Former Governor General says Canada is thriving due to cultural diversity

Adrienne Clarkson was the 26th Governor General of Canada. While only the second female Governor General, her appointment was notable for a number of firsts. As the Governor General, Clarkson was the first visible minority, the first Chinese-Canadian, as well as the first person without a political or military background to assume the position.

Prior to her appointment, Clarkson enjoyed a long career as a journalist.

After serving her five-year-term as the Governor General, Clarkson founded, and continues to co-chair, the Institute for Canadian Citizenship — a non-profit organization that works to engage new Canadian citizens and help them establish connections with other Canadians. In 2006 Clarkson published her autobiography, “Heart Matters.”

In late 2011, she published “Room For All of Us: Surprising Stories Of Loss And Transformation.”

“You never recover from the trauma. In some ways you could say that Canada has a whole nation of traumatized people who have managed to overcome the trauma and live their lives.”
—Adrienne Clarkson
Former Governor General

The book explores the immigrant experience through profiles of 10 people whose families arrived in Canada as refugees from various parts of the world, who became Canadian citizens and who have gone on to contribute in various ways to the country’s political and cultural life.

Among those profiled are Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi. Clarkson herself came to Canada, at the age of two, as a refugee from Hong Kong.

What follows is part of a conversation Calgary Journal reporter Karry Taylor had with Clarkson.

What was the impetus for this book?

When I wrote my autobiography, many people said to me afterward, “It was such a terrific story and your life is so unique.” And I thought, “It’s not that unique.”

I know people who had the same kind of arc or trajectory in life. They didn’t become the Governor General, but that job doesn’t come open very often. But they have done extraordinary things. This country gave them an opportunity to become something they wouldn’t have become in the place they came from.

Everybody lost something because they came out of persecution or their group was not wanted or a dictatorship took over their country or there was civil war. Whatever it was — it was disastrous.

In my case, it was war. So I thought: I am going to write a book about people whose stories are like mine.

It’s all about the ability to come to this country and become a force for something else — something creative, something for the public good, something that is different from what you would have done if you had stayed where you were.

There are several themes that run through every story in this book: parents sacrificing so their children could have a better future; the importance of education; instilling a strong work ethic; and also the sense of giving back to the community. What is it about the immigrant experience – particularly one that comes out of trauma – that seems to instill all these things?

Your use of the word trauma is very important because all of us are traumatized, but I think many of us don’t want to think about it. For a long time, in my case, I did not want to. I think sometimes it takes a generation before people realize the trauma they went through.

Looking at people who have come from all these world situations — Holocaust survivors or Vietnam War resistors, Vietnamese boat people or Chilean refugees from Pinochet’s regime — all of these people’s lives were just thrown into the air. They had to make a decision: am I going to give up or am I going to go on?

The decision that “I am going to go on” is courageous. It makes a difference. That is how you overcome trauma.

You never recover from the trauma. In some ways you could say that Canada has a whole nation of traumatized people who have managed to overcome the trauma and live their lives. But there is trauma still in all our backgrounds.

You never leave a country, and all the context and comfort of the people who knew who you were.

In terms of education, which is the thread, I think it’s so important for us to never forget that public education is the only way that we can make an immigrant nation work. Public education is free and egalitarian and means you don’t need money and you don’t need to be somebody to have that opportunity.

Recently, I went to a school in Toronto where a third of the children are of Tibetan origin, a third are Roma Gypsies and a third are Afghani or Bangladeshi — and they will become Canadian. They were all singing songs and were going into the Kiwanis Music Festival. They are going to do all the rites of passage that I did when I became a Canadian.

I never believe that any group wants to stay within their own group. When I hear that, I just want to shout back, “That’s not true.”

If you ask parents, “What would you like?” they will say, “We want our children to be fully Canadian and do things.” They want their children to be members of Parliament and they want their children to be mayors of cities and they want their children to be presidents of universities. That’s what they want. I think we all want those things.

Last spring I traveled through Europe and was a bit taken aback by the overt racism I witnessed in some places. It gave me a lot to think about. What are we doing right in Canada?

I noticed this with my granddaughter when she was two – she was in a very good day care and I would sometimes go and pick her up. One day she said, “My ball has disappeared.” I looked over and there was a darling little black girl. I said, “I think the In “Room for Us All” former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson explores the personal stories of immigrants who have helped transform the social, artistic, and political life of Canada.
Photo by: Karry Taylor
little black girl has it.” My granddaughter said, “Who? What?” and she was looking at me. Then I said, “The little girl in the pink sweater.” She said, “Oh,” and ran over and they talked about the ball.

She never noticed the skin color. I noticed it and I said it, because that’s the way I identified her. But I think people in the future won’t.

That’s the way Canada is and will be. I think we are the better for it, because we live with the entire world — which makes us the most sophisticated people in the world. If you are able to live with all these cultures and learn about them, you know more than other people.

Naheed (Nenshi) says it best when he says he knows that if he had gone to Japan he would never be Japanese. If he had gone to Norway, he would never be Norwegian. But in Canada, he’s a Canadian. And that is what we all are. And I think that is what we are because we have always been a country of immigrants.

ktaylor@cjournal.ca