Friday, July 31, 2009

Joe Clark's York University Convocation Address

I have never had a "guest blogger" on this Blog and this post is not technically that either. It is however the text of a recent Convocation Address given to the Graduating Class at York University and delivered by the Rt. Honourable Joe Clark.

I call myself a "Joe Clark Tory" and share his sense of what Canada is and can become. These days our politics are critically short of statesmen but Joe Clark, Peter Lougheed, Paul Martin and Preston Manning fit that discription to my mind. We could use a bunch more.

Here, for your reading pleasure, and with his permission, is what Joe recently said about Canada; a country still too good to lose.


I am honoured to accept this degree, (I remember keenly that, a quarter century ago, when my political career took one of its sideways turns, York offered me a refuge at the Schulich School,) and I thank you all for inviting me to be part of a graduating class which has an unusual capacity to change and shape our world.

Fifty years ago, York University was born into an era dominated and traumatized by a Cold War between two superpowers who each had the will, and the nuclear weapons, to destroy the other. There was a name for that nuclear standoff. It was Mutual Assured Destruction. It had an acronym – M.A.D. – Mad.

Thirty years ago, this month, the promise of the steady evolution of China was shaken by the tanks in Tiananmen Square. Today, with some important lessons learned, China is one of the two most powerful nations in the world.

Short weeks ago, the caricature of Iran was of a vibrant society turned monolithic, controlled by its clerics. It is evidently not monolithic – and millions of its citizens, whatever their religious faith, are demonstrating a democratic faith which we can only envy.

Four days ago, a Canadian-led research team announced it has discovered where the AIDs virus hides in the human body. The team also announced it was moving its 25 scientists to the United States, because Canada has cut its science funding.

And, as soon as the weather allows, Julie Payette will be back in space.

This is a world changing faster than it ever did before. There is literally no predicting what you can do with your life – or what kind of world you can shape.

The American broadcaster Tom Brokaw coined a term for that cohort of his fellow citizens who survived a Depression, fought a world war, and built a superpower. He called them, modestly, “the greatest generation”.

We should not assume that our greatest generations are behind us.

And we genuinely modest Canadians should realize that some of the most promising capacities for future accomplishment are right here, in a Canada which combines wealth, and aspiration, and freedom, with a profound respect for the diversity that is the defining characteristic of the world that is emerging.

The transformations in this modern world can sharply increase Canada’s international influence and relevance. The Cold War was animated by ideology, and the post-Cold War by a faith in trade and economic growth. Now, the critical conflicts are rooted in culture, and stoked by poverty and inequality. In many cases, the causes have been latent a long time. Their catalyst is a general sense of shared grievance, or of holy mission. Those conflicts cannot be resolved by mere military power or “the magic of the market”. There is no real central command, no driving interest in economic growth.

So, where the roots of conflict are different, the remedies must be different. The issue now is bridging hostile cultures -- and the indispensable international attributes are the ability to draw differences together, to manage and respect diversity, and to earn and generate trust. Those are the traditional and genuine signature qualities of Canada, rooted not just in our history but in our behaviour, day to day. Our diversity, the growing equality of rights in Canada, and our example and success as a society are Canadian assets, as important, in this turbulent era, as our resource and material wealth.

And there is a warning. If we fail to invest our distinct international assets, our place in the world will decline. In the conventional terms of economic growth, there is a roster of countries which could overtake us. The Goldman Sachs projection of the world’s “largest economies by 2050” puts Canada 16th, a little smaller than Vietnam, a little larger than the Philippines.

But if we marry our economic strength with these new assets of international relevance, we can be a significant and positive influence in the world taking shape.

We have all learned to be suspicious of nationalism, and of the extremes and the violence to which it can lead. But a sense of nation can also be a motivating source of purpose and of pride, both an instrument and a guide to what we can become, as individuals, and as a community.

Beyond our wealth, our freedom, our ability to aspire: what distinguishes Canada?

I argue it is our tradition of diversity, which has characterized this large land literally for centuries.

Long before Europeans settled here, our Aboriginal peoples were as diverse as the geographies and climates which formed them – from the nations of the Plains, to the Woodland, to the Innu, to the art and seamanship of the Haida, to the caucus of the Algonquin, and the longhouse of the Iroquois and Huron.

And after Europeans settled, and disputed, and fought the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the side which won that battle did not treat the side which lost as a vanquished people. On the contrary. We kept the French language and the English. We kept the civil code and the common law. We kept for almost a century the seigniorial system of land distribution – fly today over the Red River in Manitoba, and see as evidence the long strips of farm land stretching back from the water.

We deliberately respected the minority – and the minority culture – and that set the pattern which made it possible for wave upon wave of different cultures – from Europe, and Asia, and the Middle East, and Africa, and the Americas, and everywhere -- to come here, and co-operate here in relative harmony and respect.

Of course, there are tensions in Canada, and prejudice, and discrimination, and bursts of violence. There is the continuing scar of the conditions of life of our Aboriginal peoples. And there are other vibrant multicultural countries. But Canada may be the most successful country in the world at bridging cultural differences. Our own culture is to respect cultures.

These qualities are in our history and our nature, but they are not our birth-right. They have always to be earned.

This country was built against geography, against north-south economics, against the prejudice that cultural differences should set people permanently apart. Yet now, we are wealthy, lucky, increasingly self-absorbed. Without some sense of common purpose or vocation, we could become smaller than our whole, burrowing in to our regions, or our economic sectors, or our private lives and diversions.

Canada has always been an act of will. We didn’t come together naturally. We don’t stay together easily. Confederation was an act of will. So was Medicare. So was equalization. So was the Charter of rights. So was free trade.

As graduates today, you each have your own plans and hopes and aspirations. But remember this about this country, whether you are a Canadian, or an admirer of Canada. Our future will reflect your will.

You could not have a better place to prepare. For all its 50 years, York is a relatively young University – others are more deeply rooted in the Canadian past. York’s distinction is as the University of the Canada that is emerging – as diverse as the country is, urban, occasionally controversial, accomplished and outward-reaching.

I wish you well, I wish us well, and am honoured to be part of this community of graduates.