His Excellency John Ralston Saul
Speech at the Temple of the Children Of Peace
September 15, 2005
H. E. JOHN RALSTON SAUL: Your Excellency, Ambassador Kraft Sloan, Your Worship, Councillors, and all the people who were involved with this remarkable building.
Last night I was in a very different place in west Toronto, in an area called Pelham Park, helping to open a Youth Resource Centre – three small rooms on the ground floor of a 1970s apartment building. This is not a violent area, but it is one in which there are many difficulties and the youth need a place to be alone, to talk among themselves, to find themselves.
It was an intimate evening. I talked a little bit and the kids talked. It was both moving and exciting because you could feel that these teenagers had - in conditions which are the conditions of many new Canadians - found the energy and the enthusiasm to begin building for themselves a conversation and a life which would make sense for them inside the biggest city in their country, in our country.
Tonight I’m here in the Sharon Temple, one of the most beautiful and ethereal buildings in Canada, as well as one of the last architectural reminders of the birth of Canadian democracy in the middle of the 19th century. Tonight is also an intimate evening. Of course, it would be grandiose by 19th century Canadian standards if you consider the population of the time. But it is intimate by our modern standards with a city of many millions just down the road from the village of Sharon.
That short speech last night at Pelham Park and this speech tonight are the last two speeches that I will give in a role which involves you having to stand up when the Governor General or I come into the room and involves you calling us Excellency and so on. I should add that those forms of respect happen for very good reasons and have been happening since the middle of the 19th century. They are among the few formal appearances of how our system works. They are attached to the roles and not to the people. So the moment you or I leave those roles, that formality stays behind with the role and you, or in this case I, walk on as a normal Canadian citizen. Those few elements of formality and protocol are tiny reminders of the ongoing stability of our democracy.
Let me add that I very consciously decided that these two speeches in these two places would be my last comments in a vice-regal role. In many ways they represent two aspects central to this country and to our history.
Some six years ago, not long after the Governor General was sworn in, we were in Toronto meeting with people in another part of the city, also a neighbourhood in difficulty. I was going to be on my own that evening so at the end of the event I asked our hosts whether it would be possible for me to have a look that night at the situation of the excluded in Toronto. In other words to get an overview of the shelters, the shanties, the homeless situation and that of other groups of citizens who found themselves shoved over the edge of normal life. Like most citizens of Toronto, I had already seen some of this, but I had never had a proper overview. I wanted to see the whole picture as opposed to the details.
And so I spent the evening and a good part of the night driving around with some young men in a van, going into these shanty areas, some of them down by the lake where shacks were built out of leftover bits of wood and metal, seeing the various situations on the streets, going into shelters of every sort. And after many hours I had only seen a small part of it.
The point of this was not to say anything in public. It was an attempt for me to get a better sense of the real situation in order to figure out what we could say in an apolitical manner from Rideau Hall about this failure of Canadian civilization – a failure called poverty and homelessness.
A couple of weeks later, a journalist came to see us. He had been talking to some other people who had been involved in that trip around Toronto and who had told him about it. He asked in a relatively aggressive manner - "Surely you can’t do things like that. I mean, that’s political. You’re supposed to be apolitical. I mean, aren’t you stirring things up by going around like that?"
I thought about his questions for a few seconds and replied - "Well, tell me which political party in Canada is in favour of poverty? Which party is in favour of homelessness, of people living in shanties?"
He looked at me and slowly smiled that ironic sort of smile that comes when an idea has been reformulated. The failure of our civilization to deal with the wellbeing of a good part of our citizens is not political. It’s something which can, in fact needs to be, talked about by every citizen in an apolitical manner because it concerns every single one of us.
The experience that I’ve just described to you made it perfectly clear to me that it would be very important to spend a good part of my time attempting to draw attention to the situation of the marginalized in our society.
When I say draw attention, I don’t mean doing that in the classic 19th century paternalistic or charity-driven manner. Interestingly enough, we’re sitting in a building created by people almost two centuries ago who would have understood what I’ve just said. They did not think in those 19th century noblesse oblige terms.
A few weeks after that conversation with the journalist we found ourselves in Halifax. I spent a good part of our time there going to the same sort of places, the places occupied by the excluded. This included going into disgraceful housing – housing is really the wrong word – run by slum landlords. These are the sort of landlords who have wired baskets on the inside of the building door over the letter box and these baskets are kept closed with locks. When the tiny cheques which homeless people receive or poverty-stricken people receive come in, the slum landlord will have control over those cheques. And he will only agree to give them to the people they are made out to if he is guaranteed a percentage, a hefty percentage, of what is written on the cheque.
These are appalling situations, appalling conditions, particularly when you consider that I am describing life in Canada.
During that visit to Halifax I was asked to open a new shelter for homeless men. It was to replace a shelter across the road which had been set up a few decades earlier in the beginning of this period of growing exclusion – a place which had ooze coming down the walls. Most middle-class Canadians could not even imagine a fellow citizen living in such conditions. Some concerned people in Halifax and the government had put enough money together to build a new homeless shelter called The Turning Point. And so I was asked to open it and to cut the ribbon.
The Governor General and I made a decision very early on that we wouldn’t cut ribbons. We felt that that gesture was form without content. And that form takes attention away from what is really being done. And so I said to the organizers – "Why don't you get the people who are going to live here, the homeless people, to cut the ribbon? After all, if you want them to feel that they are not being treated in a charitable manner then the best thing to do is to treat it as their home."
You begin to see the sort of impossible contradictions that a society which accepts exclusion brings on itself. The old shelter was totally and utterly unacceptable by Canadian standards. Therefore a new shelter should have been built. On the other hand, to be putting a great deal of money into building better homeless shelters is in a sense to act as if homelessness is a normal state of being in our society.
For example, there is today in Calgary a beautiful three-storey homeless shelter built in brick. It is so substantial and well done that it stands as a confirmation that homelessness is normal and can be made to disappear by putting it into a nice building. The same money might, for example, have been spent on building decent low-cost housing and apartments, which people could live in for a long period of time and in the process gain self confidence and dignity.
What I'm suggesting is that by building better homeless shelters we are allowing ourselves to deny that poverty and exclusion are failures of our civilization. And so when I spoke at the opening of The Turning Point, I had to think a very long time about what the right words might be to open a homeless shelter. The first thing that came to my mind was that if we were to treat this is a charitable manner – in the 19th century sense – that is if we were doing good for these people then we were not treating them as our fellow citizens. To look upon a homeless shelter as a charitable endeavour in which people who have more do something for people who have less is to act as if these people are beneath us.
I’m going to do now something that I never do, which is to quote from an earlier speech, the speech I gave that day at The Turning Point. “The contributions that were made by government and by the private sector to The Turning Point were not made in a spirit which requires thanks, but were made by responsible individuals acting as citizens. I've been very troubled over the last few years by the growth of what you might call thank-you-itis, the return to a sort of 19th century view that if citizens contribute to the public good, they ought to be thanked for it as opposed to it being a perfectly normal part of their actions as citizens…. We talk of homelessness, we mean poverty and the lack of supportive housing for those suffering from various handicaps. Behind the visible face of homelessness there is the hidden aspect. People who pay two-thirds to three-quarters of their disability pensions for tiny, substandard rooms – and that’s a polite description – and are left with not enough to live on. You cannot have a democracy which functions on the legitimacy of the citizenry and then have citizens eliminated from that society by their condition. Citizenship implies inclusivity. An inclusive society cannot accept the idea that exclusion is normal.”
I don't want you to misunderstand what I’m saying. Many of the most interesting and stimulating conversations and relationships we’ve had over the last six years have been with people who are, by middle-class standards, marginalized and excluded. Often the most creative ideas, the most inclusive ideas we have heard have come from these marginalized and excluded people.
Some three years ago we held one of our many public levées in Saint-John, New Brunswick, one of the oldest cities in Canada. A levée is something that goes right through the history of Canadian governors and governors general. It goes back to Champlain. A levée is an old medieval idea which involved the governor opening up the doors of his palace once a year so that people who wished, anybody really, could come through and say anything they wanted. Canadian governors and governors general have been doing it ever since then. Traditionally it was done in Québec City on January 1st and then the tradition moved to Ottawa.
When my wife became Governor General we began taking this tradition across the country from region to region. We would simply go to an armoury or a school gym and open the doors and a thousand people, two thousand, three thousand people would come through with various things to say. They might come alone or in families. They might be ex-colonels or the unemployed or immigrant families.
In this case, we were in Saint-John, a city which had been extremely rich in the 19th century and has been undergoing an economic crisis for more than half a century. It is a city where almost all of the traditional industries have shut down, one after the other. It is now recovering in an interesting way with thanks in large part to the efforts of the local community.
As we were standing chatting with citizen after citizen we saw a man come forward who was middle aged and, although he had clearly made a major effort to dress for the occasion, you could see that he was poor. When he got to us he said "You know, I’m not very well educated and I used to work in the sugar refinery, which closed down about 10 years ago. It’s too late for me. I’m not going to be able to get a new education. I’m not to sort of person who can be retrained. I don't have the ability to restructure my life and become something else. And so I’m living on” – and he gave a number which was around $225 a month – “in one room. As you can imagine it’s been very difficult for me."
Now, at this point, you may be imagining to yourself that he’s about to begin protesting about his lot in life and the inability of government to help him. You’re probably even thinking that he’s going to ask for something.
"It has been very difficult for me. I’ve had to give up everything. But I don't want you to worry about me because I have worked out how to adjust and how to live this life. And I’ve come to accept that I’m going to be living this way for the rest of my life. The reason I came here today is to tell you that there are families with children in this city who are living in the same conditions as me and I’m very worried about them. That is unacceptable."
Suddenly you realize that your whole view of the nature of poverty and the nature of the excluded citizen has been off target. This person, with virtually no higher education – he probably didn’t finish high school – had been using his time to think about what is wrong in our civilization and what is wrong for the other. He hasn’t been thinking about himself, he’s been engaged in that most basic of ethical acts, attempting to imagine the other. And then he took the time to come down to see our head of state and to say that he felt that this situation was wrong and that he would not accept it. Not he, an unemployed person or a poor person. But he, a citizen who has thought about his society.
At that point you cannot help but become conscious of the sort of society we have developed.
Let me pause for a moment to deal with what we are doing about marginalization. It could be argued that anyone who is marginalized belongs in a sense to the same group. But within that group there are handicaps of every sort. Some of them are mental or physical. Some of them are regional. Some of them have to do with education or with immigration or with opportunity, the lack of opportunity, which could come in many forms. And there are many wonderful organizations across Canada which do not belong to the old noblesse oblige style. Instead, they are attempting to demonstrate that the marginalized have as much to contribute as anybody else. A good example would be PLAN in Vancouver and Ottawa which has gradually been developing a whole new approach towards people with a physical and mental handicaps. You could say that they are attempting to create a new kind of conversation both among people with handicaps and between them and we who believe that we do not have handicaps. One of the central ideas they’re developing is the sense that the contributions these people can make as citizens is, in their own way, as important as that which could be made by a tenured professor.
Another example might be The Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts in Edmonton. This is a place where people with handicaps discover how to make their contributions through an involvement with the visual arts. The result, I might add, is some wonderful art.
What did I mean when I said that their contribution to citizenship could be as great as that of a tenured professor? Well, we’re living in a civilization filled with expertise, high education and universities. We admire the speed with which we’re able to do things and to conclude things. Speed is treated as a sign of intelligence.
And yet, speed is not a characteristic of civilization. There’s no philosopher in the history of the world who has ever described speed as a characteristic of civilization. Of course there are particular moments of great urgency, in war for example, when speed matters. But generally speaking civilization is about consideration. Barbarism is about speed.
And so over the last 50 years, highly-educated and specialized speed has brought us global warming, mad cow disease, skyscrapers ruining the Toronto waterfront and so on; and all of that and much more has been done by highly-trained specialists, going fast and failing miserably.
Let me make another related point. People with handicaps, that is people who know they have handicaps, tend to work harder than people who don't think they have handicaps. Those who know this are more conscious and therefore make a bigger effort. They have to be more conscious in order to accomplish what they wish. As for the highly-educated, specialized people who are going fast and making mistakes, you might say that they are sleepwalking or sleep running, largely unconscious about what their effect is on the world or on their families or on other individuals. You could say that they are normally unable to imagine the other, they are unconscious of their effect on the other.
What I’m saying is that the time we need in order to consider our situation can come in part through a more intelligent inclusion in citizenship of those people who have handicaps. And the time that that implies will not be a cost to the taxpayer. It will be an essential part of our shared intelligence, of our collective unconscious.
This remarkable hall is a living testimony to the idea of inclusivity as well as to the idea of Canada as an old and stable civilization. The Children of Peace built this building as a place to collect alms to be given to the poor, but in secret. In other words, they were struggling with the idea of how to create a more egalitarian redistribution of money without that awful thing that Strinberg called the humiliation of charity. The idea of a society held by the Children of Peace had three headings. One was architectural symbolism, which is why we find ourselves in such a beautiful building. The second was music, which is why this building has perfect acoustics. The third was an emphasis on egalitarianism. And egalitarianism is a fundamental characteristic of Canadian civilization.
I would go further. I would say that the characteristic of this civilization which makes it different from those of our friends and allies in the rest of the world is egalitarianism.
And so, 181 years ago in 1824 they started the Farmers Store House, an early co-op aimed at saving the farmers – but not just their own farmers - from being destroyed by the debt into which they had been put by merchants. The headquarters of the Farmers Store House was across the road from today’s St. Lawrence market. And it was open to all citizens. It was the first of what we would now call a co-operative marketing board. I suppose you could say that that principle re-emerged by a circuitous route over a period of some two centuries into such things as the United Farmers Movement in the west, the co-operative movements in the west, the Wheat Marketing Board, and the Caisse Desjardins in Quebec.
In other words, the whole idea of co-operatism, of egalitarianism and yet of a need for the marketplace isn’t something that was invented in the 1930s during the Depression. What’s more, it is actually something that has always been and remains fundamental to the idea of Canada. I would argue that while its origins can be clearly traced from the 1820s on, I think you can find the roots of that movement far, far earlier in our experience.
Another essential invention of the Children of the Peace was a fund which they set up 173 years ago in 1832. Again this was not a noblesse oblige style charity. Today we would call it a small loans bank or a co‑operative bank or a co‑op credit bank. No one was denied credit. They were given credit on manageable terms. And the repayment schedule was flexible in order to ensure that farmers didn't lose their farms during bad times.
I believe that rethinking the idea of co‑ops in Canada today, really rethinking them and expanding the idea of small, flexible loan co‑ops, is central to dealing with our problems of exclusion. This rethinking relates to the way in which we deal with farmers of any size or sort across the country, to the way we deal with single mothers who are looking for a way out of the dead end in which they find themselves. It is central to dealing with marginalized people living in cities or people living in marginalized isolated communities. We have thousands of such small communities in the north. Most of them without road access. Small loans with a flexible approach towards capital and flexible repayment schedules are key to helping these people find their way into a properly central role as citizens.
People in southern Ontario or anywhere in the big urban centres in southern Canada have a tendency not to talk very much about the needs of the excluded, in particular the excluded in small communities away from the south. When they hear something like this being proposed their reactions may well be negative because they simply don't know or don't remember that the success of their own families came to some extent from small loans with flexible repayments in the early 19th century in the 1930s through the co‑op movement. What I’m saying is that there is a direct line between the conscious thinking about how Canada could work in early 19th century and what needs to be done today. Of course many details have changed. But the underlying needs are the same. The problem then as now is that people on the margins are not able to deal with the savage marketplace. That doesn’t mean they are less capable. It means that their conditions make them unable to deal with that situation. In other words, we need basic solutions to deal with basic problems.
I’ll give you an even more straightforward example. A few years ago we were in Nunavik, which is the Inuit territory in northern Quebec. It isn’t often talked about, but it has been remarkably successful. The regional government of Nunavik received $30 million or so as part of the first James Bay settlement. They have now turned it into almost $200 million and they own a wide range of companies including an airline, newspapers, and so on. All of this comes under The Makivik Corporation.
Almost every community you go to in Nunavik has a community freezer. What is a community freezer? Well, in the days before the Inuit settled into permanent communities, they would live at different times of the year in small camps. And when somebody got a caribou they would bring the carcass in and share it among the three or five families living together. Now they are in settlements which might be 200, 500, 1,000, 1,200 people so sharing a caribou doesn’t really work. So they came up with a brilliant new adaptation of the old sharing idea.
S community freezer was built in each of the settlements. The settlement hires two men to look after it and to act as the butchers. They are there on a permanent basis. If you come back from a hunt or fishing and you have some extra meat or fish you can just go there and throw your surplus fish or meat at the two butchers. They take it and they prepare it very carefully so that all the cuts are separated out. There is a special corner for elders. When the caribou are running, the town will organize a group of hunters to go out and get a good supply of them and put all of the meat in the freezer. They’ll do the same when the arctic char are running.
Now we come to the question of use. If you, for whatever reason, are short of food you can simply go to the community freezer and ask for the piece which suits you. Nobody asks you to fill in your name. Nobody keeps track of how often you’ve gone. Nobody asks you to fill out a little piece of charity paper which says how grateful you are. And indeed, when you go and give meat nobody takes note of the fact that you have given. Nobody thanks you for your great generosity to the community. There is no thank-you-itis. There is no paper. There is just the putting in of food and the taking out of food.
The people who use the shelter might well be poor or homeless – because there are homeless people in the arctic, believe it or not – or it might be a professor who happens to be short of food at a particular time. Nobody’s going to look at him or her as if they’re doing something wrong because they’re taking food free when they could afford it. And indeed when people go back a second time there’s no keeping track of their frequent use. There’s no shame attached to using the freezer and there is no thank you for generosity attached to giving to it. Nobody thinks that people will cheat.
We all know that approximately 5 per cent of people cheat on their income taxes everywhere, 5 per cent of students cheat on their exams, 5 per cent of rich people cheat and 5 per cent of poor people cheat. That isn’t a big number and the number is unlikely to rise in a healthy society. So the most dignified and the most efficient way to deal with things is to make them as simple as possible. In the case of the community freezers in Nunavik, they are absolutely bureaucracy free and they are absolutely guilt and noblesse oblige free. Now that is a very straightforward and interesting idea. Curiously enough it’s very close to the idea of this temple. In both cases it is all about imagining the other. It is all about believing in community.
Could this idea be applied in some way to our cities? Why not? We would just have to rethink a northern idea in a southern context. After all we’re endlessly imposing southern ideas on the north, most of which are inapplicable. Perhaps the first thing we would have to do is remove this rethinking from the domain of consultants and other sorts of people who are in the business of covering their asses. The central question we have to ask is – “How can we ensure that Canadian citizens have enough food to eat without getting that food involving any humiliation?”
And so here we are. We’re in this remarkable temple. We are in the heart of Robert Baldwin’s riding, one of his two ridings, because in those days you could run in more than one. The Children of Peace were central to the arrival of Responsible Government, that is to say, they were central to the arrival of democracy in Canada. They voted en masse for reform and they were a large enough group that their vote in this riding pretty well guaranteed election. They were rich, successful and they got on with the neighbours.
In 1841 the first election of the united Canadas took place. There was then a governor general – a very different sort of governor general – who used the Orange Order in order to prevent the leader of the democratic reform movement in French Canada – Louis-Hypolite LaFontaine –from getting elected in his riding of Terrebonne. He simply sent out the Orange Order with clubs to surround the hustings of Terrebonne on which citizens had to vote. LaFontaine, being a man of peace, withdrew his electors rather than engage in a physical fight which might have resulted in deaths. The end result was that one of the two leaders of the democratic movement was without a seat in the Kingston Parliament. Baldwin had to stay in Kingston in order to try to hold together the fragile margin of power which the reformers held. He then offered his seat here in York North to LaFontaine. Let me say in passing that there are a number of Baldwins here tonight.
As Baldwin couldn’t leave Kingston he asked his father, old Dr. Baldwin, who was really the father of the democratic idea in Upper Canada, if he would get out of his sick bed and come up here to host the French Canadian leader. Now some of you came here for the speech tonight from downtown and so you know that even today on the highway, it’s a bit of a way. Old Dr. Baldwin came up here in his carriage with his guest, over I suppose mud roads. For three weeks the doctor and LaFontaine campaigned around the riding. They went around and everywhere they went, old Dr. Baldwin got out of the carriage and gave a speech introducing Louis-Hypolite LaFontaine. He was probably the first French Canadian that most of these people had ever seen, let alone heard. It was not logical that LaFontaine would be elected.
A second small observation. This podium, this small, fragile podium at which I’m standing is the original podium of the temple. If is from this spot that Robert Baldwin and Dr. Baldwin and Louis-Hypolite LaFontaine would have stood and spoken in this hall. As you can imagine it’s very moving for me to find myself in this place telling you this story.
They campaigned for three weeks and 164 years ago tomorrow, the 16th of September, the destiny of Canada changed. Louis-Hypolite LaFontaine was elected here by anglophone Canadians, thanks to the Children of Peace, and went to Kingston where with his partner, Robert Baldwin, he changed the direction of our country.
What was it that linked them so closely together? They did not know each other before 1840. From 1840 on they became not only political partners. They became each other's closest friends until Baldwin’s death. What linked these two men and their movements? What held them together through so many crises?
Of course, they were linked by an agreement on linguistic questions, religious questions and cultural questions. But the key point was – and they both said this very clearly – that the only way in which they could work together in the long run would be if they concentrated on the intellectual ideas of the public good which linked them. They had a profoundly ethical and intellectual idea of the public good which rose above the idea of race and language and religion. It was their belief in egalitarianism which held them together. And they had a long list of practical things they wanted to do which would reinforce that idea of egalitarianism.
In 1848 they finally came to power and stayed in power for three years in the Great Ministry. The election campaign took place in late 1847. Baldwin’s campaign director was David Wilson, the head of the Children of Peace. On the 11th of March 1848 the government was formed and for three tumultuous, disorderly years they held on through the burning down of the Parliament buildings in Montreal, the attempts to kill the Governor General and the Prime Minister and the deputy Prime Minister by the rich of Montreal and their street gangs, made up largely of the Orange Order. They held on through extended periods of riot. All of this included slightly comic elements – such as Elgin being expelled from all of the decent social societies, the St. Andrew’s Society and so on, because he wasn't fit, the elite thought, to be the Governor General, because he was giving in to the rabble led by LaFontaine and Baldwin and people such as the Children of Peace.
In those three short years they put in place some 125 key reforms and those reforms are the foundations of the Canada we know today. If you look at 1867 you can see some very innovative and positive approaches to nation building and some very negative elements. The positive elements were possible and were shaped the way they were thanks to the reforms put in place between 1848 and 1851. The underlying message of almost every one of the great coalition’s reforms was increased democracy, increased inclusivity and increased egalitarianism.
Let me put all of this in a slightly different way. Politicians often talk about Canada as a new country, often as an accidental country, more often than not as one shaped by forces coming from abroad whether from the empire in London or as in a reactive manner out of fear for the United States. On top of all of this we are endlessly told that this is an incrementally compromising sort of place, thus a place driven more by reaction than by ideas. All of this is wrong. I could go so far as to say that it is a lie.
Canada is probably the only intellectually constructed nation state inside the western tradition. It was constructed on a new intellectual base because in 1837 the European approach failed. There had been several failures before that. And in the succeeding years those elites – anglophone and francophone – who were influenced by the European approach also failed. The point of 1848 and the LaFontaine-Baldwin coalition is that these reformists had come up with a fundamental idea which allowed them to put together a broad collection of less fundamental but essential ideas. And all of that constituted a pattern showing how we could live together, how we could build a nation state.
If you look at Canada in this way you suddenly understand what it is we get right and why and what happens when we get things wrong. To put it simply, we get things wrong when we forget that this country is about a marriage between a new intellectual idea of the nation state and an ethical idea of the public good. If you put these two things together you have a very complicated, non-monolithic federation which has held together for a very long time.
Let me add one small detail. It is often said that instead of liberté, égalité, fraternité or life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that the Canadian phrase is peace, order and good government.
This is not true.
From the departure of the French authorities in the 18th century until the third draft of the BNA Act, the phrase used to describe Canadian governance was peace, welfare and good government. This phrase appeared again and again and again in every key political document. It was only in London during the BNA negotiations that some drafter – and nobody knows who or why – dropped the word welfare and replaced it with order. To be more precise, in the second draft the phrase was used twice, in one case with welfare and in the other with order. In the next draft welfare had disappeared.
The curious thing about all of this is that the phrase peace, order and good government makes no sense at all. Or rather it is tediously repetitive. If you have peace and you have good government, well, you have order. The phrase as it now stands is tautology and therefore slightly ridiculous as a national dictum. And of course it’s bad style. Peace, welfare and good government is quite another matter. The word welfare at that time meant bien-être, the public good, a form of egalitarianism, inclusion. To say peace, welfare and good government is to invoke three related but separate ideas.
When you understand that our real national motto is peace, welfare and good government, you understand why it is that we are the only democracy to have single-tier healthcare, why almost everybody in this room went to a public school – certainly the Governor General and I did – why Canadians are not terribly interested in tall poppies, as the Australians say, and are intent on cutting their heads off, why egalitarianism works in this country. Peace, welfare and good government, that is peace, the public good and good government is a perfectly accurate description of how Canadians see themselves at their best.
One hundred fifty-seven years ago in March 1848 this reforming coalition came to power. This means that Canada is not a new country. It is an old country. It is old, first, because the aboriginals have been here for thousands of years. It is old also because the experiment which involved the aboriginals, francophones and anglophones living together has been going on for over 400 years. And finally it is old because we are now, depending on how you do the definition, the second- or third-oldest continuous democracy in the world.
Please listen to these words. Canadians have so much difficulty thinking of themselves as a long-established, stable experiment in the building of a nation state. I repeat, we are the third-oldest continuous democracy in the world. Not the French, not the Germans, not the Italians. We are. And we are the second- or third-oldest continuous federation in the world after the United States and Switzerland. And just to be argumentative, you don't have to agree, we are the oldest or second-oldest continuous democratic federation in the world.
Why? Well, we all know that there are two central poles of power in the United States – the President and the Senate. Through most of American history the Senate has been as powerful or more powerful than the President. And the Senate was appointed, not elected, until 1913.
So even if you don't include the questions and the problems of slavery and the question of whether the Civil War was a break in the American nation state, on the single point of the non-elected Senate holding so much power, it can be argued that Canada is an older continuous democratic federation than the United States.
Why am I making these points? Because I want people to think about this country in a different way, a way that goes with this building. We’ve been at this a long time. Our mistakes are mistakes that we can trace through almost two centuries of democratic experience. We can see our failures. We can see our successes…
The pattern that I’ve been trying to weave here tonight combining the history of Canada and my experiences of the last six years is a complicated pattern. It is complicated because the Governor General and I have been going to almost 100 communities a year. We have been doing about 800 events a year. We meet individuals of every sort everywhere in the country, in very direct and simple ways. I’ll just give you some very small examples of this.
The Commander-in-Chief and I have made a point of going to see our military in the field about once a year. This was never done before. It was something we initiated in 1999. We’ve been to see them wherever they are, in Bosnia or in Kosovo or on the seas in the Arabian Gulf or in Afghanistan.
When you go to see them of course you see an army and you see what they’re doing as an army. But you also see hundreds, thousands of young men and women who are individual citizens, who are living a dangerous life, a lonely life, a life away from their families. In the long run, while you admire their professionalism and their courage, you can’t help seeing them first as individuals because that’s the way you meet them and talk to them – one by one. What you’re meeting is a wife, a mother, a husband, a man with a child, people with normal lives who are going out every night on patrol on a dark and lonely mountain.
Adrienne and I spent the last two New Years in Kabul with the Canadian Armed Forces. On these trips stayed in the camp and stayed long enough to meet pretty well every soldier serving in Afghanistan and use we used the camp as base to meet the Afghani government and the various Canadians working with NGOs in other projects in the country. Interestingly enough a PEN Centre has just been set up in Kabul – the first ever. You can imagine that building a centre to defend freedom of speech is an interesting project in such a situation. On our last trip I managed to go and call on these newly organized writers, which sends a very clear message to everyone in political life in Kabul.
In any case, over the last two New Year’s Eves, Adrienne and I did very different things. It’s a great night of celebration for the soldiers who are far from their families and lonely. It’s a night of singing and dancing in the camp and Adrienne loves dancing. And so on both New Years Eve soldiers had a great time dancing with their Commander-in-Chief.
On the other hand, life in Kabul goes on even on New Year’s Eve and that means there are soldiers going out on patrol. On each of our visits I managed to go out on one a patrol over New Year’s Eve. You can imagine that the first time I asked to this there was a bit of a stir. Nobody vice-regal had ever gone on a patrol in an operations area before. And they knew I wasn't at all interested in a show patrol.
This last year I went out with the Strathcona’s Horse on a patrol which included going out to the ammunition depot which is in the desert not too far from Kabul. The defended position is surrounded by watch towers which are built out of old sea containers piled three high with a wooden platform on top just big enough for two soldiers. I can remember clearly climbing up through those containers into the small wooden platform and drinking a glass of apple juice to celebrate New Year with the two young men in each watch tower. It was obvious to anyone how lonely and difficult what they were doing was.
Two years ago I went out on a patrol with the Royal Canadian Regiment. It was a walking patrol up into the mountains. It had seemed like a great idea until I had all the armour on and had driven with the rest of the men up to an altitude of about six thousand feet of height, somewhat higher than our camp was at. Then we got out in the middle of the mountains surrounding Kabul and marched at a very steep incline up another 1,500 to 2,000 feet. I have to admit that the main thing going through my mind as we made our way through the mud and the snowstorm was that everyone else on the patrol was half my age and it was going to be really embarrassing if I fainted from the effects of the thin air.
In any case, we walked on through the snowstorm, throwing ourselves down into the mud every 15 minutes or so on the orders of the young lieutenant commanding the patrol – Kristopher Reeves – you lie in the mud for 10 minutes or so to see whether anything is moving in the area. There was a little firing in the distance at one point and otherwise that eerie feeling of emptiness surrounding this group of men on bare mountaintops over a city which at that time was almost completely black. There was no electricity.
General Andrew Leslie had come out with me that night and at one point when we were at the highest part of the climb and lying on the ground he rolled over in the mud and gave me a kick and said Happy New Year. And everybody said Happy New Year and I thought to myself that this was the best New Year I’d ever had. And then we got carefully up and walked on and down the mountain. I had never met these people before, except for the General. They were all I suppose in their 20s. And I can imagine the young lieutenant thinking to himself – “My God, I’ve got His Excellency and the General with me. What’s my career worth if something goes wrong?” I saw him the other day and he seemed to remember the evening as fondly as I did.
A few years ago, the Governor General and I were in London on other business when we heard about the friendly fire incident in Afghanistan. We immediately decided that it was important to make our way to Ramstein, in Germany, a military base to which the wounded soldiers and the dead would be flown before being sent on to Canada. We arrived in time to meet the wounded soldiers and to climb onto the plane where they lay bandaged and swollen and sedated. We spent some time with them that night and over the next day doing the simple things, which are about all you can do, which is to sit and chat and bring them magazines and cookies.
The next morning we went out early to wait on the tarmac in one of those freezing rain, damp, north German days for the second plane to arrive carrying the bodies of the Canadian soldiers who had been killed. The Canadian ambassador had come down from Berlin. There was a long line of senior officers and we stood there in the rain waiting. After a while I looked over to where the wounded soldiers were sitting in their wheelchairs. They had insisted on coming out of the hospital to be there when their dead friends arrived. They were sitting still, their faces swollen and bandaged. And suddenly I realized that they were still wearing their very thin desert clothes with no additional protection. None of us had noticed and I don’t think that they had noticed because the moment was so overwhelming that you simply went through the essential motions. The most important thing was to be there in solidarity and wait, in some human yet awful way, for it to be over.
A good deal of the last six years has been spent in a very different part of the Canadian world – in the Arctic. We've managed to get to some 50 communities in the north, many of which had never been visited by a vice-regal couple or senior politicians before. We tried to take as much time as possible in each of those communities. Often the mornings were spent in school gatherings chatting over as long a period of time as possible with teenagers who are struggling with what to make of their live in an isolated community when the television coming in tells them about another world which makes absolutely no sense there. The elders are usually at those meetings and we would also meet with them separately. They are continually talking – and rightly – about the need to link these youths to the land. I’ve always made a point in as many settlements as possible of going out on the land with the Ranger patrols.
Most Canadians know almost nothing about the Rangers. They’re a remarkable group of part-time military, most of whom are the leading hunters in their communities. They act as an emergency rescue group, but also as a patrol group throughout the north. Without them the Canadian military would be almost absent in our Artic.
About four years ago I did a wonderful winter patrol over a couple of hundred kilometres outside of Pond Inlet, ending the first day at a small hunting shack where we all threw ourselves on the floor in sleeping bags and talked about the strange mixture of life in the north between the true world of being on the land and the strange imported world from the south.
As you’re beginning to see the last six years have been filled with a multiplicity of worlds for me. Another world again: that of the French language and bilingual community across Canada. I’ve been very involved with the creation and the expansion of an organization called French for the Future, which supports francophone and immersion high school kids across the country. It’s now in 21 cities. The aim is to encourage them to stay in these programs, having spent so much of their lives becoming bilingual or maintaining their original language. There are about half a million students being educated in French outside of Quebec. That’s a remarkable number and a number which did not exist 30 years ago. And it is not, as is sometimes said, an elite project in the big cities. I’ve seen it work everywhere from Corner Brook and Marystown in Newfoundland, to Kelowna, Kenora, Whitehorse and Iqaluit.
A few weeks ago I was in Iqaluit and after meeting with leaders of the francophone and immersion community there, I went out to visit the French language students in a summer camp. And so we sat around beside one of those roaring northern rivers talking about bilingualism in the Arctic. You can’t help thinking to yourself what a wonderfully strange country we live in when you can be sitting beside an arctic river at a French camp discussing bilingualism with a group of kids, many of whom are part Inuit.
And then another world: the world of reminding Canadians of the importance of their history. Just before arriving at Rideau Hall I started with a group of friends something called the LaFontaine-Baldwin lectures. We started with Rudyard Griffiths and the Dominion Institute. The aim is to provoke debate about where Canada is going and to use our democratic history as the basis for prolonging ourselves into the future. One of the original aspects of this lecture/debate program is that we hold it in a different city every year and prolong it over two days, so that the morning after the lecture which might have been given by the Chief Justice or by Louise Arbour or by Georges Erasmus, there’s a half-day long roundtable public debate about the lecture the night before.
I think it’s hard for people who don't travel with us to imagine the complexity of what we try to do as we move across the country. Some of it is very basic. For example, going to citizenship ceremonies whenever possible across the country. One of the things we’ve tried to do is to invite to these citizenship ceremonies people who are going to receive, in the same ceremony, the Caring Canadian Award. These are people who are the leaders of the Canadian volunteer system. In other words they are models of engaged citizenship. And we also invite local members of the Order of Canada and those who have received the bravery awards. What we do is invite everybody to come an hour or so early in order to have a roundtable discussion about citizenship involving the established leaders of the local community and the new citizens.
The last one we did was in Calgary. A woman about to become a citizen who had originally come from Central Europe leaned forward at the roundtable and said "You know, I was on the street the other day and there was this guy and he threw a piece of paper on the sidewalk and I went over to him and I said – ‘You can’t do that.’ And he heard my accent and he said, ‘It’s not your country.’ "
And she said to all of us "Well, today it is my country."
I tell you this story because it’s a story of citizenship not as an accident but as an intentional act. We invite people to come to this country on purpose and we invite them to come here in order to become citizens on purpose and therefore we have to think about what we can do to help these people not simply become citizens but become engaged citizens as rapidly as possible. Most of them in decades past went to rural communities where the method of involvement was fairly easy to imagine. In our large complicated cities it’s both easier and much more complicated. So we have an obligation to help these people become full citizens as quickly as possible. We don’t have the time to wait around.
As we have moved around through all of these places over the last six years, what has going through my head is the refrain with which I began this talk. Who is excluded? Why are they excluded? How are they excluded? How can this be reversed so that they find themselves in a much more inclusive society?
Recent numbers say that 250,000 Canadians are, in some way or other, at some point or another in each year, on the streets. Homeless.
In Toronto the daily number I believe is around 5,000. But the figure is only party accurate because the people who are on the street rotate. And so there are apparently some 30,000 Torontonians who spend part of their year on the street. How can they possibly exercise their obligations as citizens if they are homeless? Note, I did not say how could they be protected through their rights. We can all imagine how that might be done, even if being on the street suggests that they are not receiving their full rights. But perhaps more important is the denial of their right to their obligations as citizens. By allowing poverty and homelessness and exclusion we are in effect denying an important percentage of our population the right to exercise their obligations of citizenship.
Robert Baldwin resigned in enormous emotional stress on the 30th of June, 1851. In his resignation speech he warned of the "Consequences of that reckless disregard of the first principles of democracy and justice which, if left unchecked, can lead but to widespread social disorganization with all its fearful consequences."
His statement was a throwback, in a positive sense, to the great Address to the Electors of Terrebonne, l'adresse aux électeurs de Terrebonne, that Louis-Hypolite LaFontaine published in 1840. That document is the fundamental intellectual document of Canadian democracy. And if you will forgive me repeating a joke that some of you will have heard, this is probably the most important document in the history of Canadian democracy, which is why we don’t teach it in our schools and why you’ve never heard of it before.
I promised myself some years ago that I would read one paragraph from the Address to the Electors of Terrebonne in every speech until one day people started repeating it back to me and people started teaching it in schools and universities.
"Pour nous empêcher [de] jouir [de la liberté démocratique], il faudrait détruire l'égalité sociale qui forme le caractère distinctif tant de la population du Haut-Canada que de celle du Bas-Canada. Car cette égalité sociale doit nécessairement amener notre liberté politique…. Il ne peut exister au Canada aucune caste privilégiée en dehors et au dessus de la masse de ses habitants."
Which translates as follows. And I want you to remember that this was written by Louis-Hypolite LaFontaine a few months before he was elected in this riding, from this podium. These are the words of the first prime minister of democratic Canada. This is the man who imagined how we could get through the social, racial, religious and linguistic mess which everywhere else led to civil wars, dictatorships and social breakdowns. In other words, what I’m reading to you is the central paragraph from the very mainstream of the idea of Canada.
"The only way in which [the authorities] can prevent us from succeeding [in creating our democratic liberty] is by destroying the social equality which is the distinctive characteristic as much of the population of Upper Canada as of Lower Canada. This social equality must necessarily bring our political liberty…. No privileged caste can exist in Canada beyond and above the mass of its inhabitants."
There are many signs that this country still imagines itself and still runs itself on that egalitarian foundation. There are daily signs that egalitarianism is alive and well and mainstream in Canada. Our public school system lies at the very centre of that egalitarianism. Whatever its problems, it is still a wonderful system. Our public healthcare system, whatever its problems, is a remarkable system. It is not an accident that we are the only western country to have a single-tier healthcare system. It is an expression of our idea of fairness and an egalitarian society. And if you go to Haida Gwaii – which used to be known as the Queen Charlotte Islands – you will find that where there was once a traditional opposition between the loggers and the First Nations people, the Haida, in its place there is something brand new in the modern history of Canada – something which takes us back to the earlier days of the triangular foundation of this country – and that is an alliance between the Haida and the loggers. Why? Because the loggers woke up one day and realized that if they continued to act as the camp followers of those who hired them – the owners and managers of the logging company – there would soon be no wood left and they would have to leave the island with heir families and children, just as so many other employees of so many commodities industries in other communities have had to leave their homes when the resource runs out. And so the loggers on Haida Gwaii looked around to see who else on their small continent did not want to leave, would not leave, saw Haida Gwaii as their true home. Needless to say their attention was quickly focused on the Haida people. They suddenly discovered that they were logical allies in a campaign for a more responsible, environmentally sound, logging policy. You could say that this is a recreation of the original Canadian triangular foundation. You could also say that this is an expression of the egalitarian idea of our society.
The Haida have a saying which goes as follows. “The world is as sharp as a knife. If you don't watch out, you’ll fall right off.”
If you want to understand the link between our aboriginal origins, the profound influence of aboriginal culture and European exposure to it over four centuries, and Canada today you have only to think carefully about that Haida motto. You might say that it is a dramatic version of what we more pedantically mean when we say that Canada is a place of peace, welfare and good government. It’s all a question of equilibrium, balance, egalitarianism.
Think about it. How do we keep our place, how do we keep our place in our society? I don't mean by that a place of social rank. I mean by that how do we maintain our role as citizens? We do it through an idea of inclusion, through an egalitarian approach. And all of that is based on a humanist and non-ideological approach. I believe very strongly that the one thing missing in the way we talk about our country is precisely a conscious sense of that aboriginal influence. We have been in denial since the late 19th century when the empire historians – anglophone and francophone – told us that the meaning of our country was all about what we had brought from Britain and France. We forgot – or rather they erased from our memories – that our country was much more pertinently all about the long experience of the First Nations, francophones and anglophones living together in some sort of equal state for two and half centuries, and then in a troubled but nevertheless real state for another 100 or so years, and now for the last 50 years living together in an attempt to rediscover what the relationship actually means. The key point is that for the first 250 of our 400‑year history the reality was that aboriginal philosophy and approaches to social organization were for a great deal of the time dominant and at the very least equal to those brought from Europe. The result is a mishmash, a blending, a reinvention of human relationships. And out of that came Joseph Howe, Louis-Hypolite LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin and the reform movement. Out of that came a reality which is Canada that although in some superficial way is still under colonial influence is profoundly a non-colonial and North American invention.
I ask you this very simple question. If Canada is the result of European influences, if we are, as we so often and wrongly say, more European than our neighbours to the south, then how is it we managed, albeit with difficulty, to live together over such a long period of time without degenerating into the civil wars, dictatorships and violences which were common to all of our fellow western nation states? How is it that we did not actually manage to ban whole cultures and languages successfully as was regularly done in Britain and France and other European countries? If we are so rational, how is it that we did not come to the rational conclusion that the only way to deal with our complex difficulties was to make decisions which led to clear policies setting the direction we were to take? And then, in the European/American rational manner we would feel justified in eliminating those groups which got in our way. Why is it that none of this happened? Or that when we did try to do it, we were unsuccessful?
The answer is that we are in denial of our social, historical and political roots. We are unable to talk about ourselves as being an interesting and deeply-rooted mixture of aboriginal and European traditions. And yet much of this talent for living with diversity and complexity comes from the animist, Aboriginal tradition. Why is it that we insist so much on describing ourselves as being a multicultural place from the 1960s or 70s on? This does not explain why we’ve managed to avoid so many of the problems which our neighbours cannot face up to when bringing in large numbers of immigrants. The answer quite simply is that we have been a non-monolithic, multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-myth civilization since the 17th century. And so, even if there were terrible moments of exclusion and prejudice, nevertheless the fundamental base of our society was not as in the European/American tradition monolithic, but has been for four centuries non-monolithic and therefore increasingly open to greater complexity.
I have seen this egalitarianism at work in Malverne Collegiate in North Toronto or in Cole Harbour High School across the harbour from Halifax. In both places the public assumption and the newspaper reporting tell us of communities and schools filled with racial divisions. And yet I have seen the high school students in those schools determinedly speaking out to say that they do not wish to be limited and profiled by our popular press as students divided by race. They do not see themselves that way and, quite frankly, having spent time with them, I believe them and not their public image.
You can see that same egalitarianism if you go down to Regent Park. Go and spend time with the young people, many of them children of immigrants, although not all. Go and see them in a basement where they work with a wonderful fellow called Adonis Huggins in an art, video and broadcasting group. They use it to speak up publicly about the way they see their communities.
Go to a little place in the poorest part of Winnipeg – Rossbrook House – run by a couple of nuns and you’ll find a group of very young First Nations kids who live in very difficult circumstances. But they are making their way through that difficulty and expressing their optimism about themselves and their society.
Go to Rose Avenue Public School in St. Jamestown in Toronto. They have a class in which nine and 10 year-old kids are doing international philosophy very clearly designed around an ethical basis in order to deal with the complexity of the world they live in. If you sit in the gym in that school you’ll find every language in the world, every culture and every experience. What their teachers are trying to do and what these nine and 10 year-olds are trying to do is to consciously figure out how to put it all together in the context of Canada, and in the context of our stable democracy. If you go and listen to those nine year-olds you’ll hear a more sophisticated discourse about Canada than you will in most adult public debates in this country.
So, if you were to ask me what has carried me across this country over the last six years to as many corners as time and respect for those we have met has permitted, I would say that it is simple identification with the people we’ve met and the places we’ve been.
You could call that simple love of country, simple amour du pays. Nothing grand, nothing tied to comparisons with other places as if we were better than they were. It’s the place itself which has given us, I think, the necessary energy and the desire over the last six years. I’m not talking about exclusive love, but one which allows you, having tried to imagine the other in your own country, the unknown other, having tried to imagine them, to find the capacity to go on to imagine other Canadians in other places and from there to imagine other people in other countries and in other continents.
What has carried me all of this time is the energy and imagination and humanism which I have soaked up everywhere I have gone.