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Address to the Empire Club and the Royal Commonwealth Society

Toronto, Ontario
Wednesday, June 26, 1996

To address your two clubs would be an honour in any circumstances. It is all the more so at a Canada Day luncheon.

This is a time when Canadians are proud of our country's stature in the world, but puzzled about our internal state of mind. I usually hesitate to venture on this terrain, because I have no magic potions, nor do I have a mandate for dealing with day-to-day questions.

But today I will reflect on our history, and give my views about the nature of this country. And in that, some of you might see suggestions about our common future.

We all see Canada as a model of openness, tolerance, and generosity, a country of perseverance and progress. You have heard similar words before. Some would say they are clichés about our national character.

But there is a rival cliché. People used to talk of Canada as inward-looking, timid, anonymous.

Margaret Atwood found in our literature, French and English, a "sombre and negative" tone, and a preoccupation with mere survival. Northrop Frye, and I quote the Canadian Encyclopedia, saw in our literature "a 'garrison mentality' of beleaguered settlers who huddled against the glowering, all-consuming nothingness of the wilderness." I am sure he was not speaking of Toronto.

So we may ask -- what is our true nature? Generous and open, or a garrison mentality hiding from the world?

Often a crisis will reveal character. So let's look back at the greatest challenge that Canada faced in this century.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power. Twelve years later, he had taken over a good chunk of the world and lost it. Concentration camps had shown us new depths of horror. Fearful memories of the Dust Bowl and Depression remained with us. Western empires were collapsing, and Communist empires came into being. The atomic bomb and the Cold War gave us half a century of fear.

One might have pardoned us for adopting a garrison mentality. But how did we respond in real life? I have here a book of Empire Club speeches fifty years ago. Speaker after speaker put forward to your club the most generous and enlightened ideas, and talked about Canada's leadership role in the Commonwealth and the world.

As an example, I will quote Dr. Robert McClure: "For the white members of the Empire, we have shown what can be done to develop nations to their full stature and then unite them with mutual bonds across oceans. That same vision must now be applied across racial boundaries. ... I believe in Canada's destiny. I believe we have a job of work to do that can be done by no other nation. ... I feel that our whole history has brought us to this place where we can make this contribution...."

Those old speeches, ladies and gentlemen, showed not a garrison mentality but a generous worldwide vision. Did we live up to it? Let's glance at the record.

What about the Commonwealth? John Diefenbaker led the fight against racism in South Africa, and Canada helped give the Commonwealth moral fibre. The Royal Commonwealth Society today, under the patronage of Her Majesty and the Queen Mother, reflects that rich international tradition.

Canada helped build the United Nations and NATO. Louis St. Laurent and Lester Pearson invented modern peacekeeping during the Suez Crisis. Since then, we have taken part in more peacekeeping missions than any other nation. I know that it is easier to count the dead on a battlefield than the lives saved by peacekeeping, but I suspect they are in the millions. And Canada remains a master of honorable, peace-making diplomacy.

At home, we have opened our hearts to new Canadians. In the last half-century, Ontario alone welcomed three million immigrants. When shiploads of aliens in strange clothes suddenly show up on the beach, people in some countries might have looked for their guns. When that happened on our Atlantic coast, the local people met them with coffee and sandwiches.

This very week, our Prime Minister represents Canada as a member of the G-7 nations in Lyon. In our country, the fears of old age, of sickness, of unemployment have diminished, because of our social safety net. And I recently created a new Governor General's award for volunteers, because we may well have the most generous volunteers on earth.

Canadians have reached out to one another and to the world. And despite our reputation for being sombre and negative, we have even made people laugh. I could mention all the Canadian comedy writers here and in the United States, or even Wayne and Shuster, if I dared to differ with Margaret Atwood.

In fact, what lies behind our success? Our children may sense that Canada has come a long way, but they have little idea how we got here. At times, our schools seem to hush up our history, as if they feared to awaken old divisions.

And some Canadians use history only for self-criticism, digging up the darker incidents.

No one is proud of the war-time internment of Japanese-Canadians, or the turning away of the Komagata Maru, or the hanging of Louis Riel, or of the expulsion of my Acadian ancestors. Tragic events did take place, and I do not dismiss them.

But Canada kept growing because, over time, co-operation and accommodation became the keynote of our character.

The first sailing ships that crossed the Atlantic had brought with them old quarrels and prejudices. Canada began as a huge reserve of fish and furs and forests for Britain and France to fight over. But gradually we learned a few things.

Settlers discovered that they needed one another. They were learning what the natives already knew. Alone, no one can survive in this country. So conquerors didn't build Canada. Neighbours did.

Those who fear discovering old divisions in our history miss the point. The divisions were already there, inherited from Europe. But in the new world we formed new alliances, first among the people within communities, and then among the different communities. Gradually we washed away the blood feuds of Europe, and almost took a new baptism from the soil.

Quebec school-children today may learn of the 1837 rebellion on the banks of the Richelieu. Ontario children may learn of William Lyon Mackenzie's rebellion in the muddy Toronto of the time. But few Canadians learn of the connections between them.

In the years following those rebellions, the political alliance between Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine shaped our country. Today those reformers are forgotten. Yet the seeds they planted never stopped growing.

Confederation built a self-governing country sea to sea, and a form of federal power-sharing new to the world. Sir George-Étienne Cartier spoke of different races and religions set down like great families beside one another, not giving up their heritage, yet belonging to a new political nationality.

That vision still prevails. When new Canadians become citizens, we do not ask them to give up their culture, their religion, or their language. We only encourage them to work together with other Canadians.

Our country perhaps more than any other respects the concentric circles of identity. I am a LeBlanc, from Memramcook. I am a proud Acadian and a proud New Brunswicker. But beyond all that, I am a proud Canadian, because Canada is the widest circle.

Yes, Canada's record has its stains. But future historians will marvel at our success. In less than a century and a half of nationhood, we have vaulted into the first rank of countries.

When the United Nations names Canada as the best country in which to live, and when people around the world seek to come to our country above all others, our typical response is often to poke holes in our own image.

This country has a long list of individual heroes, from warriors like Billy Bishop and Leonard Birchall to the healers like Banting and Best and Bethune. And we have great collective accomplishments like those of the Northwest Mounted Police, or the peacekeepers, or the pioneers who settled the west.

But we recognize our heroes only in spite of ourselves. We are perhaps the only country to have become great without a strong sense of symbols and history. The historian Jack Granatstein recently wrote about this collective amnesia; and he concluded that it is no wonder "why so often we are condemned to repeat the past, as if the problems we face were unique to our time."

I hope the CBC's projected series on our historical roots, or the work of the National History Society in Winnipeg, will teach Canadians more about their past: not just to magnify old conflicts, but to show their resolutions.

I am told that there is a proverbial phrase among the Inuit: "a long time ago, in the future." Let the children see our history, and maybe it will help to shape the future.

Most countries would think themselves blessed if they had no more problems than Canada. That being said, there is always something going wrong, and always will be. And one example today should concern us all: the aboriginal peoples are only beginning to find their rightful place in Canada.

But there are always many problems: regional stresses and strains, economic rivalries and resentments, cultural clashes. Today, some of those questions have surfaced in Quebec.

It is true that pollsters keep concluding that given a clear question, most Quebeckers will vote to stay Canadian. But to many people, Quebec remains a preoccupation and a puzzle.

It is always well to remember that the same land shaped all of us; the same history made us partners; and the same virtues prevail in Quebec as in the rest of Canada, including openness and tolerance.

Some people outside Quebec might question that statement. Some charge that nationalism has become the new religion, and that if any part of Canada has a garrison mentality, it is Quebec.

Well, let me speak as a Canadian of French origin. If we have a garrison mentality, how did we explore this country and help create Canada in the first place? Quebeckers reached out in the past to other Canadians. The Quiet Revolution sprang not from nationalism, but from reforms in education and other spheres which not only caught up with the rest of Canada, but sometimes took the lead.

Some would say that without the protection of the Canadian federal system, and without institutions such as Radio-Canada, French language and culture might have disappeared years ago. And with that I agree. But let's look at English-speaking Canada.

In recent decades, this country has set Canadian content rules for radio and television, has fought valiantly to protect Canadian magazines and newspapers, and has aided Canadian book publishing. Still, anglophone Canadians fear being swamped by the cultural superpower next door.

If twenty million anglophone Canadians are that worried about their culture and identity, do not seven million French-Canadians have some legitimate concerns, when they are surrounded by a quarter of a billion anglophones, putting not only their culture but their very language and identity at risk?

I have no specific prescriptions for national unity. The puzzles appear insoluble, just as the bitter pre-Confederation debates between Upper and Lower Canada looked insoluble.

But our nation-builders solved those old puzzles, and Canadians have solved insoluble problems in every decade since, by determination, and with the help of time. Minority school controversies, conscription, the Great Depression, freight rates, flag debates, energy policies: all those questions were going to destroy Canada, and yet we are still growing.

If our ancestors could create a new kind of country, could nurture it through World Wars and Depression, and could make it one of the most respected nations, are we today not gifted enough to find new solutions?

Will French and English-speaking Canadians tear down a house they built together? Will Quebeckers abandon a country reaching coast to coast?

I am convinced instead that all Quebeckers will find their pride in Canada, because they know that you are never so much master of your own house, as when you open the door to your neighbours.

I believe we will keep reaching out to one another, because it is the Canadian way to reach out. Generosity has always been our winning strategy. And the momentum of history lies with us.

We will always have a huge country full of huge challenges. But so far, we have been big enough to live up to the land, and we are still growing. It was not easy victories that made Canada great; it was the challenges. Nation-building never ends. That is our curse, and that is our greatness.

Generosity, patience, and openness have created here a new nation, a country with few equals, and a country we are still building. And if we can live up to the best traditions of our past, then this country will live forever.

Updated: 1996-06-26
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