ANCASTER, Ont. - Sir Frederick Grant Banting is one of the Top 10 in the CBC's Greatest Canadian contest. Although he always had a sense of fun, Fred wouldn't have welcomed this sort of publicity. He was a modest man. After his discovery of insulin in the winter of 1921-22 brought him worldwide prominence, he often identified himself simply as Mr. Grant, to avoid attention. Humility is a typically Canadian characteristic, and Fred was a typically Canadian Canadian. Perhaps our Greatest Canadian. I think so, anyway.
How many of the 10 selected Greatest Canadians were born and grew up on a farm near a little town?
How many served in both the First Great War and the Second World War? How many were awarded the Military Cross for heroism, or died in service of their country?
How many saved, not only the lives of their fellow Canadians, but also the lives of some 200 million globally since 1923? (Today, another 220 million have diabetes; by 2030, 366 million people will be afflicted).
How many have had a township named after them (in the District of Nipissing, Ont.), or a river (Banting Creek in Kootenay, B.C.) or two lakes (one near Musgrave Harbour, Nfld., the other in the Mackenzie River system, N.W.T.), not to mention research institutes in Toronto and Ottawa and several schools? How many have their names on streets in most Canadian towns, and on some in the United States? Or even have a crater on the moon's surface bearing their name?
How many headed a team to create the world's first flight suit to prevent pilots from blacking out during rapid acceleration? How many of our Greatest Canadians have been honoured with a knighthood? Or with a Nobel Prize (Canada's first)?
How many, after creating a drug that would earn billions of dollars, would accept no remuneration and sell the patent for one dollar to make certain that it would be available and affordable to all who needed it?
These are the qualities of a truly great Canadian.
I am not alone in considering him our Greatest Canadian. Every year, people from all walks of life make a pilgrimage to Alliston, Ont., to set foot on the ground where Fred used to feed the hens, stack hay, tend cattle and find 10,000-year-old paleo-Indian artifacts. Some of the visitors have survived the killer disease diabetes because of Fred's discovery of insulin. Others are interested in Canadian history.
Unfortunately, the farm where Fred grew up, just outside of Alliston, has been slowly declining over the past five years.
The last Banting to live on the farm was Edward Knight Banting. Like his Uncle Fred, Edward was a generous man. After discussions with the Ontario Historical Society, Edward was satisfied that the OHS would preserve and protect the 100-acre Banting farm and its buildings for the benefit of future generations. In his will, he bequeathed the historic site to the OHS. That was five years ago.
Since then, despite substantial revenue from the farmer who rents and works that land, the OHS has done little to protect the property. The roof of the farmhouse has been leaking for two years. The henhouse is beyond repair. And the unique octagonal driving shed (the only one remaining of three in Ontario) is collapsing. One visitor from overseas exclaimed: "In my country, this would be a shrine!"
The Sir Frederick Banting Educational Committee (SFBEC) is a charitable organization that has been promoting Fred's ideas for more than a decade. A year ago, SFBEC's concerns about the deterioration of the Banting Homestead stimulated the Mayor of New Tecumseth -- which includes Alliston -- to begin meetings with the OHS. An agreement was negotiated in good faith that two parcels of land would be created out of the 100-acre property.
OHS would retain the most saleable 30 acres and donate the remaining 70 acres and buildings back to SFBEC. This not-for-profit committee would ensure the maintenance of the homestead, and pursue its long-term plan of using the homestead and property as a camp for diabetic young people.
Unfortunately, on Oct. 4, Patricia Neal, the executive director of the OHS, sent a letter reneging on the deal that OHS and the town had agreed to. Terri Caron, a Town of New Tecumseth official, reported that "the basic terms of the agreement were acceptable to OHS and only minor issues involving wording changes would have been required as a result of their legal review ..."
Today the property languishes under the danger of being sold by OHS to a developer. So much for a shrine, let alone a simple, well-maintained farm homestead. This is the birthplace of a person whose idea became one of the greatest medical discoveries in the world. A vacant, dilapidated building marked by a five-tonne sphere and a historical plaque at the side of a little-travelled street in rural Ontario, named "Sir Frederick Banting Road."