Adrienne Clarkson had a successful career in broadcasting and diplomacy prior to being appointed as Canada’s governor general in 1999. She served in the role until 2005. Her speeches were elegantly written and skilfully delivered. In her installation speech, she talked about Canada, her family’s history and her childhood experience as an immigrant from Hong Kong. She also invoked the name of explorer Samuel de Champlain and some of the public figures who laid the foundation for Canada’s “forgiving society.”
“Canada is a forgiving society”
I take on the responsibility of becoming Canada’s twenty-sixth governor general since Confederation fully conscious of the deep roots of this office, stretching back to the governors of New France and to the first of them, Samuel de Champlain. In our beloved Georgian Bay, which lies on the great water route he took from the French River to Huronia, there is a cairn, placed on a small island between a tennis court and Champlain’s Gas Bar & Marina, which commemorates his passage and quotes from his journal: Samuel de Champlain, by canoe, 1615, “As for me, I labour always to prepare a way for those willing to follow . . .”
Champlain’s successors have had many activists among them. Lord Elgin, who helped Baldwin and Lafontaine to anchor the Canadian model of democracy in 1848, stands out as somebody who appreciated the originality of a country which would promote such a project. He loved to wander about our few small cities, on foot, glorying in snowstorms, eschewing the formality of his office and speaking of his admiration for “this glorious country” and “its perfectly independent inhabitants.” He also said that in order to have insight into the future of all nations, it was necessary to come here . . .
The Poy family
Allow me a moment of personal reflection. The Poy family, arriving here as refugees in 1942, was made up of my parents, my brother and myself. Three of us are in this Chamber today. We did not arrive as part of a regular immigration procedure; there was no such thing for a Chinese family at that time in Canadian history.
My mother’s intense and abiding love is here in spirit today. My brother, Dr. Neville Poy, was seven when we arrived. And my father, Bill Poy, is here, extraordinary, in his ninety-second year. Lance-Corporal Poy, dispatch rider with the Hong Kong Volunteer Corps, received the military medal for his bravery during the battle of Hong Kong. Like many soldiers, he never speaks of those actions, but it is his bravery which is the underpinning of his children’s lives. To have been brought up by courageous and loving parents was a gift that made up for all we had lost.
As I have said before, the city of Ottawa, then, was small and white, like most of Canada. Much of its psyche was characterised by what Mavis Gallant has called “the dark bloom of the Old Country, the mistrust of pity, the contempt for weakness, the fear of the open heart.” But it was also the place where our family was befriended by the Molots, who owned the local drugstore, the Marcottes and the Proulx, among whom we lived in Lower Town, and our guardian angels, the Potters.
Because my father had a job with the Department of Trade and Commerce and because we lived among French Canadians, I became fixated, from the age of five, with the idea of learning French. I remember the day when I was dressed up in my patent leather shoes and pink smocked dress, and was taken up the street by my parents to the convent of Ste. Jeanne d’Arc, where I was interviewed by a kindly woman wearing white all around her face, while a dim crucifix glowed in the background. Walking home, I sensed that there was dejection in the air and disappointment. It had been explained to my parents that it was not possible for a Protestant to receive French language education in Ottawa.
In my lifetime, this has changed to such a radical degree that I don’t even need to comment on it. But that early sense of something being impossible, which actually was nonsensical, put steel into me . As John Ralston Saul has written, the central quality of the Canadian state is its complexity. It is a strength and not a weakness that we are a “permanently incomplete experiment built on a triangular foundation—Aboriginal, francophone and anglophone.” What we continue to create, today, began 450 years ago as a political project, when the French first met with the Aboriginal people. It is an old experiment, complex and, in worldly terms, largely successful. Stumbling through darkness and racing through light, we have persisted in the creation of a Canadian civilization . . .
Two kinds of societies
There seem to be two kinds of societies in the world today. Perhaps there have always been only two kinds: punishing societies and forgiving societies. A society like Canada’s, with its four centuries of give-and-take, compromise and acceptance, wrongdoing and redress, is basically a forgiving society. We try—we must try—to forgive what is past. The punishing society never forgets the wrongs of the past. The forgiving society works towards the actions of the future. The forgiving society enables people to behave well toward one another, to begin again, to build a society in hope and with love . . .
In a 1913 photograph, a group of Scandinavian immigrants in Larchmont, Ontario, is huddled around a blackboard on which is written: Duties of the Citizen: understand our government; take an active part in politics; assist all good causes; lessen intemperance; work for others.
It would be easy to focus obsessively on all the pitfalls and prejudices that undoubtedly land mined this path of good intentions. But in examining the intent, you see the underlying central assumption. It was expected that the immigrant, along with everyone else, would join in the social process, which was democratic, co-operative and other-directed. The fact that it would take another fifty years for this kind of inclusiveness to become colour blind means, simply, that it took another fifty years. Too long, of course, far too long, but in other countries, it would take a hundred. In some, it has never come.
The essence of inclusiveness is that we are part of a society in which language, colour, education, sex and money need not, should not, divide us, but can make us more aware and sensitive to difference . . .
We must not see ourselves as a small country of thirty million people, floundering in a large land mass. We are among the healthiest, best-educated people in the world, with great natural riches. We have two of the world’s great languages.
We must not see ourselves as people who simply react to trends but as people who can initiate them.
We must not see ourselves as people to whom things are done but as people who do things.
Our history demonstrates that we have the self-confidence to act and to act successfully. We can, when we trust ourselves, seize hold of the positive energy, flowing out of the choice we have made to be here and to continue what remains an unprecedented experiment . . .
As I take up this task, I ask you to embark on a journey with me. Together, I hope that we will be able to do it with the Inuit quality of isuma, which is defined as an intelligence that includes knowledge of one’s responsibility towards society. The Inuit believe that it can only grow in its own time; it grows because it is nurtured. I pray that with God’s help, we, as Canadians, will trace with our own lives what Stan Rogers called “one warm line through this land, so wild and savage.”
And in the footsteps of Samuel de Champlain, I am willing to follow.
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author and blogger and a former Member of Parliament. See his website for his latest book, Speeches That Changed Canada.