Governor General David Johnston delivered these prepared remarks at the opening of the Forum on Welcoming Syrian Refugees to Canada in Ottawa.
I begin by acknowledging that this important event is taking place on the traditional territory of the Algonquin Nation.
Welcome, all of you, to this forum on welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada.
This forum is about much more than that, in fact.
It’s about living up to who we are as Canadians.
Vincent Massey, the first Canadian-born governor general, said:
“Nations achieve character in crises… [and] it is of such moments in history that nations seem … to say to themselves, ‘I live for something. For what? What do I value above all…?’”
The Syrian refugee crisis is one such moment for our nation today.
It compels us to ask:
What is our character?
What do we live for?
What do we revere above all?
The moment has once again come to answer those questions.
This is a moment to reaffirm our fundamental values as Canadians.
To test the depth of our commitment to diversity, inclusiveness and tolerance.
To show our willingness and ability to help children, women, men—whole families—in desperate need.
This is a defining moment for Canada, a defining moment for all of us.
And it’s even more than that.
It’s an opportunity.
An opportunity to mobilize our communities, from St. John’s to Winnipeg to the Lower Mainland of British Columbia—and so many points between.
To re-imagine how we take care of the most marginalized and vulnerable among us.
To stand together as a smart and caring country that believes in and fights for equality of opportunity for every single one of us.
All of you participating in this forum today understand that welcoming Syrian refugees is both a challenge and an opportunity for Canada.
And you know this too:
Great nations are built on great challenges.
Each of you is a leader, whether in the public or private sector or in civil society.
Each of you is dedicated to settling and integrating refugees.
And each of you knows how important this work is, and that we must engage individual Canadians in the effort.
I know we’ll succeed, because the cause and the company are very good.
Let me tell you a story about the wonderful opportunity that lies before us.
Four years ago, I led a delegation of highly accomplished Canadians on State visits to Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore.
And an extraordinary thing happened on that trip. It was a moment that reminds you what a great country Canada is.
This story has two main actors: Perrin Beatty, who is with us today, and Kim Thúy, who unfortunately could not be here.
Perrin and Kim were part of that delegation in 2011 because of their impressive achievements and expertise:
Perrin, as head of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce;
Kim, the Governor General’s Award-winning author of the novel Ru, as a cultural ambassador to her homeland, Vietnam.
But what the two of them only realized at the outset of our visits was that their paths had intersected years ago, in 1979, in very different circumstances.
As a child, Kim had fled from Vietnam to Malaysia as one of thousands of “boat people.” And along with members of her family, she would sit outside the Canadian high commission in Kuala Lumpur every day, hoping that her dream would be realized.
Her dream of coming to Canada.
At that time, Perrin was serving as a young cabinet minister in Prime Minister Joe Clark’s government that was working to bring large numbers of Vietnamese refugees to Canada.
Along with thousands of his fellow Canadians, Perrin and his government helped make Kim’s dream come true.
Today, she’s one of our finest authors, and there they were in 2011 on a State visit together, representing their country at the highest diplomatic level.
So this story highlights some basic, wonderful truths about Canada.
One, we’re stronger when we work together.
Two, diversity is one of our strengths.
And three, despite our many backgrounds and cultures of origin—more than 200 languages spoken, more than 200 ethnic origins—we all have a great deal in common.
We call that great deal Canada.
“So how do we do it?”
That was the question German chancellor Angela Merkel asked me when she visited Rideau Hall in the summer of 2012.
Chancellor Merkel wanted to know how Canada had built such a successful society out of people from all over the world.
As you may know, Germany is expecting to welcome 1 million refugees.
Just think about that: 1 million refugees.
So her question—“How does Canada do it?”—was anything but abstract.
Indeed, it’s fast becoming one of the critical questions of our time.
And it’s why you’re here today. To help us find a Canadian answer to that question in our current context.
Fortunately, no doubt in part because of our vast geography and challenging climate, the theme of interdependence has always been at the core of what it means to be Canadian.
Perhaps this is why we have answered the call for help so often and so readily—in welcoming more than 60,000 Vietnamese boat people in 1979 and 1980 for example. And why history has judged us so harshly when we have failed to heed that call.
Of course, our history of welcome predates the existence of Canada itself.
The settlers at Port Royal, in what is now Nova Scotia, would never have survived their first winters in the early 1600s were it not for the generosity and guidance of Indigenous peoples.
Our history is full of such stories of diverse people helping each other through hard times.
Like those early settlers, many Syrian refugees will be arriving in winter.
A warm Canadian welcome in a cold Canadian winter—what could be more fitting?
Canada’s diverse, tolerant, multicultural society is one of our great strengths and perhaps our greatest contribution to the world.
That’s why it’s so important that we succeed in welcoming refugees. Again, what could be more fitting?
That, and simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Once again, we’ll meet the challenge, we’ll do what’s right.
We must have an open and engaged discussion here today; and we must connect and form the networks that will allow us to multiply our effectiveness.
I’m looking forward to your participation in today’s panels and discussions. The talent and energy in this room are truly impressive.
Let’s use them to ensure the newest members of our Canadian family receive a warm welcome and have every chance of success in their new country.
Let’s live up to who we are as Canadians by tackling this challenge, seizing this opportunity.
Let’s work together and meet this defining moment for our country head-on.
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