians as they had never been united before." An inscription on the monument states that Terrance Stanley Fox (1958 - 1981) "inspired an entire generation of Canadians with his determination and devotion."

The highway to Thunder Bay (from Pass Lake) is now four lanes with a median. The iconic mileage marker is not the original. That marker was a wooden post painted white with the words “Mile 3339 Terry Fox’s ‘Marathon of Hope’ September 1, 1980,” and it has a new home. This meaningful mile marker was given to the Terry Fox Centre by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. The Terry Fox Centre added this artifact to the travelling exhibition: Terry Fox: Running to the Heart of Canada.

Fox facts

At this time, Terry’s hope of raising $1 from every Canadian to fight cancer has been realized and exceeded. The national population was 24.1 million (now, 2023 population numbers – 40 million) and the Terry Fox Marathon of Hope fund raised $24.17 million in 1981. This year it is $900 million raised.

Martha McClew is the Vice President, Community and School Programs for the Fox Foundation.

“Thank you so much for inquiring about Terry and his impact on Canada and Canadians 43 years later and connecting it with this incredible commemorative rock," she said. "I have to tell you that I did not know about this rock and the plaque.”

She said the Foundation is approaching $900 million raised this year for cancer research, starting with Terry’s Marathon of Hope in 1980. This is largely raised by the annual Terry Fox Run in September, hosted in 650 communities, 9,000 schools and 40 countries around the world. Last year the foundation was honoured to be supported by more than 3.5 million participants.

“We receive many inquiries about where Terry ended his run but the rock itself is not asked about," McClew said. "There was a humble white marker and plaque that marked the location where Terry stopped running, and people were disappointed it was removed when the Trans-Canada Highway was enlarged

“I would say that Canadians are always interested in understanding why Terry’s story remains so powerful and relevant today, 42 years after his death. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, few stories last more than a couple of days in our consciousness, and yet Terry and the Marathon of Hope continues to be discussed," she said. "That is partly because of the annual run every September, but many charity runs have come and gone in that time.

"I believe it is more about the fact that Canadians see the best of ourselves in Terry – we want to believe we can all be selfless, brave, honest, humble and steadfast.

"Parents see him as an example to their children of what can be accomplished with effort (in any arena in life) and children see him as hero, despite the fact that he never saw himself as one. Terry makes us believe we can all make a difference.”

She explained there are individual stories inspired by Terry.

“We are fortunate to be surrounded by incredible people who do amazing things in honour of Terry to benefit cancer research. We have a wonderful man, Jim Terrion, who is approaching his own $1 million fundraising mark. Just this weekend 9-year-old Euan Bingham rode 100km and last winter sledge hockey player Tyler McGregor raised $100,000 as he participated in events across Canada."

Why does Terry stay with us?

“As the years have gone on, Canadians have adopted Terry’s dream as their own, McClew said. "It is hard to find anyone unaffected by cancer and participating in, or donating to, the annual run gives people the change to make a difference to fight a disease that impacts us all.

"Back in 1981, Terry’s parents wondered if the run would last even five years, but they soon came to understand how their son had changed the face of charitable giving in Canada. People were inspired to start fundraising events for all different types of cancers and other diseases. Terry was an innovator, running across Canada on an artificial leg, refusing commercialization of his run, and introducing the era of charity 'fun' runs.

“Finally, our message this year is so inspiring and connects us to Terry’s origin story," McClew added. "After Terry was forced to stop running, more than 60,000 letters, cards, telegrams and artwork started flooding into his family home, many addressed simply to “Terry Fox, British Columbia”.

"Many started with the words Dear Terry, contained words of love and encouragement, and often shared deeply personal experiences. Every letter inspired Terry, and his family, during many difficult days.

"This year, we are inviting Canadians to share how Terry’s legacy inspires them online here and by completing and mailing a postcard we are distributing across Canada. All postcards will have the chance to be featured in both our 2023 online campaign and in a custom #DearTerry poster that will be unveiled for sale on Run Day.”

Sunday Sept. 17

One prominent survey list of Canadian heroes, leading into 2017, was topped by former Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau, followed by Terry Fox, NDP leader Tommy Douglas, former Liberal prime minister Lester B. Pearson, astronaut Chris Hadfield, environmental activist David Suzuki, NDP leader Jack Layton, Sir. John A. Macdonald, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, and Lieutenant-General Romeo Dallaire, the Rwanda soldier and Liberal senator. In a 2010, in a national Canadian Studies survey, 9 out of 10 respondents said they remembered Terry Fox. When asked what Terry Fox brought to mind, the answers were: “courage, cancer, ran across Canada, hero, determination, and tenacity.”

When travelling to the northwestern Ontario for a back roads adventure stop at the lookout and gaze out on to Lake Superior and the iconic shape of the Sleeping Giant, the panoramic view of the high cliffs of the Sibley Peninsula. In a metaphorical way he is a giant alright, in so many ways. See the map for the Highway 11/17 and Toronto Terry Fox markers.

There are 9,000 schools that participate in the run across Canada, with close to 250 in Northern Ontario (North Bay to Kenora) it is one of those “meant to be” locational idioms, now part of our Canadian heritage. For more information, go to the website.

McClew puts Terry’s life into a Canadian perspective.

“I see him an indelibly linked to the very fabric of our country through an event that connects neighbour with neighbour, communities with schools, in small villages and big cities, coast to coast to coast," she said. "In a world where we often feel more and more disconnected, the annual run binds us together in the best of ways.”

Soon enough it will be a half-century, not geologic time but like the age and texture of rocks his statues will never be questioned or removed. Terry Fox represents the exemplary or typical example of a quality or class and his story will be passed down through many generations to come.


Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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