In our travels throughout developing countries we hear many proverbs that speak to the power of community to overcome challenges. A favourite saying from Ethiopia translates as: "When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion." Such sayings are forged from years of hardship, when collective action is necessary for individuals to succeed.
Although we're barely more than halfway through, we can definitely say that so far, 2013 has been a year of particular hardship for many Canadians -- from severe flooding in Alberta, a flash flood in Toronto, to the Lac Mégantic train disaster. As we've followed the news stories, it has been uplifting to see that even though our communities have transformed from collective societies raising barns together to individuals sitting alone in front of our computers and conducting all our conversations using Facebook messenger, we've never lost the community spirit.
In the Regina Leader-Post we read about Jason and Trent Field, brothers who live in Prince Albert, Sask., and Cochrane, Alta., respectively, and together own a business that includes industrial vacuum services. When the historic flooding rolled over southern Alberta in late June, they loaded up their heavy vacuum trucks and headed for Calgary where they worked 20 hours a day or more for days on end, pumping the water out of flooded basements -- free of charge.
On CBC TV we heard about Leah Bascombe and Erik Anderson. Bascombe, a resident of High River, lost everything in the flood -- her home and her car. The car was uninsured and she had no money to replace it. Anderson, who lives in Calgary, planned to sell his 1999 Buick LeSabre. When the deluge swallowed whole neighbourhoods, he posted on Facebook an offer to simply give the car away to a flood victim. Bascombe is now mobile again thanks to the generosity of a total stranger.
After flood waters submerged parts of Toronto in early July, the web site Reddit was a treasure trove of wonderful stories as people expressed their gratitude to those who had come to their aid. One poster, stranded at a downtown transit station, praised the young men who spontaneously offered a ride home. And it wasn't just a short ride around the corner -- the trip took an hour and a half! The good Samaritans didn't ask for gas money. Another woman told of having to abandon the taxi she was in when it was swamped by rising water. She and her baby were caught in the driving rain on a street corner wondering where to go for refuge. A woman passing by took the sweater off her back and handed it over to keep the infant warm.
In Lac Mégantic, reports say there has been a steady stream of traffic from neighbouring communities--people dropping off clothing, blankets and toys for those who lost so much when a runaway train loaded with oil exploded, obliterating the heart of the town and killing at least 47 people.
Canadians have a history of leaping in to help in times of need. When the 9/11 attacks grounded flights and stranded hundreds of American travellers here, Canadians offered their homes and beds. This month marks the 11th anniversary of the worst drought to strike Western Canada in 133 years of recorded history. As feed crops withered, livestock farmers faced the very real possibility of having to put down their animals before they starved. Then eastern Canadian farmers launched "Hay West" -- donating more than 110,000 bales of hay and shipping them westward to help 1000 prairie farm families feed their animals.
And it's not just the big disasters that bring out the best in Canadians. We recently read about an Ottawa woman who lost both legs and an arm after a dog bite resulted in a life-threatening septic infection. The woman doesn't have the money or insurance coverage to make her home wheelchair accessible. But now another Ottawa couple has stepped forward and offered to pay the cost to build a wheelchair ramp for her home and, as we write this, more than $44,000 has been donated by others to help pay for prosthetic limbs.
In Canada we have benefits that many people throughout the world do not enjoy, like a robust insurance system and government safety nets. But to rely solely on these things for support is to lose the social glue that binds us. It is our willingness to step in and help a complete stranger in a time of need that will keep Canada strong as a nation and allow us to weather all storms, big and small.
Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.