Anicka Christine Bakos
is a University of Waterloo graduate with interests in writing, editing and helping Canadian newcomers learn English
Each year on Canada Day special citizenship ceremonies take place throughout the country. I like to take the opportunity each year to reflect upon my experience growing up in Canada. I’m sure most of us would agree that we live in one of the best places in the world.
It’s no surprise that earlier this year the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of business and BAV Consulting ranked Canada as the second-best country in the world from among sixty nations in a survey released at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. And I think Canada’s former Governor General the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson would wholeheartedly agree with the survey results.
Recently I had the opportunity to hear the former governor general speak at a lecture at the University of Waterloo. Having arrived from Hong Kong as a refugee at the age of three, Clarkson related some of her own experiences growing up in Canada and reflected on why multiculturalism works so well in this country. Like many of us, she reminisced about being uprooted, coming to a new country and having to “learn new things and new habits”.
Clarkson believes that the process of belonging to a new country is an important one. She explained that “When we talk about belonging we have to think of what we belong to, and we can’t belong unless there is something to belong to. You have to be able to belong, but you also have to be able to criticize, to disagree, and that is fundamental to belonging”.
Clarkson believes that Canada has significantly changed for the better. She described Canada as a “white, fairly racist country” back in 1942 where “laws were enacted… to discourage any kind of immigration from China” adding that “parts of Canada were intensely racist”.
Many of us forget that in fact overt discrimination remained a part of the official Canadian immigration policy up until the latter half of the twentieth century. In 1962, new immigration regulations were finally introduced eliminating overt racial discrimination and establishing skills as the main criteria for determining admissibility rather than race or national origin. But it was not until Canada’s adoption of multiculturalism as an official policy in 1971 that the cultural diversity of Canadian immigrants began to be promoted as an integral part of the Canadian identity. Clarkson agreed that over the years Canada has become “very good at welcoming people, welcoming refugees, introducing people to new languages [and at] settlement”.
But according to Clarkson, we as a country need to strive to become even better. Clarkson argued that “We also have to feel that all human beings are equal. That everybody is a human being and there is no human being who is more human than any other” adding that “That’s something we have to really internalize because I think it is something that underlies a lot of problems that we face today”.
The former governor general described Canada today as “a society… that creates a lateral trust among all equals because we are all equals as human beings, and it’s a key element of our democracy” adding that “I think that we have a society that is like a kind of great friendship”. She went on to say that “It’s very important to know that in order to belong you don’t have to agree with everything, and you don’t have to agree with each other or your leaders. When you come here and you become a citizen you have to say, you know, everything that’s happened in this country up until now I accept and I am part of it now”.
Asked how she coped in her new country in times of difficulty, Clarkson replied, “You look for mentors, you look for people who are going to help you, and that’s what makes me believe so strongly in the public education system” adding that “Public education is the single most important thing that we have going for us as an immigrant nation. If we don’t have strong public education we can’t make our values known; that is the most important thing”.
Clarkson concluded by reminding her audience, “We have to learn to live in a society of belonging with the levels of discomfort, the difference it brings. Living with that level of discomfort shows sophistication of human activity which differentiates us with what we call the bad side of tribalism. We have to understand that we’ve already created in this country a really remarkable thing”.
So as we celebrate Canada’s 149th birthday, let’s all help to make this the best country in the world!
Happy Canada Day!