‘Im­pos­si­ble things hap­pen’


What do you do next? It’s a sim­ple enough ques­tion, but ac­cord­ing to for­mer Cold War fighter pi­lot, as­tro­naut, au­thor and mu­si­cian Chris Had­field, it is the only one that mat­ters.

“What should we all do next? That’s the only re­ally valid ques­tion.

“What you did in the past is done. What we’re do­ing right now, okay, it has an ef­fect, but what are we go­ing to do next?,” said Had­field in an ex­clu­sive one-on-one in­ter­view with Post­media Wed­nes­day morn­ing. “That’s the ques­tion ev­ery­body needs to ask them­selves, and how is that go­ing to take you in the di­rec­tion that you re­ally ac­tu­ally want to go?”

In an in­creas­ingly com­plex world, the an­swer to that ques­tion is as im­por­tant to the in­di­vid­ual as it is to so­ci­ety, said Had­field who was in Ni­a­gara Wed­nes­day to speak to the an­nual Grape Grow­ers of On­tario celebrity lun­cheon in St. Catharines.

Dur­ing his lun­cheon speech, Had­field, 58, talked about his ca­reer as an as­tro­naut and how, as a child, he found an an­swer to “what next?” in the pages of pulp science fic­tion ad­ven­tures of Buck Rodgers, comic books and Star Trek.

“Comic book sto­ries per­mit you to en­gage your­self in some­thing that doesn’t ex­ist yet,” said Had­field, who told the au­di­ence that “im­pos­si­ble things hap­pen.” What was con­sid­ered fic­tion in the past — like hu­mans or­bit­ing the planet in a space sta­tion — be­comes nor­mal be­cause some­one, some­where, ded­i­cated them­selves to a vi­sion.

“Don’t sur­round your­self with peo­ple who are neg­a­tive or are crit­i­cal of your dreams,” said Had­field, who cred­ited his wife He­lene for keep­ing him on track to be an as­tro­naut af­ter the Space Shut­tle Chal­lenger dis­as­ter in 1986 made him con­sider quit­ting.

In his in­ter­view with the Stan­dard, Had­field talked about how Canada needs to an­swer “what next?” to con­front the na­tion’s most press­ing is­sues from cli­mate change to Canada’s re­la­tions with its First Na­tions — a theme he has been car­ry­ing across the coun­try on his Canada 150 tour.

“I think the fact that we now are a coun­try that has both the moral­ity and the ca­pac­ity to try and ig­nore, as best we can, some of those ar­ti­fi­cial fears and di­vi­sions in or­der to be as wel­com­ing and still man­age to main­tain the set of val­ues that makes Canada suc­cess­ful,” said the first Cana­dian to walk in space. “It’s a dif­fi­cult tightrope to walk but I think we do it bet­ter than any other place on Earth, and so I think that’s an im­por­tant thing to con­tinue, and the prob­lems are not go­ing to get eas­ier ... it re­quires a lot of lead­er­ship.”

Had­field, speak­ing about Canada’s re­la­tion­ship with its First Na­tions, said the prob­lems are of­ten rooted in fear and a racism which, from a sci­en­tific point of view, makes no ra­tio­nal sense.

“Hu­man­ity is noth­ing but sub­sets of hu­man­ity, right? There is no ma­jor­ity. We’re all just sub­sets and, for what­ever rea­son, some sub­sets are ac­cepted, and some are not,” he said. “There is no such thing as race, and that’s an im­por­tant thing to re­al­ize. That’s a fear­ful, ar­bi­trary and un­in­formed cul­tural norm and it’s not backed up by the re­al­ity of our own ge­net­ics. So to build your be­lief sys­tem and your ha­treds around some­thing that is fun­da­men­tal­ity ar­bi­trary and false is ob­vi­ously go­ing to lead to some bad de­ci­sion mak­ing.”

Had­field said un­der­stand­ing that hu­man­ity is a sin­gle species doesn’t an­swer the crit­i­cal ques­tion but can be a place to start when deal­ing with the com­pli­cated and dif­fi­cult is­sues sur­round­ing Canada and its in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties.

“The real ques­tion is, “What do you do next?’” he said. “I think try­ing to treat ev­ery sin­gle per­son as if they are your rel­a­tive is not a bad way to start. It’s re­ally hard to hate some­one when you’ve spent time with them. It’s re­ally easy to hate some­body you’ve never met.”

Had­field’s 150 tour is not just about ac­knowl­edg­ing Canada’s mis­steps, he said, but is his way of cel­e­brat­ing the na­tion’s birth­day and things it does bet­ter than any other coun­try.

His ex­pe­ri­ence in space and work­ing over­seas for much of his life gives him a per­spec­tive on how spe­cial Canada is, a coun­try he con­sid­ers to be the “most vi­brant, suc­cess­ful lib­eral democ­racy in the world.”

“Hav­ing spent 26 years out­side of Canada gave me a chance to come back and al­most see Canada like a new im­mi­grant,” he said, point­ing out that Canada wel­comes two new peo­ple to the coun­try ev­ery minute. “Peo­ple ar­rive here think­ing this is where they have a chance.”

Find­ing an an­swer to ‘what next?’ can be as sim­ple as help­ing some­one in need, Had­field said.

“What I want is for peo­ple to feel a per­sonal sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. If ev­ery­body in the coun­try looked and said, “Okay, I have no means, but how can I help one other Cana­dian? And I can choose what­ever cat­e­gory I want, a home­less per­son, a new Cana­dian, a stu­dent, some­one from some par­tic­u­lar ar­bi­trary sub­set,” he said. “How do you want to do it? And just be a good Cana­dian. Be a good cit­i­zen, and I think that would go as far as any­thing else that we choose to do as what­ever, a cou­ple of thou­sand peo­ple in the au­di­to­rium for the night. Just sort of re­set your own base.”


Chris Had­field per­forms the David Bowie song Space Od­dity dur­ing the Grape Grow­ers of On­tario 34th An­nual Celebrity Lun­cheon at Club Roma in St. Catharines where he was the guest of hon­our on Wed­nes­day. The lun­cheon is the be­gin­ning of the Ni­a­gara Wine Fes­ti­val which kicks off in Mon­te­bello Park this Fri­day.

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