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Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean
Speech on the Occasion of the Presentation of the Second Chance Scholarship Awards

Toronto, Sunday, February 19, 2006

It is with great pleasure and emotion that I join you today as governor general of Canada for the Second Chance Scholarship Awards. This event constitutes an excellent opportunity to highlight the achievements of youth who have come a very long way. They have surmounted what many have considered to be the impossible in order to transform themselves into successful role models. I have had the opportunity to meet with some of the recipients, and I must admit that I am extremely impressed. One winner is attending university with the hopes of becoming a doctor, while another is in college studying to become an electrical engineer. These examples of youth who are challenging our expectations and carving themselves a place in our society should remind us that all young people can make a difference in their lives and in the lives of others. I firmly believe that youth are not only our future, but our present. We have a duty to encourage and support them in their efforts to join us in creating a better world. It is for this reason that I think we owe the recipients a big round of applause.

I am delighted to be joining you today in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world and as such a focal point for the cities of the future. I want to address an issue of great importance to me: our youth. Like many other Canadians, I am dismayed by the incidents that have gripped Toronto, pitting young people against each other in a destructive cycle that seems to show no sign of ending. I have seen images of people as young as thirteen years of age, brandishing weapons and threatening to attack anyone who challenges their pride. I have seen gripping pictures of mothers and fathers lamenting the loss of their children. Confronted with these troubling images, I often wonder to myself: what could possibly lead a young person to take away the life of another?

When I worked as a journalist, I had the opportunity to meet young people from across the country and realized that many of our youth have simply given up. They believe that their future is encumbered by an indifferent society that relegates them to the very margins of social existence. As a result, the community of warmth and support they seek has been displaced. No longer do they look to the family, the school, and the wider society for support. Many now turn towards organized crime for the sense of community and belonging they lack. Criminal elements have seized upon this opportunity, preying on and exploiting the vulnerable and the excluded.

The tragic deaths of Chantal Dunn and Jane Creba, two inspiring young students, really show us that violence and despair can ultimately affect anyone. As the great Martin Luther King, Junior once said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

More recently, my opportunity to meet with Canadians as governor general of Canada has also shown me that hope is an eternal flame that can never be extinguished. The history of our foremothers and forefathers that we are celebrating this month should remind us that our story has always been one in which faith in a brighter future has been paramount. In fact, many of the contributions Black people have made to this continent have been founded on the freedom to dream of and work towards a better future. I have only to think of the late Rosa Parks, mother of the civil rights movement in the States, and the late Coretta Scott King, who have both left an indelible mark on the history of equal rights and democracy. They remind us that even in the midst of the storm, hope can carry us through. We must not lose sight of this important lesson, and we should work assiduously to transmit its values to our young people.

In fact, your very presence here demonstrates to me and to the rest of the country that there really is hope. Over the last few months, the country has heard quite a lot about the problems that Toronto is facing. But, I really think the time has come to pay equal if not more attention to the incredible work being accomplished by groups like yours. Here we have four organizations, encompassing people from around the world, which decided to collaborate in order to empower young people who have fallen through the cracks to reintegrate successfully into society. This image of citizens from different backgrounds, collaborating successfully for the common good, is so inspiring. It illustrates the unwavering power of solidarity, dialogue, and compassion to create a better world. Canadians have, I believe, a lot to learn from your efforts and those of others in this city to create better opportunities for those without hope.

As a society, we have witnessed a shift away from the human values that bind us towards a vision of the world in which a person’s gratification is more important than another’s well-being. This indifference towards human suffering and the resulting reluctance to address social exclusion only serve to dissolve further our sense of commonality and belonging. As I have said before, the world is at a new juncture in which our very survival is predicated on abandoning the excesses of individualism and re-embracing the collective and, hence, more human values that allow us to live together and to build a new world in which we all have a place. Can you imagine a world in which globalization is not only propelled by commercial exchanges but is also anchored in universal solidarity? More dialogues and exchanges across cultures and generations are necessary to break the solitudes that are impeding, as we say in French, notre vivre ensemble.

I must share with you a personal experience that really exemplifies the values to which I aspire.  During my official visit to the province of Quebec last week, I decided to put time aside to visit inmates in the Bordeaux penitentiary in Montreal. You may wonder what the governor general was doing in a prison, but I believe it is important to give youth all the opportunities for self-actualization and participation in civic life, even those who have deviated from the right path. We spent two intense hours, in a reflective dialogue on personal responsibility, dignity and freedom, during which young inmates shared their deepest fears and aspirations with me.

This moving encounter helped us both realize the power of dialogue and exchanges to transform perceptions and values. It also showed me that attitudes even inside a prison, hope for a better and more responsible future can be cultivated. This year’s recipients of the Second Chance Awards also attest to the fact that all youth should be given another chance to succeed.

As governor general, I hope to meet with other Canadians, to listen to their concerns and to learn about their initiatives. But, I also want to give a voice to youth, particularly those who have been excluded. Through dialogue and alliances that break the solitudes undermining our ability to relate to each other, I hope that you will join with me in building the kind of society in which we all wish to live and in which we can all take pride.

Thank you.

Updated: 2007-02-27
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