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A real Canadian hero

Happy Birthday, Canada. You’ve arrived at 150 years with a history of everyday citizens taking extraordinary risks, bold stances and modeling strength and freedom.

Recently I stood among the statues comprising the Women are Persons! monument on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. I gained new appreciation for the perseverance of the “Famous Five” Alberta women who petitioned government to recognize women as “persons” and therefore gain access to all political posts, including Senate. The tenacity of Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise Crummy McKinney and Irene Parlby is admirable.

Emily Murphy, leader of the Famous Five said, “I believe that never was a country better adapted to produce a great race of women than this Canada of ours, nor a race of women better adapted to make a great country.”

Canadian character
I agree with Emily. Our nation is full of people – women and men – living lives in ways that profoundly shape who we have become as a country. Canadians are characterized as ones who persist through hardship, find humor in adversity and inspire others to press on.

Take Bert, for instance. She is 85, but she will tell you she’s 49. Bert and I met in November of 2014 on my first day at a rehabilitation fitness centre designed for people recovering from accidents and operations. She stands five feet four inches and weighs 99 pounds with her shoes on. She was on her tenth training program, which meant she had been working out for over a year.

I arrived feeling vulnerable and afraid of hurting myself. I desperately wanted to strengthen muscles weakened from jaw surgery, but my ability to differentiate workout pain from damaging pain felt tenuous. I had pushed through physical restrictions for many of my 50 years, adopting the “suck it up, Buttercup” philosophy, and felt committed to doing this process differently – slowly and carefully. But how? What did that look like in a rehabilitation gym environment? This was completely new to me.

And then Bert arrived. I observed her confidently approach her trainer and give an overview. “My hip is a little tight today and my shoulder hurts. I’m not sure what I did to it but it aches.” No whining. A simple update and then onto the workout. Later I heard her stating that a particular movement didn’t feel good. With the activity adjusted slightly she finished strong and without incident.

An inspiring approach
Bert admits that she does everything fast, something I observed as she whipped dumbbells up to her bicep and back down as if extinguishing flames on her upper arm. She raced the stationary bike with vigor worthy of the Tour de France yellow jersey. And apparently she flies around her house, too. Well, she used to.  


Sometimes heroes show up as ordinary individuals.
Photo credit to Shelaine Strom.

In April of 2013, Bert picked up a wet carpet from her deck and quickly shoved her feet into slippers as she hoisted the soppy mat. On her way to the garage she grabbed a bag of insulation she had earlier stuffed. Why make two trips? Somewhere between the step down and the slip-on shoes she lost her grip and hit the concrete floor hip first, cracking the ball of the joint. “But if it wasn’t for the bag of insulation, I would have broken my arm and maybe my shoulder, too. God was looking out for me,” she declared – not a surprising view from a woman of strong faith.

And so she ended up in rehabilitation to strengthen her injured leg and catch the vision for increasing bone density through weight-bearing exercise. And can she bear weight! For months I watched this sprite hoist a barbell with poundage I only dreamed of lifting. And she does it with flare.

When a trainer handed Bert a metal bar with an elongated M-shape and asked her to curl it up to her chest she brightly replied, “Time to wrestle the steer.” When told it is burpee time she politely responds, “Excuse me, I need to go burp.” I now also “feed the chickens” with a cable-pull like her and we’ve even “chopped wood” together.

In my early gym days the anesthetic fog from my eight-hour surgery messed with my memory so I repeatedly asked how many reps to do or which leg to extend with which arm. One day, my face must have shown my embarrassment when I got wrong the foot/hand combination, again. Bert grinned and said, “Don’t worry. Just use your other left foot.”

Inspired by this spry woman’s approach I tentatively found my way with new training programs among unfamiliar machines and safely pushed my body beyond any goal I’d dreamed possible. She often catches my eye and winks, asking, “We’re having fun, aren’t we?” Yes, indeed we are. Who knew exercise could be such a delight?

Simple heroes
Each Thursday I watch the door as I begin my routine in hope that Bert will trot in sporting her black Lulu Lemon-style tights, gray sweatshirt, lightly salted black hair styled perfectly and two gold chains around her neck. She isn’t afraid to show up with rings on two fingers, one symbolizing her 53-year marriage and the other just because it’s lovely. Her pretty bracelet jangles over her practical watch. I suspect the gym is not the only place this classy woman is hardworking.

Bert tells me her work ethic developed early. Born on a farm in Quinton, Saskatchewan, she milked cows daily and helped her mother catch and pluck chickens to serve for lunch. She learned to garden and can fruits and vegetables and jokes about how all of their food was organic back then. “Wholesome living,” she summarizes.

After describing her schedule to me recently – which includes doing all the bookkeeping for their four companies, serving on a scholarship committee and helping with lunches for funerals at her church – Bert commented with a knowing twinkle, “We don’t live like we’re in our 80s.”

Once our shared warm-up is over we part ways and take up our individual programs. At times I sit on the bike willing one leg to drive the pedal down. And then the other. I’m tempted to quit and say I’m too tired today. And then I look over and see Bert back on the treadmill, running. She has turned the pace up and could be rounding the third curve of an 800-meter race. Yes, I can push to my goal.

Sometime heroes wear capes and fly. Sometimes they perform great acts of rescue or service. And sometimes they simply show up in life, being who they are and inspiring others to be better human beings. When I grow up, I want to be just like Bert, a quintessential Canadian hero.


  • Shelaine Strom works with Food for the Hungry half-time as the Manager of Education and Professional Development. She also enjoys writing and coaching women in life transitions. She and her husband Bill live in Abbotsford, B.C. They have three young adult sons, three lovely young women and one precious grandson in their family. You can find Shelaine’s blog at shelainestrom.com.

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