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The powerful presence of Malala Yousafzai

On her visit to Parliament Hill, Canada’s newest honorary citizen was cheeky, charming and a compelling voice for her cause


 

If you’re inclined to argue that one mark of citizenship is being subjected to the same cornball jokes as the rest of us, then Malala Yousafzai did indeed become a full—if honorary—Canadian on Parliament Hill on Wednesday. The Pakistani education activist and Nobel laureate was greeted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as she and her parents arrived beneath the Peace Tower. On her way to the Library of Parliament for the citizenship presentation, the 19-year-old traversed an honour guard of young women who snapped smartphone photos and shook her hand with the electric giddiness of a rock star meet-and-greet.

When Yousafzai and Trudeau reached the gleaming, curved expanse of the library, an MC led with an obligatory nod to the occasion on which Canada was honouring a courageous young woman. “She chose the right day to come back to Canada to receive her honorary citizenship, on the day the NHL playoffs start,” he said, to indulgent chuckles from the room. “Already, she’s a true Canadian.”

FULL TRANSCRIPT: Malala Yousafzai’s speech to Parliament

Then Trudeau spoke, noting that Yousafzai was to receive honorary citizenship in October 2014—something former Prime Minister Stephen Harper set into motion—but the plans were derailed by the terror attack on Parliament Hill. He lauded her courage and resolve in surviving a murder attempt by the Taliban, only to continue fighting for girls’ education. “Malala Yousafzai, for bravely lending your voice to so many, we thank you,” Trudeau said. “And from this day forward, we are all proud to call you Canadian.” Trudeau shook Yousafzai’s hand and bowed slightly with a hand over his heart, then presented her with the flag from the Peace Tower.

When it was Yousafzai’s turn to speak, she seemed overcome—she is just the sixth person to receive honorary Canadian citizenship, and the youngest ever—and used some variation of the word “honour” four times in her first sentence of gratitude, laughing slightly at herself before recovering her natural eloquence. She thanked Canada for its passion for girls’ education, refugees and women’s rights. “You are a true example to the world of what it means to stand up for humanity,” she said.

Then Yousafzai zigzagged into a different sort of gratitude. She gushed about how this “great opportunity to see Mr. Trudeau” had set everyone she knew a-twitter, insisting she shake his hand and report back. “I’ve done it. I’ve met Trudeau, it’s finally done,” she said, to big laughs from the assembled crowd. Trudeau looked at the floor and shook his head slightly, while laughing.

Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai receives a standing ovation before addressing a joint session of Parliament in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, April 12, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai receives a standing ovation before addressing a joint session of Parliament in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, April 12, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

A short time later, Yousafzai was greeted by roaring applause when she walked into the House of Commons—packed with MPs and senators—flanked by the prime minister and his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau. The trio took their places next to her parents, Ziauddin Yousafzai and Toor Pekai Yousafzai, and as the standing ovation stretched on, the new honorary Canadian looked around her and at the galleries above, hand over her heart. For a few brief moments, Yousafzai looked as any teenager would in that scenario: a tiny bit sheepish.

Trudeau spoke first, effusively praising her bravery and idealism of the best sort. But at times, his remarks veered awkwardly into brief infomercials for his government’s focus on education, innovation and even specific budget programs such as teaching children to code, before returning to the guest of honour. “Malala, you chose hope, you chose dignity, you chose determination. And children around the world thank you for it,” Trudeau said as he closed. “Today, in this country and in this chamber, we honour you.”

When Yousafzai took her place at the podium before the Speaker’s chair, she proved herself a compelling speaker: confident and impassioned without being overly earnest, she held the capacity crowd spellbound with memories of her life under Taliban rule, and her quiet defiance of the limits that imposed. She spoke of how her mother leaned a ladder against the back of their house so they could escape if necessary, and how she remembered reading a Koranic verse every night to protect her family. “I felt fear when I went to school, thinking that someone would stop me and harm me,” Yousafzai said. “I would hide my books under my scarf. The sound of bombs would wake me up at night.” A few feet away, her mother swiped at her tears, and her father leaned over to pat his wife’s shoulder.

READ MORE: Why Malala’s struggle has only begun

Yousafzai also displayed charming moments of cheekiness as she addressed both houses of Parliament. “I am grateful to be an honorary member of your nation of heroes,” she said, pausing. “Though I still require a visa.” The crowd roared, and she continued: “But that’s another discussion.” A short time later, following yet another explosion of applause, Yousafzai noted—somehow, with zero ego—that she was only on page seven of her speech and everyone would be tired if they kept standing up.

But for all the warmth of the day, Yousafzai was not about to provide a soft and easy landing note for Trudeau and his government. Instead, she closed with a series of exhortations to specific action: make girls’ education a central theme of Canada’s G7 presidency next year, use the country’s influence to help fill the global education funding gap and prioritize 12 years of schooling for refugees, among other measures. “I know where I stand. If you stand with me, I ask you to seize every opportunity for girls’ education over the next year,” she said. “Dear Canada, I’m asking you to lead once again.”

When she finished her speech, Yousafzai descended from the podium and made her way over to where her parents were sitting. First her father and then her mother placed a hand on the side of her head and pulled her in close for a kiss on the forehead. The expressions on their faces were identical, at once universal and so specific: the bursting pride and ceaseless amazement of parents watching what their once-tiny child has wrought in the world.


 

The powerful presence of Malala Yousafzai

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