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The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson Explores the Meaning of Canadian Citizenship

The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson Explores the Meaning of Canadian Citizenship

The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson stands alone when it comes to providing compelling insights into Canadian culture. The Former Governor General of Canada, Ms. Clarkson has traveled the breadth and depth of the country, articulating the importance of involved citizenship and engaging Canadians in a spirited dialogue about our shared history. This year, she delivered the Massey Lectures on themes contained in her new book, Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship. The Toronto Star interviewed Ms. Clarkson about both the lectures and her book:

We know your family immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong. Was there anything else that prompted your ideas about Canadian citizenship?

It is something I have always valued. When I was growing up my father talked about the Chinese Head Tax and how people were charged money to be here and now that is over because we are Canadian citizens.

It was fascinating when this PhD student sent me a page from the Chinese Head Tax registry of 1948 in which our family is listed. We had never known we were listed, nor had anyone asked us to pay the tax. But there we were in the registry.

To me, having a country is very important. Because of my public education, the schools I went to and the teachers I had, all of them wonderful, I always felt I belonged.

I found your discussion of Martin Guerre interesting, the true story of a 16th-century Frenchman who disappeared and another man who assumed his identity. Is that really a story about citizenship or crafty identity theft?

That to me was the original story showing how your identity is bound up in others. When the Guerre imposter came to the village, people wanted to recognize him.

Citizenship gives you an identity you wouldn’t have if you were just you, or somebody’s daughter or somebody’s wife. Citizenship gives you a place to be in the world.

It meant the imposter Guerre became part the citizenship of Toulouse. Being part of the community is a building block for citizenship.

A chapter in your book deals with the ancient Athenian idea of democracy, from which our modern understanding of a free society is derived. But slaves and women were never part of the scheme.

In order to be a citizen of Athens you had to be born there. Aristotle wasn’t allowed to become a citizen of Athens because he wasn’t born there.

Athenian democracy was the idea of the original democracy and we cling to it’s ideals as well-balanced pieces of an ongoing shipwreck.

My initial understanding of Greek democracy came from a book I read when I was 12. It was by Gertrude Atherton and was called The Immortal Marriage. It was based on the character Aspasia, a well-educated woman who was having an affair with Pericles, a married man. So I first thought about Greece in a childlike way. Later is where you learn the parameters.

Pericles’ funeral oration is wonderful. It talks about freedom and its ideals. It still captures our imagination, even if the weaving of democracy can be messy.

In our parliamentary democracy, we elect a member to parliament. We hope he or she is a thinking human being, not someone who relies on polls. That means there is thinking happening all along during the process of democracy. You vote for a person who thinks about the country the way you do.

We have to be careful that it works and people understand what is expected of those we elect.

Tell me about your dinner with Inuit elders, which you discuss in Belonging. Most of the dinner was held in silence, which usually makes people uncomfortable; they think they should be talking to others around the table.

Everyone sits quietly and the silence is beautiful. We simply waited until somebody had something to say. It was a sharing of thought, and if you don’t have a thought you don’t speak. You share the space.

It reflects inclusion in a different way, without intrusion into other peoples’ spaces. They welcome you and you feel comfortable in their space.

Why include that anecdote in a book about citizenship?

There are other people who come from other traditions who do things in other ways.

We go to a Seder every year, and there is a different kind of pace to it than a Christmas dinner. There is a different rhythm, there is a different history. You feel as if you are taking part in a tradition that, of course, millions of people have taken part in over hundreds of years. It is not familiar to you but you’re welcomed into it.

I chose the Inuit to talk about because I am not sure many people know about their dinners. It shows inclusion without intrusion into other people’s space; it shows they are including you as well. Inclusion means you are interested and you acknowledge what other people believe. Inclusion is essential to citizenship.

We have to create a society where we give people space. We may not like them personally. We may not want to sit down with them and have a coffee, but they have every right to be a citizen.

You and your husband, author John Ralston Saul, have started the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. What are the goals?

We wanted to do something for people who had just made the decision to become Canadian citizens. It came from something as simple as this: for years I’ve seen little yellow school buses in front of the Royal Ontario Museum and you see kids from every origin, from every place in the world.

I think immediately of their parents who are working on assembly lines or driving cabs. Do parents ever get to do this? Visit a museum? Are they waiting for their children to come home and tell them about it? It seemed to me parents were being left out.

We created the cultural access pass that was welcomed by the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario), the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) and the Ontario Science Centre. We give free museum passes to all new citizens and their children for up to a year. We wanted to give them the feeling of belonging.

And it has worked wonderfully. We now have 150,000 people who have gone through the program in the past four years. There are 1,200 institutions across the country participating.

It seems like a small thing, but it has become a big thing. Plus the institutions themselves want to reach out and get a new audience. I wanted people to feel that once they’ve committed to becoming Canadian citizens, they can have the levers to belong. They would have access to the culture.

I am the first Canadian governor general to be an immigrant, to be a refugee, and I felt it was important that I make a statement about how I felt I belonged. All of these institutions are part of the fabric of Canadian life. I want all new Canadians to have a sense that the fabric holds them.

By Jennifer Hunter/Toronto Star/November, 2014