The images of people perilously afloat in overcrowded boats, thronging in railway stations, huddled in tents, challenges our humanity in a stark and urgent way. The picture of Aylan Kurdi, aged 3, dead, face-down on the beach, aroused our sense of shame and horror. It challenged our decency to the core. It happened that his family were trying to get to Canada and this shocked all Canadians, causing an outpouring of grief and recrimination that has had a major effect on our current federal election campaign. I tweeted “I was three when we came to Canada as refugees in 1942, the same age as that toddler… Have we no pity?” I received 1,500 retweets and favorites in two days – reflecting the traditional values of Canadians toward refugees – accepting and willing to help. We have always known how to help.
I was the 26th Governor General of Canada for six years from 1999 to 2005. A Governor General as those from Commonwealth countries know, is an apolitical appointment representing the ultimate authority of the State and therefore the defacto Head of State – Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces – signing all laws into being, assuring that Canada always has a government, naming the government, consulting with the Prime Minister on regular basis (always off the record), sending out Ambassadors to represent Canada, and receiving letters of credence of foreign ones. As the functions of Head of State and Head of Government are split, the Governor General is able to voice Canadian concerns from a position above politics. These conversations with Canadians involved traveling 200,000 kilometers a year in our country which has the second largest land mass after Russia. My major themes were the North and our Aboriginal people. It is the duty of the Governor General to undertake State visits to many countries. It was a fascinating and worthwhile experience.
But I began my life in Canada as a 3-year-old refugee, after the fall of Hong Kong to the Japanese in 1942. What would little Aylan Kurdi have done if he had grown up in Canada as I did? What if he had been taken into a small city of 90,000 people where the Jewish drug store owner gave him free cough drops together with his prescription and had his own son walk him home eight blocks through the snow?
Our temporary housing was in a French Canadian Catholic neighborhood and three women helped my mother – who had come from a household filled with servants – learn how to cook pork and beans and Irish stew. She later went to one of the few Chinese restaurants to learn how to cook Cantonese food. My family, mother, father, brother aged 7 and I were given eight hours to prepare to leave under the aegis of the Red Cross to come to North America. We were allowed one suitcase each which included my brother’s pillow, without which he could not sleep. Out of that experience I gained the courage to continue, the need to survive, and the necessity to never look back even as my grandmother waved goodbye. We never saw her again. Like all refugees I learned the nature of loss and the necessity for reinvention. By surviving you also gain the chance to begin, to be aware, to seek and welcome the new.
I went to public school, public high school and public university. Canada’s education system is part of its success as a nation as it is egalitarian and free for all. Public school teachers encouraged me to read “Wuthering Heights” when I was only 12 because I was “ready for it.” My high school English teacher entered me in city-wide public speaking contests run by the Rotary Club because he saw a future for me as an orator. And he persuaded my parents not to send me to McGill University but to Trinity College, University of Toronto where he had gone. That decision, like getting on the Red Cross boat, changed my life. My brother did go to McGill and became a surgeon. The little Poy family survived and thrived and eventually even had a cottage in the wilderness.
“We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing… If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all…; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the State, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition.”
These are still the democratic ideals by which we live, even though as we well know, the citizen in Athens could not be female, not from outside Athens and certainly not a slave. But those who were, were full-fledged political equals and “were ready to meet dangers depending on the courage which springs from our manner of life rather than the compulsion of laws.” For all its flaws, Athenian democracy still has much to say to us, and for that reason we cling to its components as if to particularly well-balanced pieces of an ongoing shipwreck. In Canada, 25 percent of people do volunteer activity and say they do it because it makes them feel good about themselves – whether it’s going to retirement homes and helping older people fill out their income tax or delivering meals to people confined to their homes. In February which is declared Heart Month because of Valentine’s Day, 100,000 Canadians go door-to-door in the middle of the winter to canvas for the Heart and Stroke Foundation and this year they have raised 12 million dollars in that one month. In most high schools kids have to put in a minimum number of volunteer hours a week in order to graduate.
We weren’t always this way, although we did tend to help each other because of our dreadful climate. But we are a country of complexity built on three pillars: Aboriginal, French and English. Our country is a complex one, not at all like the gigantic powerful empire to our South, on the 49th parallel. We share the roots of a common language but our complexity of a country built on Aboriginal, French and English components buttressed by bilingualism is not the complexity of American non-conforming revolutionary Enlightenment burdened by what is now called the original sin of slavery. Our relations with our Aboriginal people were excellent for the first 300 years of our history. They showed us the way into the heart of the continent and we enriched ourselves with the fur-trade. It was only in the mid-19th century when the protestant Orange Order turned things sour. It is wise to remember that until 1960 as Mavis Gallant, one of our greatest writers wrote, there was: “Flowering in us the dark bloom of the Old Country – the mistrust of pity, the contempt for weakness, the fear of the open heart.”
But by 1968, we no longer had the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923 – which had been enacted to prevent Chinese immigrating legally to Canada. I was not only a refugee but also illegal. Nobody seemed to notice. In the late 60s public opinion in Canada was building steadily against the American war in Vietnam. The government under Pierre Elliott Trudeau decided that draft resisters should be given opportunity to emigrate to Canada, that they were resisting this particular war and weren’t simply opposed to any military action. Therefore all draft resisters and deserters were given legal status as landed immigrants. The New York Times trumpeted “Canada To Admit Any US Deserter.” Over a period of several years, Canada received 50,000 Americans of draft age, the largest injection since the United Empire Loyalists after the American Revolution. We were enriched by these young men who became Members of Parliament, Mayors, professors and broadcasters. Very few ever returned to the US after amnesty was declared.
In 1973 after the fall of Salvador Allende, and the seizure of power by General Pinochet, an event which plunged many of us into gloom, we took 30,000 Chileans, sending military planes for them. We took more Chileans proportionately than any other country except France.
In 1972 Canada accepted 10,000 Ismaili refugees, victims of persecution and expulsion from east Africa. At the time, there were less than 1,000 Muslims in Canada and only a handful of the branch known as Ismailis. They have become enormously successful in business and the professions, particularly the helping ones, like medicine, as their beliefs emphasizes helping others not only in their own community but in any larger community in which they find themselves.
The Mayor of our oil capital city Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, is 43, elected at 38, the first Muslim mayor of a large North American city, re-elected two years ago with 74 percent of the votes. He worked in a bingo hall running coffee from the time he was 11, held three part-time jobs in high school and then went to Harvard Business School.
In 1979 public outcry in Canada was huge supporting the plight of the Vietnamese boat people. Within a year we took 60,000 because the government of PM Joe Clark listened to the public outcry. Our Ambassador in Thailand Fred Bild – whose father was killed in Auschwitz and who was hidden for three years as a child on a Belgian farm during the Nazi occupation – was the point person who coordinated sending immigration officers from Canada who went directly to the refugee camps to interview and clear refugees so that they could get on the planes rented by the Canadian government. Two full planes a month arrived to bring them mainly to Edmonton and Montreal. Groups of Canadians dubbed Operation Lifeline, organized to adopt families when they arrived, finding them apartments, getting clothes (they arrived in Edmonton in mid-winter,) taking children to register at school, finding jobs for the parents. It was a wonderful time for many Canadians as we proudly watched “our family” doing well. By now the children have become journalists, filmmakers, engineers, architects.
Canada didn’t stay the same as a result of all these people coming. But it didn’t become less. They didn’t take anything away from us. Canada became more. And we need more. From a selfish point of view like every other developed country, we will need immigration in order not to stagnate as a nation and to pay for all the social benefits that we have earned as a nation. Our growth in population after 2030 will depend on immigration.
Canada tries to bring 1 percent of its population of 35 million people as immigrants every year. We don’t quite reach the goal but we do receive about 250,000 a year and after an average of five or six years they can become citizens. We gain an average of about 180,000 new citizens per year. On leaving my post as Governor General, my husband John Rolston Saul and I founded the Institute for Canadian Citizenship to help new citizens integrate more quickly into the mainstream of Canadian life. We start welcoming them by 80 special ceremonies run by volunteers across the country – the federal government does 2,900 ceremonies annually! Our institute gives free passes to all new citizens and their families of up to four children to all museums and other cultural organizations for one year. It’s called the Cultural Access Pass. With this pass, they can also get half price on the lowest price on all trains anywhere in the country for one year and entrance to all national and provincial wilderness parks. We have programs to encourage them to vote and participate in sports. At our special ceremonies we hear new Canadians talk with established Canadians about their hopes and dreams. The only complaint we hear about Canada is about the weather.
Now we are faced with the situation where all Canadians want to help again. Yesterday the former chief of defense staff when I was Governor General and who commanded when we were in Afghanistan, General Hillier called for us to accept 50,000 before Christmas. I’m with him – that’s the minimum. I return home on Thursday to plunge right in. I belong to an Anglican parish which has been steadily but slowly (because of the red tape which has grown in the last few years) supporting first a Burmese family and before that an Iraqi family. We share the responsibility with a synagogue on the same street as our church. We are heeding the call to love the stranger as we were once the strangers. And we will be able, as we have in the past, to screen them and not be overcome with fear.
I believe that we have the confidence that our country can help the other, that helping the other is the only way that we can make our own narrative which is how Hannah Arendt says is the only way we can act because one cannot act except in relation to others. We have to acknowledge that no one is too poor to give or too rich to receive. We have to have the confidence in our own structures and beliefs to do what is right, what is just, what is for the public good. We have to announce the hundreds of thousands we will take in in the name of our values, our democratic beliefs, our sharing of the Athenian ideals. By living those ideals, we will help others to want to live up to those ideals.
We must make known that we are all human beings and no human being is more human than any other. It is in our power, in the power of the countries we all come from, to give those who are fleeing by boat, by truck, by foot with their children, to a destination from which they can create a new life for themselves and contribute what they will become, to our future. They are coming to us and they are part of us, part of what we all share at this point on the earth. As the Qur’an tells us, we are all created by a single Creator and therefore are part of an original project. They want to come home and “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
* The Right Honorable Adrienne Clarkson is a Hong Kong-born Canadian journalist, politician and stateswoman, and gave the opening address at the Athens Democracy Forum on September 15.