Canada Loves New York

Canada Loves New York

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Canada Loves New York

Geography has made us neighbours, history has made us friends.

John F. Kennedy

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Canadians shared the tragedy and loss with our American neighbours. From the very first, I felt it was an event that required more than tea and sympathy. Canadians were directly involved. Somehow we needed to demonstrate solidarity for all citizens, including Canadians, who were the victims of this horrific event. For me, as for most Canadians, it was up close and personal.

As cochair of the Canada–U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group, I called my friends and colleagues in the U.S. Congress, both in Washington and New York. Everyone was depressed and overwhelmed. As Canadians, we felt their sorrows deeply and poignantly.

A few days later, with less than twenty-four hours notice, our prime minister had held an open-air service. Over 100,000 people gathered on Parliament Hill. It was clear Canadians wanted to do something. My first thought was a mass benefit concert at Toronto’s Skydome to raise money for families of the victims, but that was abandoned when it was quickly overtaken by other concerts.

A friend, producer Gabor Apor, said, “Jerry, your efforts are misplaced. You should organize something in New York.” I realized he was right. The more we thought about it, the more we felt a message needed to be made in New York City. We all knew we had to get things back to normal and quickly, or both our economies would slide into recession. The fear of terrorism was affecting consumer confidence on both sides of the border. We were in this together.

Then Mayor Giuliani made a magnificent speech to the United Nations, inviting people who wished to help America to come and enjoy New York. My wife Carole said to me, “Jerry, stop moping about this. Let’s organize some volunteers and do something.”

A few days later, we called together a handful of outstanding community volunteer leaders. They enthusiastically endorsed the idea, organized a committee and set up an office. The weekend of November 30 to December 2, 2001, was dubbed the “Canada Loves New York” weekend. We had barely one month! A frantic search discovered the historic Roseland Ballroom was available, and the owner was persuaded to accept a nominal fee.

A Web site was created, and an 800 number donated. Leading Canadian newspapers, TV and radio donated full-page ads and media time. Canadian celebrities volunteered their talent and showed up in Canada, New York and Los Angeles to tape commercial spots. Prime Minister Chrétien joined in without hesitation. Special air, bus and train fares, as well as hotel rates, were negotiated for the weekend. Everyone contacted to participate said, “Yes!”

Vigorous volunteer groups quickly formed in Montreal and Ottawa. When other groups across Canada and the United States heard about the rally, they joined in as well. Because so many fire vehicles were destroyed on September 11, a volunteer persuaded the CIBC to donate a new, specially equipped twenty-four-passenger van to the New York Fire Department (NYFD). We wanted to present it directly to Mayor Giuliani and the chief of the NYFD, so the mayor was formally invited to attend the rally on December 1.

A dynamic volunteer committee of young Canadian professionals working in New York was quickly formed. These people’s lives had been directly impacted, so they enthusiastically worked nonstop from the very start. Soon, between Canada and New York, upwards of a thousand Canadian volunteers were working eighteen-hour days to bring this idea alive.

Hundreds of thousands of Canadians live within Greater New York, and to reach them we needed something big—and we needed it fast. So we contacted the owner of one of the large screens in Times Square. He offered to not only donate time on his screen, but got all the other big-screen operators in Times Square to participate as well. Now, our message could reach Canadians living in New York! The Jumbotron at Madison Square Garden came onboard. Then we managed to persuade the Empire State Building to be lit up in the Canadian colours of red and white for the weekend!

To our elation, Mayor Giuliani issued a proclamation officially declaring December 1 as “Canada Loves New York Day” in New York City. Then President Bush generously issued a Presidential Message in which he said:

“The United States and Canada are strongly linked by ties of family, friendship, trade, and shared values. Our countries have stood shoulder to shoulder in war, peace, trial, and triumph, and we again stand together today to defeat terrorism. I applaud the ‘Canada Loves New York’ Committee and the Canadian people for making this event possible in celebration of our solidarity. By responding to Mayor Giuliani’s invitation to come to New York, you demonstrate your love for this remarkable city, and build on the special heritage our countries share as lands of freedom and opportunity.”

A show was planned, and Canadian entertainers generously donated their time and talent.

At the last moment, a group of rank-and-file Toronto police officers approached us. They had raised over $100,000 selling T-shirts door to door. To ensure the money reached the right source, they wanted to hand the cheque directly to the New York Police Department’s (NYPD’s) Benevolent Fund. And so we invited the chiefs of both the police and fire departments in Toronto and New York as well.

Charles Pachter, one of Canada’s leading artists created an emotional painting called The Painted Flags. His generous gift was transformed into a commemorative poster. Don Green of Roots produced a special “Canada Loves New York” cap. We hoped to draw three to four thousand people, but as December 1 approached, we really had no idea how to estimate how many might come. On Thursday, November 29, we left for New York—ready for anything.

The doors to the historic Roseland Ballroom were to open at 1:30 P.M. on Saturday for the rally. To everyone’s astonishment, Canadians started lining up at 9 A.M.—in droves. I started walking up and down the line with other volunteers, trying to explain to people they were not likely to get in. But they responded, “We understand, but we’re still going to try.” As I walked along the thousands of Canadians, I didn’t hear one negative comment. The queue started on 52nd street, and then streamed along 53rd Street to 60th Street and beyond! They had lined up along 8th Avenue and Broadway. As I turned and started walking back, I was astounded! The people were lined up on both sides of the streets. With me were some really hardened cops, and I asked one, “How are we doing officer?” And he said, “I’ve never seen anything like this! Most of these people aren’t going to get in. And they’re not even angry!”

As the morning wore on, I kept checking the crowds to say, “I’m sorry,” and the people said, “Don’t worry about it! We’re having a good time!” Charmed and disarmed, the tough New York cops repeated to me, “We’ve never seen anything like this! This is just absolutely amazing.”

We’ll never know the exact number, but it was estimated that up to 26,000 Canadians converged around the Roseland Ballroom that day. Indeed, 53rd Street was blocked off and a Jumbotron hastily brought in. Those who were unable to enter the ballroom or 53rd Street lingered and then moved happily on to enjoy the sights and sounds of New York. Not one complaint was heard. Two red-coated Mounties in full dress uniform became instant celebrities as they strolled along Broadway.

I met a man near the front of the line who had brought his family all the way from Whitehorse. Others had come all the way from Newfoundland. Like other Montreal corporate leaders, volunteer Laurent Beaudoin, CEO of Bombardier, chartered a plane and flew many of his employees down.

A group of young disabled Canadians from Toronto’s Variety Village wanted to attend the rally. With bus and train transportation donated, these young people then travelled for fifteen hours to attend. Given a prominent place, they joyously wrapped themselves in Canadian flags, and were painted in the Canadian colours.

Prime Minister Chrétien, on his way home from Los Angeles, detoured to New York and joined the festivities. As he strolled the crowded streets, he was cheered and welcomed by his fellow Canadians.

The rally was a success beyond our imaginations! During the emotional finale, three Canadian opera singers sang a haunting rendition of “God Bless America.” There wasn’t a dry eye left inside or outside of the room. With tears in his eyes, New York’s Fire Chief thanked us for such an inspiring and emotional event. The chief of the NYPD was obviously and equally overwhelmed.

The highlight of the weekend for me was when Mayor Giuliani came up to me at the end. With a tear in his eye, he put his hand on my shoulder, and whispered that this was one of the most inspirational moments he had experienced since September 11.

At the end of the presentation, we invited him, all New Yorkers, indeed all Americans, to come and visit us in Canada, when things were once again running smoothly in New York. And he enthusiastically accepted.

As Canadians left the Roseland Ballroom and drifted away from the surrounding area, the Mayor thanked me for everything. And I said, “Look, you shouldn’t thank me, or the volunteers. All we really did was facilitate something Canadians wanted to do, and they’ve surprised us in overwhelming numbers. Yes, all the volunteers worked nonstop to respond to your compelling invitation. But most of all, we discovered that all you have to do is ask Canadians to do the right thing, and then move out of the way. They will do it, and in overwhelming numbers, in a warm, wonderful and generous spirit.”

Just trust the Canadian people. They will surprise you every time!

Senator Jerry S. Grafstein, Q.C.
Toronto and Ottawa, Ontario

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