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  • Mr John Ralston Saul, prominent Canadian essayist and novelist, speaking at the10th annual LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium.
    Henrieta Haniskova
Welcome address by John Ralston Saul - LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium

Your Highness
Madame Clarkson

Ten years ago, there was an idea that Bob Rae had and I had, and then we discovered that we both had it and decided to do something about it. And then we talked to Rudyard Griffith and made him do all the work, which he did beautifully and got this thing going. We did it first 10 years ago in the ROM, about 50 yards from here and since then we’ve done it in Halifax, and Québec City, and Montréal and Calgary and Vancouver. Three of our former lecturers are here – George Elliott Clarke is here in the first row and did it in Calgary. Adrienne Clarkson did it in Vancouver and I was the original victim in the ROM next door.

We put together a group of thinkers and activists from across the country and they’re all sitting right here, most of them are sitting here in the front row from across the country, and last year we did the 9th annual in Iqaluit with Sheila Watt-Cloutier, the great Inuit leader, the great environmentalist who was nominated for the Nobel Prize. It was, believe it or not, it was the first time that a national lecture was given in the Arctic. This says two things: it says that Canada has been incredibly slow to pay attention to the North and it says that it was really great that the LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium was the first one to do it. It was an extraordinary event, I have to say, really quite extraordinary and to see the event and the involvement of the community, everybody – the commissioner, the premier, the mayor, kids from the schools, Inuit of every sort coming out it was really remarkable, the roundtable was very different.

So why did we start this 10 years ago?

We started because of the ideas of LaFontaine and Baldwin. We felt that Canadians were confused about why they were doing things right. (Let’s forget about what we think when we do things wrong.) We didn’t know why we were doing things right. And we believed, a lot of us, that the roots of doing it right, lay with the Great Ministry of 1848, the first democratic government of Canada, along with the government of Joseph Howe, at the same time, in Nova Scotia, and that they set in place, everything that is best about Canada today. And it all happened in a government that lasted three years, 1848 to 1851, Montreal and Toronto, which included the burning down of the Parliament buildings and other minor events, but it set the direction for modern Canada. It invented the organized ethical idea of Canada and the pluralistic idea of Canada; Canada at its best. This government was brought to power interestingly enough, in part by the mistreatment of that rush of Irish refugees in 1847 which caused the citizen voters to believe that family compact and the Château Clique couldn’t handle fair and just immigration. Nothing changes, right? There’s still the same subjects. Therefore they brought in a reform government interested in justice and interested in dealing with immigration and citizenship justly and their first law, the first law of the first democratic government of Canada was to establish fair immigration rules to protect the immigrants and the new citizens.

En trois ans, ils façonnèrent ce qu’il y a de plus noble dans la personnalité canadienne et mirent en place des centaines de lois. En trois ans, ils firent passer des réformes les unes après les autres avec une détermination presque terrifiante. Tout notre système de justice contemporain, tous les éléments qui, aujourd’hui encore, fonctionnent dans le cadre de ce système, prirent racine entre 1848 à 1851. C’est aussi à cette période que le système d’éducation publique et la fonction publique professionnelle entrèrent en vigueur. LaFontaine et Baldwin signèrent la fin des éléments encore existants des systèmes de classes britannique et français.

Primogeniture was done away with by this government.

Ils se débarrassèrent du système seigneurial, instaurèrent la libre utilisation des routes sans contrepartie monétaire et mirent en place un système postal égalitaire, une grande structure de communication entre tous les citoyens.

The removal of imprisonment for debt, public universities were invented by the Great Ministry, with Robert Baldwin’s University of Toronto law which created the model for public universities all across Canada today and because Robert Baldwin invented public universities in Toronto with the University of Toronto – of course when you go to the University of Toronto, there isn’t a single statue, plaque, building or road named after him. It’s just a typical Canadian way of celebrating an important man. Maybe we can do something about that. Ten years ago, LaFontaine and Baldwin were forgotten. What the Great Ministry had done was forgotten and our desire with this Symposium was to bring it back into the public memory and the public imagination and we think in doing that we’re helping all of us Canadians to recognize the roots of justice and egalitarianism in Canada.

So it was logical when Adrienne and I set up the Institute for Canadian Citizenship that the LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium would be moved to come under the wing, if you like, of the ICC. The ICC is an amazing organization if I can say that as the co-chair. There are a lot of programmes in Canada for immigrants – not nearly enough, not nearly good enough, but there are a lot of programmes for immigrants, we have to work on more. But there are almost no programmes for new citizens – 85% of our immigrants become citizens in 5 years. But the day you are sworn in as a citizen, again very Canadian, we say “now that you’re a citizen, ‘bye!’ You’ll be able to look after yourself.” There’s almost nothing to help citizens get involved as citizens and so we felt that the ICC that we had to work on that and in the process, work on getting Canadians who were born here to wake up to the fact that being born here doesn’t make you a good citizen. Being active and engaged makes you a good citizen.

So, the ICC works with Citizenship and Immigration Canada, we host with them a lot of the community-based citizenship ceremonies. Most citizenship ceremonies, there are 3,000 a year, last about 45 minutes. The ICC ceremonies last 3 hours. The first hour is a roundtable discussion – what’s going to happen tomorrow morning in a way comes out of that – a discussion among established Canadians and new Canadians about what citizenship is. And the interesting ideas come from the new citizens in general. We have 26 volunteer groups across the country. We have something called the Cultural Access Pass which is now national, which means that everybody who is sworn in as a new citizen, about 300,000 people a year, they can automatically sign up to get a free membership for themselves and their families for a year in any public art gallery or museum. We’re now developing a wilderness access pass so that new citizens can be introduced to the north of Canada, outside of the cities, which actually belongs to them, just as much as it belongs to anybody else. We have a competition to find out what the Best Practices are for new citizens across the country. We’re going to announce the first results this autumn. We’re doing a study right at this moment on new citizens and education which will be announced this autumn and we have a new Executive Director Gillian Hewitt Smith. And I must tell you since you’re all here and captive for a wonderful evening that we are in active search for volunteers for all of our programmes and you can sign up outside.

Let me finish by saying this: LaFontaine and Baldwin, apart from all those laws and all that structure, did three key things: the structures they put in place were all about egalitarianism and inclusivity in Canadian society and I think we think that that remains at the heart of what’s best in Canada. Secondly, they really introduced something radical for a western nation state in the middle of the 19th century, radical today, which is the primary quality of a government in times of difficulty is restraint, that citizens come before order and the 1849 riots were the big test of democracy – would they do what the Europeans did was send out the troops and fire and arrest everybody put them in prison or would they find a new, civil way of talking through the problem and bringing the problem to an end without dividing citizens. That’s what they did – they invented the idea of restraint for governance. In a way Gandhi’s idea and Mandela’s idea begins here in Montreal in 1849. The horror of state violence and state power misused. And finally, they broke the idea so strong at that moment and coming back today, they broke that idea of the monolithic nation state. The European, U.S. idea that a nation state is something, a society is something in which you can only have one dominant religion, one culture, one language, one myth and if you have more than one, there will be a civil war. And their idea was that was complete nonsense and the proof was you would have a civil war if you tried to do it in Canada and so they developed this idea that citizens are linked and this is the trick to get around that religious, racial, linguistic obsession of the Europeans – citizens are linked by a shared idea of the public good. They are linked by their ability to imagine the other and if you can do that, well then, things like religion, and language and race become secondary and easy to deal with. They started out putting the French and the English, the Catholics and the Protestants together but the principle was not to close it to them but the principle was that a society of complexity was possible and therefore inclusion was possible and therefore it could expand to other people who came in rapid order such as the Irish in 1847. These are the legal, political and philosophical beginnings of Canadian pluralism.

And now I’d like to ask the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson to introduce His Highness.

Merci beaucoup.