OTTAWA – Hundreds of girls sat quivering with anticipation in their seats at a Toronto high school on a sunny fall morning, Oct. 22, 2014.
They were waiting to hear from Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who only 12 days earlier had won the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy on girls education, work that began when she was just 11 years old blogging about her experience going to school.
But it was the Taliban’s attempt to kill her for her advocacy that brought international attention to Yousafzai and her work, turning the teen into an enduring symbol for women the world over fighting for the right to an education.
Rona Ambrose, then a Conservative MP, invited Yousafzai to Toronto that day to mark the International Day of the Girl, an event now on the United Nations’ annual calendar thanks to Ambrose’s work as status of women minister in 2011.
But once Yousafzai accepted, planning began for a second event – granting her honorary Canadian citizenship, a promise the Conservative government made in their 2013 throne speech.
That afternoon, then-prime minister Stephen Harper, his wife Laureen, Ambrose and a star-studded line-up of other Canadian women were to gather and declare the activist only the sixth person to hold the designation of honorary Canadian citizen.
Ambrose was at the school already when shocking news came: a gunman had stormed Parliament Hill after leaving an honour guard – Cpl. Nathan Cirillo – dead at the nearby National War Memorial. Harper was locked inside the Conservative caucus room, and Yousafzai was at the Toronto airport with Laureen, locked down there as well.
The event was cancelled, leaving Ambrose and others foundering to explain to the girls what had happened. Efforts to reschedule for the next day were quashed, too – Yousafzai was too prominent a potential target, Ambrose said organizers were told.
It was a moment replete with irony for Ambrose: a woman targeted by Islamic militants in her own country then ends up silenced by an extremist-inspired attack in Canada.
“This irony didn’t escape me,” Ambrose said in an interview.
“The fact that this kind of Islamic extremism, (which) takes the shape of anti-girl, anti-women rights in every possible way … also arrived that day.”
It would take more than two more years for the government to get a chance to finally make good on the award: Yousafzai will attend her honorary citizenship ceremony today on Parliament Hill before addressing the House of Commons.
The groundwork to make the now 19-year-old an honorary citizen began several months after she was shot in the fall of 2012.
It was a political initiative tied into the Conservatives’ foreign aid focus on maternal, newborn and child health, said Rachel Curran, Harper’s former director of policy.
“It was just really a sense that this young woman is doing really important work, it’s going to be increasingly important, we want to highlight it in Canada and highlight it internationally as well,” Curran said in an interview.
“’How can we bestow one of our greatest honours on her?’ We landed on that because it was the most significant thing we could do to draw attention to her work.”
The other five honorary citizens are the Dalai Lama, the Aga Khan, Nelson Mandela, Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
What binds them all together is that they are leaders who have played iconic roles in world history, said Chris Alexander, the former Conservative immigration minister who oversaw the technical process behind getting Yousafzai citizenship.
“Malala is both a symbol of the setbacks and the daunting barriers that girls can face,” he said.
“But also of the ability of strong people to overcome them.”