Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson
“The best of Canada: Whether patrolling the dusty streets of Kabul or saving the life of a school-bus driver in rural Ontario, Canadians always rise to the challenge”
(Article appeared in CanWest Publications on Saturday, February 5, 2005)
We only need to look at what we are really doing in the world and at home and we'll know what it is to be Canadian.
Most recently, I had the opportunity to be with our troops in Afghanistan over New Year's, to represent Canada at the installation of President Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine and to bear witness at the ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I flew back directly from Poland to meet with school- children in rural Ontario. Each of these experiences shows more about what Canada is like than any number of definitions or intellectual formulations.
Every year, John Ralston Saul and I have gone to where our troops are: Kosovo, Bosnia, the Gulf region, Afghanistan. We returned to Afghanistan exactly a year after our first visit to the Canadian troops there. We found it a great lesson in hope. In January 2004, there was virtually no electricity in a city of three million people. There didn't seem to be many people scurrying about. The markets had food, but it was joints of meat or little piles of vegetables of various kinds. The street markets – mostly ship containers with the narrow ends cut off – didn't seem to have much to offer. The city looked flattened, roofless and, with its shattered windows, curiously blind.
The famous landmark, Babur's Gardens, was acres of destroyed hillside. The great Moghul king had expressed his wish to be brought back to Kabul to be buried in the landscape he loved. Babur's Tomb stood in lonely marble majesty, overlooked by half-destroyed houses, clinging shakily to the mountainside. The critical point of TV Hill, which controls communications, was guarded by more than a dozen Canadians last year. In what was, ironically, a ruined panoramic restaurant, our soldiers were not only ensuring that critical electronic communication continued, but they were able to look at their situation clearly and entertained us with the playing of bagpipes.
Last year, we sensed a nervous population which was in the midst of the Loya Jirga – the constitutional assembly that decided the democratic future of the whole country. That was then.
This year, there seems to be electricity in a good part of Kabul; the meat hanging in the markets consists of entire carcasses of lamb, the vegetables are abundant. There seemed to be 20 per cent more women not wearing the burkha – the long, blue, completely enveloping garment. Hubcaps, yard goods, running shoes were for sale in individual stores. And there were taxis -- little yellow taxis. And people, two or three times as many as last year, surged in the streets in a way that seemed to be a return to the kind of culture that belongs to Southwest Asia.
President Hamid Karzai had won a fair election and his confidence seemed to reflect that of the country. Most remarkable, Babur's Gardens has been almost completely rebuilt with the mud brick walls surrounding it carved in arches; fruit and flowering trees are planted on terraces throughout the property. Standing at Babur's Tomb, you know that in a very few years this will be a beautiful site. All of this is due to the Aga Khan Foundation, which obviously believes that an esthetic and spiritual heart helps a city in its rehabilitation.
Our 800 soldiers were no longer the sole occupants of Camp Julien; they were joined by about a thousand others from countries such as Belgium, Germany, Hungary and Norway. Everyone from all nations praised the way the Canadians had originally set up the camp in 2003; its cleanliness, its excellent food, and what can only be described as a general sense of sanity and goodwill. Lord Strathcona's Horse was the regiment there in rotation with some Princess Patricia's. They followed the Royal 22nd and the Royal Canadian regiments that were there at our last visit. Each regiment has its own personality and plays to its own strengths. You could tell from the way they demonstrated their equipment, in the way that we could observe their patrols, in the way they talked about and dealt with the other nationalities, that we really are a people who have respect for others while we are attempting to keep peace. There's no question that our troops are in harm's way; the situation in Kabul, although improved, is by no means totally safe. But the feeling of calm that one has in dealing with our soldiers in place reflects on everything we stand for as a nation – decency, patience and a tolerance of others.
When I went out in the fog to record my New Year's message back to Canada, I stood between the ruins of the King's Palace on one side and the Queen's Palace on the other. In the plain between them is our camp. It seemed somehow fitting that we would be placed in this way among the ruins and yet have created a camp in record time with the maximum amount of efficiency. Improvements are continuing; this year, our sleeping tent had a floor. Last year, it was ground with tarpaulin laid over it. Everyone I talked to – Afghan human-rights workers, German generals and senior members of the Afghan cabinet – emphasized to us that the Canadian contribution has been supremely important and has made a real difference to the way Afghanistan can recover.
The kind of commitment behind this work was also evident in Ukraine when I went to Kyiv to President Yushchenko's installation. Before his swearing-in at the Rada (Parliament), I wanted to lay two wreaths, one at the monument of the Great Famine of 1932-33, in which millions were deliberately starved, and another at the site of Babi-Yar, the place where the Nazis slaughtered at least 200,000 Ukrainians, among them 33,000 Jews, in several days. Some were buried alive in the ravine where now a memorial stands. Yevgeny Yevtushenko's memorable poem expresses what a human being must feel here:
"Slowly I feel myself turning grey. And I myself am one massive soundless scream above the thousand and thousand buried here."
At the Great Famine monument, after I had placed a large red and white bouquet, six people came to tell me that they were Ukrainian-Canadians who had come over to watch over the elections and to help make sure that everything went alright. I believe about 600 like them came on their own time and their own money – a superb initiative, full of hope and commitment. When you think that we also, through our government, sent 500 observers, headed by former Prime Minister John Turner, you realize the kind of caring we have, that others in the world can have the kind of freedom and openness that we enjoy.
I sat with President Yushchenko's wife at the Rada, where he was sworn in, and sat beside him at his inaugural lunch, where he told me "you probably underestimate how important it is that Canada be represented here." It was very moving to me to understand how they felt that our country, which has the largest Ukrainian diaspora in the world, could make such a difference, morally and emotionally.
On the Maidan – the huge square where Yushchenko spoke to the Ukrainian people for the first time as president – one of the guests of honour was Vaclav Havel. As I stood beside him in that crowd of nearly a million people, as the orange and gold and blue giant confetti sprinkled down, I said to him, "this is a truly wonderful moment, but it brings great responsibility with it." Havel replied, "the two things go together."
Because the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Russians was held four days later in Krakow in Poland, almost the same group of heads of state and heads of government came together. I think we all felt that the two things somehow complemented each other -- the democratic election of the president of Ukraine and the commemoration of the most horrible episode in human history. One was the new expression of hope and optimism and the other was the memory of the most abysmal horror into which human beings can fall.
In the bus on the way to Auschwitz, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg, the President of Poland and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of what we were remembering. Everybody was aware of the role that Canada played in the Second World War and we did not have to explain, especially not to the queen of the Netherlands, how much we sacrificed. I think it is a good thing for our young soldiers to realize how much our Armed Forces have been respected and honoured by those they helped save.
I got on the plane immediately after the ceremony at Auschwitz in order to be present at Uptergrove Public School in rural Ontario, near Orillia. Two young people were being awarded the CAA's Governor General's Life Saving Medal for having saved their school bus driver who was having a severe allergic reaction. The driver managed to pull to the side of the road and one of the children got out the driver's epi-pen and administered it while the other kept the rest of the children quiet and then helped to stop a passing car. Matthew and Amber did what they thought was necessary and they did it with calmness and a regard for other people. That is what last week emphasized for me. It's what Canadians, at their best, can be.