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Visit to Queen Elizabeth Secondary School

Surrey, British Columbia
Friday, November 19, 1999.

When we were planning our trip here to British Columbia, I suddenly thought that Queen Elizabeth Secondary School – not because it was Queen Elizabeth, not because of the Royals, which I didn't know about then, or King George Road – was definitely one of the places where I wanted to meet young people in British Columbia. And you've already shown me in the first ten minutes why I was right. I'm not always right, but I was right in this case.

I thought it was important for the Governor General of the people of Canada to come and meet you, and to spend a morning with you and among you. I look out at you and I see the world in front of me.

I saw from the video that you sent me – and I must say that you are certainly, if not control freaks, at least people who want to make sure that we know what we're doing once we get here – that you are as diverse as the world itself. And that was what I expected here – not only at Queen Elizabeth, but also here in Surrey. You're from different kinds of backgrounds, but you're all Canadians.

I want to tell you that when I came to Canada 57 years ago, I was very small. It was such a different place from today, visually particularly. For one thing, there were so few Chinese in my town, which happened to be the capital city of Canada, Ottawa, that you could number all the families on one hand.

Amazing as it may sound now, we were the only people from Hong Kong in the whole city of Ottawa in 1942, and we remained so, I believe, until 1951 when my uncle immigrated there. And I know how amazing that must sound, but it's true. It's amazing because Hong Kong immigration is such a hot topic now, and people even know where it is. I spent my childhood explaining in every public school class I went to where Hong Kong was, that it was a British colony, and yes, we spoke English.

Canada was notorious for the first 40 or 50 years of this century for having a head tax the Chinese had to pay who lived here. Chinese were not allowed to have citizens' rights. They couldn't freely immigrate here. I talked about Chinese families in Ottawa – but I meant my family people. They were not all families; they were mostly men who did not have the right to bring their families to Canada, but who could eventually bring a son. And it was in that kind of climate that the Japanese Canadians, including many born in Canada and whose parents had been born in Canada, were able to be deported from the west coast, from their homes, their businesses, to camps in the interior of British Columbia because they were considered to be enemy aliens.

So now, we're at a stage in Canadian history where we're reaching for equality among all peoples, and we have made enormous strides in the last 50 years. I don't think any country has come as far as Canada has, considering where we started from in the 1920s and 30s. For those of you who are interested, you should look up the history of these times to understand fully how ugly racism can be when it is institutionalized in the laws of a country.

But what is wonderful about Canada is that it's capable of change. And we have changed.

Of course, we'll never be able to, nor should we want to, legislate what people think in the privacy of their own minds. The only thing that a decent civil society can do is to make it unacceptable for people to act on their ugliest thoughts. We cannot forbid people from hating or having bad ideas if they persist in those, but we must make it socially unacceptable for them to carry out any action which would implement that hatred.

I read recently that a survey done among young people in developed countries asked them what their ideal was. To kids in the US, the ideal was freedom. For Canadians, the ideal embodied by their country was space. And if we give each other space, we cannot possibly crowd each other by racial stereotypes and actions.

You're all here spending a number of years of your life learning to grow up, and also learning to learn things. And, I hope, learning how to become what you were meant to be. It may not be what your parents think you should be, and it may not be what you thought you would be last year, or what you think you're going to be a year or two from now. But what you need is the space to think that. So don't crowd yourself, and don't crowd other people.

Think of all the opportunities that you have nowadays. We've pushed our individualism so far in our life here, particularly in a rich country like Canada, that we can choose our own pattern of life. Do you realize what a luxury that is compared to the rest of the world? You have the choice of what connections you want to make with other people, what groups you want to belong to, who you want to associate with. You have a chance, in other words, to shape you own life, and that is an astonishing freedom.

But with that freedom come difficulties. Sometimes the very fact of being "me" shuts out others. If that kind of individualism is your goal you will find that it's going to narrow and flatten your life.

You have the opportunity of living in a province and in a city which is among the most racially diverse places in the world. It should bring a richness and a choice. But it can be dangerous too. You know that, and you know in your heart of hearts why that is, too. And I don't have to explain that to you. But I do have to remind you that today is Douglas Day, and Sir James Douglas was the first Governor of British Columbia and Vancouver Island in the 1830s. Not only was he married to a Métis, a woman of mixed Native and Irish blood, but he himself, coming from British Guiana, was – according to the latest biographies – half black. The myth that somehow this place, British Columbia, has always been some pure, white sanctuary, which is simply becoming mixed, is simply that – a myth. James Douglas was not an example of some superior master race. He was a man who was a product of muddled colonialism and of human instincts.

If you decide that your world is not going to be flat and narrow and that it isn't simply going to be about you, then you're going to be able to seize this richness and diversity and make sure that it gives you the right kind of freedom.

You can become a real and authentic person who transcends cultures and yet understands and is part of them all. And what better opportunity do you have than to do that in a place like this, where there is this incredibly rich mix? To me, that is what becoming a Canadian really is. We must move on in this country from thinking of ourselves as specks of different cultures blending into a dust; we have to think of ourselves as people who have the opportunity to know the world right here at home, to learn how to make it a better place through our own actions with our friends, in our neighbourhoods and our cities, and in our country. And if you do that, the whole world will be here for you to seize. I know that I'm not a dreamer and I know that I'm not the only one.

Thank you.

Updated: 1999-11-19
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