Terry Fox and the new Canadian identity

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 his cause (cancer research, 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 awareness of and 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 milli-seconds (see below for description of our approach).

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 5 minutes of short-films on Canadian history. The Heritage Minutes, produced by Historica Canada, focus on people and events of significance in Canadian history in order to entertain and educate.

When compared to five other Heritage Minutes* screened during the research study, the Terry Fox Minute recorded the highest performance overall. Why? 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 everybody. But it’s the analogue to the experience of new Canadians that is most powerful.

Fox's story resonates strongly with those not born in Canada. New Canadians comprised about 35% of our sample, and their engagement level with the Minute was 11% higher than those born in Canada. Put another way, the Terry Fox spot was more than 10% more compelling for new Canadians, than for participants born in Canada.

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, the Fox spot connected 20% deeper than any other Heritage Minute for new Canadians, 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 second 15-19 where Fox’s voiceover says ‘I take one mile at a time, 26 miles a day’. This moment connects 31% more strongly for those born outside Canada versus those born in Canada.

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.

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, in Canada hard work, sacrifice and a belief in one’s purpose can reap rewards and bring a better life to all.


*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