TORONTO – Their names may have faded from memory, their faces now a distant blur, but for at least a few fleeting moments over the last 10 years, they were able to capture the imagination of Canadians across the country.
The headline equivalents of one-hit-wonders, some of them triggered the toppling of governments while others captured the hearts of the nation with acts of bravery or tales of tragedy.
After the fears of Y2K had faded, replaced by the reverberating shock of 9/11, one Canadian couple made waves with their dogged effort to have what they considered a normal life – a trail-blazing effort that ended up toppling social barriers.
Nicknamed “the Michaels,” the duo of Michael Stark and Michael Leshner dominated headlines in 2003 with the first civil same-sex marriage in Canada.
“Normalcy was what we craved,” Leshner said in a recent interview. “We were just two young men in love, wondering how we were going to make a life for one another.”
The Toronto-based couple fought a long battle to have their relationship formally recognized, but hardly expected the iconic status its culmination would bring them.
“We were Canada’s sweethearts,” said Leshner, at 61 the older of the two. “We put a face to the issue.” And while their success did result in at least a temporary loss of privacy, they say it was a price well worth paying.
“I was determined to kill that sucker known as homophobia,” Leshner said with a laugh. “It’s a love story that defied all of the odds and taught people a simple basic human rights lesson.”
Basic rights were also in play for Allan Cutler – a man better known as the one who blew the whistle on the Liberal sponsorship scandal that first began rocking Ottawa’s political foundations in 2004.
The public servant was thrust into the limelight after sounding off on anomalies in a Quebec sponsorship program that was designed to raise awareness of the government’s contributions to the province’s industries and culture.
“I was put front and centre as the national whistleblower, the Canadian whistleblower,” said Cutler, whose life took a sharp turn after he spoke out.
“People put me on a pedestal,” he said. “Everyone’s decided I’m ethical, that’s the label that’s been put on me.”
Now 60, the retired Cutler runs his own consulting business and puts in long hours with an organization he created to help whistleblowers across the country.
“I haven’t regretted coming forward,” he said. “I had no choice.”
Neither did Mohamed Chelali.
A mere observer at a parade in Paris in 2002, the 52-year-old Vancouver school teacher was catapulted into the role of the unlikely hero when he tackled a gunman taking aim at former French president Jacques Chirac.
“There are moments when you don’t need to think,” Chelali said in an interview. “He had pulled out a rifle and aimed directly at the president. I jumped on the guy and grabbed the gun.”
Now the director of French programs at the B.C. Teacher’s Federation, Chelali said he still shares his thrilling tale at workshops from time to time – including the part about getting a personal call of thanks from Chirac himself.
Chelali was so stunned, he thought it was a hoax. Later, he met with Chirac in person and was eventually awarded the French Legion of Honor, as well as the Medal of Bravery by then-governor general Adrienne Clarkson.
But he didn’t let the fame go to his head.
“I didn’t feel like I was a real hero,” Chelali said. “Many people would do the same thing, I hope.”
Paul Pritchard, the B.C. resident who filmed the widely circulated video of Polish immigrant Robert Dziekanski being Tasered by RCMP officers at the Vancouver airport, was another example of someone in the right place at the right time.
“It’s a pretty humbling experience,” Pritchard said of all the positive attention he has received. “At that time I just took out my camera and filmed.”
Pritchard, at one time a globetrotter who taught English around the world, said the Dziekanski experience has changed his own outlook on life. He now plans to go to university to get a degree in journalism and international development.
“The experiences I’ve had in the media, the people I’ve met and connections I’ve made, they all come from that video,” he said. “The ripples go so far.”
Jason Wallace wouldn’t disagree.
The father of the infant known as baby Kaylee achieved pseudo-celebrity status earlier in 2009 after her precarious health received extensive daily attention in the media.
Diagnosed with Joubert’s syndrome, a brain malformation accompanied by frequently interrupted breathing, Kaylee was not expected to live very long – prompting her parents to make the heart wrenching decision to offer her heart to another struggling child.
But when Kaylee continued breathing without a respirator prior to the transplant, her parents decided they wanted to help their daughter fight for her life.
By the time Kaylee was ready to head home, her story had become a cross-Canada sensation. It took a limousine, a helicopter and a police escort to get her safely home, where she now breathes with the help of machine.
“She’s just like any other baby, except for the machine,” Wallace said. “She’s still a fighter.”
Unfortunately for Wallace, the focus on his daughter’s battle soon gave way to his own struggles: he pleaded guilty later that year to accessory after the fact, a charge stemming from an incident in 2006 that saw two others plead guilty to aggravated assault.
“Nobody wants to hire you because you’re baby Kaylee’s father, who has a (controversial) past,” Wallace said. “But I changed.”
Now unemployed and subsisting on welfare, Wallace says the piercing attention and accompanying criticism has made it all but impossible to provide for the ones he loves.
With another daughter expected in May, Wallace said he hopes the public will be able to look beyond his past as he struggles to cope with the fame that quickly turned sour.
“This was a dramatic and terrible situation,” he said. “We were never spotlight-wanting individuals.”