We must remember that Canadians are not immune from racism
(Globe and Mail, Canada)
Adrienne Clarkson, the 26th Governor-General of Canada (1999-2005), is co-founder and co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. The following is adapted from remarks delivered Jan. 31 at a citizenship ceremony at Rideau Hall.
How does one explain to ourselves or to the world that people were killed, shot in the back, while they were praying to the one God who created us all. Are there any explanations possible?
Our prime minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, told us decades ago that living next to the United States was “like sleeping with an elephant” – we are the mouse, they are the elephant. Everything they do reflects on us. Since June of 2015, we have been hearing the rhetoric of such horror, ignorance and hatred that we are in danger of being smothered. With the lack of frontiers to social media, to television, we are bombarded with it, too. Even if we live in a country called Canada – with our own beliefs, with our own goals, with our own history, with our own ideals – we are not immune to seeing the ugliness, and to hearing the appalling messages. Even if we know them to be untrue, to be false, to be lies, we still hear them. We can imagine that they are heard by people who are afraid, isolated, unbalanced, alone.
In that way, we are not immune. We hear people who want leadership and who become leaders referring to an entire nation, who is their neighbour, as rapists, criminals. We hear the calumny. We are appalled. But the words have been said. And the words have been heard.
This horror that has happened in Quebec City does not reflect what we as Canadians believe. It makes us feel terrible. It makes us feel unworthy that this should have happened on our soil. How could this have happened?
For me, it also reminds us of our not-very-happy past. We have not been immune to these ideas: When the Jews came on a boat called the St. Louis looking for refuge just before the Second World War, we turned them away to almost certain death. When Sikhs arrived early in the 20th century, we turned them away. When we took Japanese-Canadians, who were born in this country, and exiled them to the interior of the country – taking away all their human rights, confiscating their property. When we, today, have still not dealt with the results of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has laid out very carefully what we should be doing for our indigenous peoples.
This country has always had to fight against prejudice and shortsightedness, and we continue to do so. The health of our society means that we have continued to do so. We must never become complacent and think that we are better than anybody else because our country just happens not to be a place where you can buy an assault rifle down the street or where everyone carries a pistol in their glove compartment. We have to remember that we are not immune from racism and from taking away human rights.
I know what it is like to arrive in a country with nothing. My Chinese family and I arrived in 1942 when I was three years old. We waited on a dock in Hong Kong while we were checked off by the officials, and we very nearly did not get on that boat. Everybody else who was picked up at Stanley Bay in Hong Kong that day was white. We were the only Chinese. One person with a list turned to another and said, “why are these people here, they’re not white?” and the other said, “It’s all right, their names are there. Let’s just let them on.” Through that fluke of fate, I came to Canada with my family, on a Red Cross ship with one suitcase for each of us. Sixty years later, I became Governor-General of Canada.
At the time I arrived, Canada was still fully operating the Chinese Exclusion Act, which had been enacted in 1923 to discourage “immigration from countries that were not white, and particularly Chinese.” I have seen the page in the ledger where I am listed as a nine-year-old girl coming from Hong Kong in 1947. I do not understand why we were not listed right away, and to my knowledge we were never asked to pay the hundred-dollar “head tax.” Sometimes systems are not enforced, sometimes they are neglected, and sometimes people benefit. My family and I were one of those.
Canada has always been a country where we were able to adjust, where we let people be. We must let people wear what they want to wear. We must always be the kind of country that understands that other people have brought different stories and different narratives to this country. We must respect their stories, as we ask them to respect ours. And, above all, we all belong together. We are one family.