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Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean
Speech on the Occasion of the Opening Ceremony of the Toonik Tyme Festival

Iqaluit, Monday, April 17, 2006

My husband Jean-Daniel Lafond and I are delighted to be here in Nunavut, “your land,” to kick off the Toonik Tyme festival with you. We feel privileged to celebrate this festival of spring with you, to mark the passage from darkness into light, particularly since you have named me this year’s Honorary Toonik. I am deeply touched by this gesture and thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I have been looking forward to this trip for a long time. This is the first time I have ever travelled so far north. For me, having been born and raised for a time under the southern sun, I must admit that I am absolutely amazed by the beauty of these unending vistas of snow and rock, land and water, stretching as far as the eye can see.

When I left my native island of Haiti and landed in Montreal on a cold winter’s night, I never could have imagined that there was yet another north beyond that snowy landscape. My mother, who had only ever known the hot island climate of the West Indies, was afraid that we would freeze, so she made us coats out of several layers of fabric. We were wrapped up like mummies!

The morning after we arrived, my sister and I awoke early to find that it was snowing. We had never seen snow before. We quickly threw on our makeshift coats and went outside with bare feet in our boots. But soon, our boots filled with snow. For the first time, we felt the biting pain of frozen feet, and I will never forget it. For the next week, we wanted nothing to do with snow, having suffered so on our first excursion outside.

For people in the South, whether in the southern part of Canada or the southern hemisphere, living in conditions that to us seem so stark is truly an accomplishment, the stuff of legend. For many, the North has become a mythical place, born of stories told by explorers who have braved its frontiers and of the legends of its people. It is an inaccessible land, so mysterious, populated with people and animals depicted in your magnificent prints and in your tales of wisdom.

I have found that your art and the way you see the world are not so very different from the art and world view of the Haitian people—my people—and of other peoples in the South. There is a kind of kinship, if you will. It is as though these oral-tradition civilizations are mirrored through their creative expression. We need only share our myths and legends to see how similar we really are: both tell of animals and the elements of nature speaking with human beings.

But your history on this land is far from unreal. It is the history of a people who have not lived off of agriculture, as in the South, but off of hunting and fishing. It is a story of endurance, resourcefulness and wisdom dating back more than 4,000 years in this extreme territory that pushes man to his limits, a territory whose secrets you have long held.

Indeed, there is so much for you to teach us. You have stood the test of time because of your natural ingenuity and long-practised traditions. You know every inch of these infinite lands and icy waters which have ensured your survival. They provide you with an abundance of food. In return, you have pledged your deepest respect and have ensured that they will be renewed, not exhausted.

At a time when the world is becoming increasingly aware of climate change and its devastating effect on the environment, you stand as a model of the sustainable utilization of natural resources. Long before the world’s scientists sounded the alarm, your elders noticed the changes taking place here, in this arctic region at the top of the world. The snow melting faster, the ice receding, animals straying from their migratory paths. You were the first to read these signs, to see them as a cause for concern, not only for the people of the North, but for the entire world as well. For without this last, sheltering frontier, our planet will be left exposed to the elements.

You have always maintained a deep connection with the land, the sea, the flora and the fauna of this great expanse, for it is a connection upon which your very survival depends. It is a connection that nourishes your spirituality and has inspired the art for which you are known the world over. Your music and dances move to the driving pulse of the earth itself. As master sculptors, you shape rock, ice, snow, wood, bone, horns. As master printmakers, you depict the interaction between nature and mankind, at times blending one into the other. Today, Inuit art is recognized and desired worldwide, so much so that it is a cornerstone of Nunavut’s economy. I am very excited to spend a few days in Cape Dorset, where I will have the opportunity to meet some of your artists and admire their work.

Last October, I was deeply honoured to unveil an Inuksuk in France, on the very spot where Inuit, Métis and First Nations soldiers gave their lives in the pursuit of freedom during World War II. It symbolizes your presence during the war and your contribution to the fight against tyranny. And, through speaking with Peter Irniq, who created that beautiful stone monument, I came to understand its profound and universal significance.

The Inuksuk, that stone guide that has come to symbolize your culture, which speaks to all people everywhere, stands as a testament to your success in preserving your identity, an identity deeply rooted in your way of life. We should not, however, underestimate the determination and courage it takes for you to maintain your traditions, your culture and your languages in the wake of the upheaval of your entry into the modern era.

In a very short period of time, you have had to change from a nomadic to a sedentary way of life, from self-sufficiency to dependence. We have all lost out, for truly this art of living, which has enriched the heritage of humanity, has disappeared.

My own experience has taught me that adaptation of any kind rarely goes smoothly. We must not forget that the North is also one of the country’s most economically and socially disadvantaged regions. This situation brings even more pressure to bear on young people, who are caught between tradition and a modern world, between a way of life they have never known, which their elders grieve to see fading away, and a future that seems almost closed off.

Many young people feel torn between two worlds. They are deprived of their traditional culture, with no real sense of belonging to modern society. Too many are floating adrift, only to be pulled under into despair. You must not think that this tragedy is unique to your people. For example, the rate of suicide among young men in Quebec is one of the highest in the industrialized world. The North and South must engage in dialogue to address this situation. We must remain attentive to the warning signs; we must hear their cries for help before death becomes the only way out in their eyes. I am convinced that the solutions will come from you.

One thing is certain: education gives our young people the freedom to make choices and opens the door to possibilities that can benefit the entire community. The education that children receive at school can only add to the traditional knowledge passed down from generation to generation. What matters most is that children and young people have the opportunity to achieve their full potential, to explore a wide range of knowledge and feel proud of who they are. Even though education may take them elsewhere, perhaps further south, they can always return, enriched by a new experience that will benefit the entire Inuit community. They must have the best of both worlds if they are to play a key role in helping their communities to thrive.

The search by Inuit youth for role models and identity is so like the struggle faced by many other peoples in the world in this age of globalization. It is a daunting challenge, to open oneself up to the world while protecting cultures and identities. Above all else, we must give our children a culture in which they see themselves, one that they are willing to reshape to reflect their views of the world, their ideas and their choices, in order to make it better.

To regain confidence in themselves, young people turn to the experience, memory and affection of their elders. They need that attention, an attentive ear, to cling to life. This blending of traditional knowledge from elders and new ideas from the next generation brings promises of renewal.

As you know, I have made young people one of my priorities. But I am also deeply concerned by the situation of women. The Inuit woman, the arnaq, has long guarded the ancient wisdom passed down from one generation to the next. She is the guardian of tradition. These days, faced with the encroaching modernity from the South, she, too, has difficulty finding a place for herself. Since my appointment as governor general, I have had the opportunity to meet with Inuit women, who have told me of their suffering and helplessness. They have shared with me stories of violence, abuse, exploitation. This is absolutely unacceptable.

I know the courage it takes to break the cycle of violence, to start over from nothing and rebuild a life. I know this because I helped to establish a network of shelters for battered women in Quebec. I spent ten years of my life on this vital cause, and now, as governor general, I have no intention of abandoning it. I would like for you to tell me of your ideas for fighting the scourge of violence against women, of your strategies for dealing with violent behaviour.

As governor general, I am determined that the position I occupy will be more than ever a place where dialogue prevails and where your words will be heard. More than anything, I am here to listen to you, particularly to those of you who are often left without a voice. I want to hear your concerns. I know that you have solutions; I want you to share them with me. There is so much for me to discover at your side. Your contribution to the dialogue I have begun with Canadians is vital.

I want to meet with elected officials, community leaders, agents of social change, artists, hunters, elders, but also with mothers and fathers, young people, with women and men, young and old, who crave to be heard and are far too often confined to solitude. When a dialogue is open to each and every individual and focuses on the betterment of all, that dialogue, for me, is the most powerful means we have to light a spark of hope.

Whether oral or written, from words springs knowledge. We must share these words, by telling our legends to others, through dialogue and books that open our hearts and minds to the Other and to unknown worlds. To mark Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s 80th birthday on April 21, I will be donating 80 books by Canadian authors written in Inuktitut, French and English to the Iqaluit Centennial Library.

What’s more, I have been told that silence, for the Inuit, is just as important as the spoken word. It says a great deal, and I will be listening for its message. Let us at last get to know one another. You can count on me to make your voices heard wherever I go.

Thank you. Let the celebration begin!

Updated: 2007-02-27
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