ARCHIVED - Appendix 3: Opening address, the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson

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It’s with a great deal of pleasure that I accepted the invitation to join you this morning for this discussion forum. The theme that you have chosen is one that greatly interests me. I think that it is at the heart of Canadian life. Linguistic duality and the reality of Canada’s diversity are two things that I find stimulating not only from an intellectual point of view, but also because they are essential to how we see ourselves as Canadians.

We are a country with a unique history. And as John Ralston Saul always says, we are not a new country. We are a centuries-old country with institutions that are rooted in even older countries like Great Britain. Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a direct descendent of the Magna Carta of the 13th century. We are a parliamentary democracy. We enjoy freedom of expression. We use both common law and civil law thanks to our country’s two founding nations. It is for these reasons that it is always interesting to reflect on who we are and who we are going to be.

I have to say right from the start that I came to this country as a refugee. I like to touch on my own personal story in these types of meetings because my family came to Canada at a time when there was no immigration from Oriental countries. In fact, it was actively discouraged.

We came to Canada in 1942. Those of you who know your history of Canada will recall that in 1940 our country refused to take in Jews who were desperate to leave Europe. We admitted 4,000 Jews. The United States at the same time took in 240,000; Mexico and Columbia took in 40,000; Argentina and Brazil took in 40,000; Great Britain took in 85,000; and little, white, comfortable Canada admitted a mere 4,000. Why? Because of fundamental attitudes that were simply givens. People didn’t question them.

It was into this kind of society that our little family, with its four suitcases, one apiece, came as refugees in 1942, after the fall of Hong Kong. We came on a Red Cross boat, as part of a Red Cross exchange of civilians. It took us two months to get from Hong Kong to New York because we had to stop at various places like Mozambique, Rio de Janeiro, etc., to pick up other people who were being moved around. It is the real story of a ship of fools. But we did get to Ottawa, and when we arrived, we had no papers… we had nothing. We were simply taken into the community. I often think about that when I visit community organizations that exist to welcome not only refugees, but also immigrants in general. I feel that it is very important that I tell my story because it is also a story about the evolution of this country.

When I was five years old, I was supposed to start kindergarten. Since my parents were from Hong Kong, they didn’t have to face the language barrier of not speaking English. They spoke English extremely well. My father was born in Australia as an overseas Chinese, and my mother’s family was part of a huge diaspora of Chinese—I have relatives, distant relatives, in places like Peru, Indonesia and Guyana because that is where my great-great-great-grandparents went as Chinese coolies. They then made their way and eventually owned businesses in these countries. They settled in the Caribbean as well. They are some of the Chinese people that you see in such places, when you happen to come upon one, lone Chinese restaurant.

And so we came to Canada, and at least we had English going for us. We had been part of a little pink dot on the map that signified we were part of the British Empire and we travelled to a large pink dot, which was Canada. As I say this, I distinctly remember how British this place was when we arrived. And yet, the one thing that wasn’t British was the place where we lived, which was in Lowertown, in Ottawa. It was Francophone. That is where we were welcomed as individuals and personally by other families. The people who welcomed us, the Marcottes, the Rivières, were French-speaking families. They actually helped my mother a great deal. We only spoke English and they spoke French and English. That was enough of a bridge.

My father found a little job with the federal government in the Department of Trade and Commerce because he knew about trade and commerce, having worked in Hong Kong for the Canadian Trade Commission. He felt that he would like to find work if it was possible. He knew a few people and eventually he did get a job there in the Oils and Fats Department. (Actually on the day I became Governor General, my father said to me “You know, all this is a result of the Oils and Fats Department.” My father above all else was an extremely funny man.)

When he began his job, he looked around and he saw almost all the other people at his level, all the clerks, were Francophones… and they were bilingual. They spoke French among themselves and they spoke English to him, but he saw that they were working for the government and that they were bilingual.

The Institut Jeanne d’Arc was practically next door to where we lived, so my father said to me, “Would you like to learn French?” Nothing could have been more thrilling to me because I remembered our friends, Aline and Tina, speaking French in our kitchen when they were teaching my mother how to cook. (My mother didn’t know how to cook when we came to Canada because she had always had servants. She had no idea how to use a frying pan, how to use a gas stove, or any of those things. She didn’t know really how to go shopping in large stores and all of this was handled by having our friends in the neighbourhood go shopping with her. So we enjoyed the warm feeling that we had friends and that they were going to lend a hand.)

My father said, “You should learn French, we should all learn French,” but he and my mother didn’t have the time. They were working and busy, so I was the one who was going to learn French. So I went off to the Institut Jeanne d’Arc. I don’t remember exactly what happened there. I only remember what the nun looked like with her great dark wimple and I remember the crucifix on the wall…

Afterwards, as we walked home along Sussex Street—it wasn’t so grand an avenue at that time—my parents said, “It’s not going to work out. You’re not going to be able to go to school there.” I was very upset because I had quite a mind of my own, even at the age of five, and I asked, “Why?” They answered, “Because we’re not Catholics.” At that time, of course, if you wanted to be educated entirely in French, which was what my parents wanted for me, you had to be Catholic, and I was not. We were not Catholics… and that was that.

When we got home and sat down—and after I apparently had a fit and was crying—Daddy said to me “Don’t worry. If they won’t let you learn French here in this country, you will go to Paris and you will learn French there and then you will come back here and speak it.” And in fact, that is what happened, but it wasn’t necessarily what could have happened. By the time I was 19 or 20, I could have learned French by going to Quebec, but the seeds of a dream had been sown and I’m very glad that they germinated.

I went to France after I graduated from university because I thought it was very interesting to go to the heart of French civilization. Indeed, after having lived in a former British colony, my going to the heart of Frenchness was very, very useful. It immediately taught me the differences in mentalities. I began learning about these differences immediately, at my first lecture at the Sorbonne.

I did a three-year diploma course on teaching French at the École supérieure de préparation et de perfectionnement des professeurs de français à l’étranger. All the students came from the “little green dot” countries. Everybody was from one of the green dots except me. I was half-pink because of Canada and half-green, because of Quebec. I was accepted because Quebec was part of what was then—before it was called that—the Francophonie. I got into the course by cheating a little, smiling a lot and being able to read and write French.

The very first day, the professor said to us, “You are here at the centre of the world. You are here at the centre of Western civilization. France is the natural inheritor of Greece and Rome, and it is the flame of the West that you are all going to take back with you to your little countries like Canada, Vietnam, Cambodia or Madagascar. You have the opportunity, Malagasies of Madagascar, to take the flame there.” So our flames were lit and we were supposed to go forth and illuminate the world. Of course, our diplomas said that we could teach French in foreign countries, but that we would never be able to teach French in France. They didn’t actually say that, but we knew that that is what it meant.

Through this experience, I quickly learned about a different approach or attitude towards a language and that has always helped me. In fact, along with John van Burek, I recently translated a play by Molière, which is being performed right now. It is Le malade imaginaire, which we called Dying to Be Sick. It was a wonderful, wonderful time for me because it brought back to me distant memories, memories about learning the language and understanding, say, the velocity of French when it is used by a genius like Molière. As you all know, French has 30 or 40 percent less vocabulary than English. As a result, you have this rapidity of expression, and just to experience that again was terrific.

Speaking of linguistic duality, I’m very glad that this play is being performed in English in Toronto, so that people can gain an idea of what Molière could be like in English, without the feeling that the play has been anglicized. In fact, the French ambassador paid it the best compliment when he said, “When I watched this play, I thought Molière had written in English.” That shows how languages can work together. It is what I would hope we would aim for in our daily lives, as Canadians. People should not insist on the word-for-word translation of things or settle for a mathematical equivalence of language. Our country can be a leader in terms of experiencing and fully understanding what language means to people.

Very soon after coming back, I learned that, in Canada as in France, the French language means something different to Francophones than the English language does to Anglophones. The French language is an expression of culture and of soul. It serves as a kind of intellectual understanding of things. It is not just a method of communication that enables one to buy groceries or purchase a ticket. I think that in the back of the minds of people who really are Francophones lies a belief that the French language is their common heritage, that it is something that totally expresses their soul. I have always thought that this sense of heritage is something we must try to understand in dealing with linguistic duality and with interprovincial relations in our country.

I really believe that our duality is a legacy that we could turn into something very special in Canada. We could see it not as an issue about the right to speak a language, or to speak a language correctly in grammatical terms, but as a way of letting that particular spirit or soul of the language infuse us.

Now, I’m fundamentally an Anglophone and English is really my mother tongue because I came to Canada when I was two and half and I had very little knowledge of Chinese. My parents made that decision, and it was a relatively difficult one. I understand this now when I look back on it. It wasn’t difficult for my father, as he didn’t speak much Chinese until he visited China for the first time in 1926, when he was about 19. But it was a difficult choice for my mother, because Chinese was her mother tongue. She had loved learning the Chinese classics at school and that of course was something that we were never going to share.

My parents made the tough decision that English would be spoken in their new Canadian home and that it would be spoken well. Despite what you read, I think many other immigrants also made that kind of decision, especially the immigrants we knew and grew up with, the immigrants who came after the war. (I didn’t know any immigrants when I was five, six, seven and eight. I didn’t meet many until after displaced persons began coming to Canada in 1946 or 1947.)

In our situation, English was our vehicle, our way of entering the mainstream of Canadian life and my parents were very, very determined that their children should speak English perfectly. My parents were extremely welcoming to all our friends. They were very curious about them and they enjoyed them. However, they criticized the diction and language of the friends that I brought home who weren’t native Canadians, who didn’t speak English well. They would remark on it over the supper table. My father would say, “Beverley drops her g’s,” or, “Do you see how she said that sentence; it didn’t make any sense the way she said it.”

Later when I made my career in television, people would ask me whether I had taken elocution lessons. I never did. I never took drama lessons, I never took anything like that, but my father made my brother and me pronounce everything correctly and do it over and over again if it wasn’t right. As a result, I think we both spoke pretty good English. I was always very conscious of the fact that language was something that you spoke. I suppose that I am also talking about the drive of immigrants, personified by my parents, to ensure that their children could have access to everything their new country had to offer, if they assumed its identity. And I think they were not alone in making that type of choice.

About the time I went into high school, my father said to me, “You know, if you just make that little bit of extra effort, you can do better because you are really very aware of the fact that you are learning something new and that you want to do it well. Nothing has been presented to us on a platter. Nothing has been taken for granted.”

I think about that often when I meet new Canadians or landed immigrants. I sense that same attitude in them, although they may express it in a different way. They may say “I want Billy to go to Harvard.” This may sound like a bald kind of statement without much meaning or relationship to education, but I know what they mean. They mean they want their children to go as far as they can go. The sky is the limit. In a way, I think our linguistic duality has something to do with this type of attitude.

As Governor General, I visited French immersion schools across this country. When I looked across the gym at classes ranging from kindergarten to Grade 6, I didn’t know what country I was in because of the diversity of the kids. I thought to myself, “This is terrific.” Everybody here is going to speak English and French. It will still be a while before we, as Canadians, totally absorb these two languages and there will always be only a small percentage of people who will be totally at ease in both. However, when 30% or 35% of Canadians fully understand what French and what English really are, the rest will too. Bilingualism is like yeast; it will gradually leaven Canadian society. That is where I hope our bilingualism will go.

I never worry about whether we are doing the wrong thing if we promote French as a second language, even though some people really want their children to learn Urdu or Italian or Portuguese. Some of you may recall that at one point there was a movement in Toronto to have heritage languages taught in school. Although I was just an observer and was not asked for my point of view, I was not in favour of the teaching of heritage languages in schools unless English and French were taught as compulsory subjects. I believe that, as a country, English and French are our core languages.

English and French are key features of our history and, as I always said to new Canadians being sworn in at citizenship ceremonies, citizenship is not a buffet table. You can’t choose the pineapple, the cream chicken and the turkey while skipping the veggies. With citizenship, you take everything. Our country was built with a great deal of thought. It was formed with more thought than many countries because, thank God, we didn’t have to go through a revolution or warfare to create it. We did it almost as a kind of intellectual exercise, putting it together step by step and piece by piece. It evolved from what was formally quite a racist country in the 40s to the kind of nation it became in the 70s. We quickly developed an acceptance of people from other lands. We took almost for granted the enormous leap we made within a generation and a half. If you look at the situation of many other countries in the world, you realize that they did not evolve as rapidly as we did in this regard and today they don’t know quite what to do to set things right.

New Canadians must themselves realize that once they have become citizens, they have been adopted into a country. They are now members of a family and that family shares a history, which includes crazy old Aunt Agnes in the attic and all the other things that we have done that we are ashamed of. We, new citizens as well as established Canadians, are therefore just as responsible for the abuses that happened to aboriginal children in residential schools, for the deportation of the Japanese-Canadians and the confiscation of their property in World War II and for other ugly situations.

You can’t say “This all happened before I came here, therefore I’m not really responsible.” What you can say is “It happened before I came here, and I would like to know more about it; I would like to be able to help. I want to see how we can resolve these kinds of situations.” It is very, very important that we all do that.

I’m hoping that through our linguistic duality, we give ourselves a kind of identity that is bilingual and is therefore a window that opens onto the world. Learning French takes you into a new and different reality. I think many new citizens see it in this way. They also see that learning languages is a very good thing—we know that from statistics. They are no doubt well aware that knowing other languages gives them greater access to the world. Our statistics tell us that as children progress through school, some 60% of them take up a third language by the time they reach Grade 10. So that means that their minds are irrigated with language. Since all language is communication, if these children start learning German or Chinese or Spanish in Grade 10, that’s all for the good. I find the whole idea of using Canada’s bilingualism as a building block to become trilingual or multilingual fascinating.

I think about this when I see my five-year-old granddaughter, who has just started French immersion kindergarten at Jackman Public School. Her doting grandparents and parents are always hovering over her saying “Bonjour” and “How are things going?” Of course, she doesn’t know what all the fuss is about because in immersion, she is learning French as she would a mother tongue. She doesn’t even make that connection. She doesn’t translate. People who try to learn a language later in life have to translate words. Her brain is making these wonderful electrical jumps all the time and it is fascinating to see that process at work.

I believe that it is very important for us as a country to cherish the way in which we live our lives and I count our use of English and French high among our blessings. This is something that is available to all Canadians and, of course, I’m particularly concerned that it should also be fully accessible to new Canadians. I believe that we need to make our country as comfortable to live in for everyone as it is for the people in this room. We also must do this for new Canadians. Through our Institute for Canadian Citizenship, I have been reflecting on what that means in practical terms.

People talk a lot about Canadian values. You no doubt know about the debate that is going on right now in Quebec with the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. People are asking what it is all about or wondering whether things have gone too far. There is talk about people wearing veils, about people carrying kirpans, etc. As I have watched these debates unfold, my reaction has been to think that most Canadian values are not things that are normally expressed in terms of bureaucratic structures, etc. Of course, we certainly want everybody to subscribe to the values that I talked about earlier, such as having a parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and equality. We want that for everyone. But beyond that, there are not a great many things that are critical to us as Canadians. But there are a few.

One of the most important is our bilingualism because it makes us a different kind of nation. English and French were not just chosen out of the air; they have their roots in the very foundation of the country, in what I call the original deal that came together in 1848 and then in 1867.

In that original deal in 1848, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine was, with Robert Baldwin, the father of responsible government, and they were aided by the very prescient Lord Elgin, who was Governor General at the time. They defeated the Château Clique in Quebec and the Family Compact in Canada and made a democracy out of a very poor country, a very poor country. It didn’t have riches. That was not what we were founded on. LaFontaine, in an address to his electors in Terrebonne in 1849, made a wonderful promise. He said, “You know, we have something very good now, but we will have it even better in the future because we will welcome the nations of the world to take their place in our country and they and their children will be like us. They will be the future.” This man, who was a Quebec gentilhomme, understood and had a vision. He knew that we were going to be a nation of newcomers and that the fundamental deal between the English and the French was going to be part of what we would become.

Sir Wilfrid Laurier said the same thing in 1905 when he said, “We will welcome all the nations of the world.” This was when Alberta and Saskatchewan joined Confederation, and he also said, “We will have a country in which all of us will never forget where we came from. We will always treasure that, but we will take our place in the present and our children will take their place in the future and everyone will become Canadians.”

These foresighted political people led the way for us and set the pace. Indeed, we have been very fortunate in having for the most part very intelligent leaders in this country. But there is more to it than that; it is more than a question of structures. In our Institute, we are trying to define the things that people feel will help them be Canadians. We don’t know exactly what these things are, but if as a group of Canadians who have always lived here, we sit down together, can we think of what makes us feel wonderful? For example, we read Canadian books and we go to concerts. There are orchestras all across the country and there are musical groups of different kinds. There are Canadian plays that are being put on. There are Canadian films; there are museums and art galleries. All of these features help define us.

Well, I want new Canadians to have access to these features. They are the things that help us understand who we are. One of the main activities of our Institute is to develop enhanced citizenship ceremonies with the help of volunteer committees. One project involves giving vouchers to immigrants participating in such ceremonies. They would receive vouchers or one-year passes for a combination of cultural activities (a museum, a concert, a symphony, etc.). Included in the package would be a pamphlet or an illustrated booklet explaining, for example, that you can attend a symphony concert dressed as you would to go to work. It would explain that if it is a symphony, the concert usually has four or five parts and that these usually have titles in Italian because the language of music traditionally is Italian.

I always have in mind people from Somalia or from Sri Lanka who have never had the opportunity of attending such an event. I want to allay their fears. I want to make them feel that they can participate in the things that we have worked very hard to make work in our country… and we have worked very hard indeed to make all our cultural events work. It is important to reach out to that 1% of the population that joins us every year as new Canadians. That is a large number. We want to make sure that when these new citizens go to a museum or to an art gallery, there is some kind of a guide, either a person or printed information, that tells them that they are welcome.

The other area I want to work on very, very much is nature, our relationship to nature. I think it is important and that this theme cuts across all our dualities. For many of us, one of our deepest national values is our relationship with Canada’s wilderness, our expectation that we can share it by having a cottage, going canoeing or going camping, etc.

It is very important that we build this sense of belonging among new Canadians, so that they too feel that they can participate and gain a similar sense that nature belongs to them. If we do not promote this, who in the future is going to be a member of a nature conservancy? Who is going to join Ducks Unlimited? People have to start caring about nature at a young age. Who is going to buy the kayaks, the canoes, the motorboats, the fishing rods and all of the things we use in the great outdoors? We have to think of that. We have to make sure that our national parks are welcoming and helpful to people who, because of their background, have no idea of how to approach Canada’s wilderness.

In conclusion, linguistic duality, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the fundamental values that make us special. It gives us an additional parameter in dealing with each other and with the world. I am sure you remember that old joke we used to tell 30 years ago, which is: when bilingualism and biculturalism was first introduced, a Saskatchewan farmer said, “Well, I’m never going to do that. The language Jesus Christ wrote in the Bible is good enough for me.”

That kind of reaction is now over and done with and we are moving on to another, more significant stage of what bilingualism means to us. We now accept that we are a culturally diverse country in terms of ethnicity and religions, and by and large we are fairly comfortable with that.

I think that when we hear very negative remarks today, they are the expression of a terrible fear of the unknown. This fear, which should never be ignored, is not about real problems. If you look, for example, at Hérouxville, the little town that passed a kind of code of behaviour for immigrants, the things that the people put into their code were their own worst nightmares: women should not be disfigured, veils should not be worn, certain animals should not be slaughtered for certain rites, etc. This is like being afraid of the dark at the top of the stairs or the bogeyman in the basement. A little bit of light can chase all that darkness away.

Like Baldwin and LaFontaine, I believe that the Canada of tomorrow will be better “because we will welcome the nations of the world to take their place in our country and they and their children will be like us. They will be the future.” My Canada is a country that accepts and welcomes change while preserving its identity and its fundamental values.

I hope that these few comments will help stimulate discussion and I’m very glad to have been invited to talk to you.



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