Congratulations and sincere thanks to Dialogue Canada for providing individual Canadians with the opportunity to express their views about our country. I am happy to take this occasion to put on record some of the main reasons why, personally, I agree so strongly with the United Nations that, in spite of its many shortcomings, Canada is the best country in the world in which to live and why I am confident that our future together holds the promise of continuing progress.
Foremost among the reasons why Canada is such a great place in which to live is, I believe, the profound attachment of Canadians to the principles and practice of democracy. By comparison with most other countries our history together provides an outstanding example of democracy at work. In a speech before the Faculty of Law of the Université de Montréal the honourable Stéphane Dion expressed the same idea by saying that there are few histories closer to the democratic ideal than the history written by Canadians. Of course there are weaknesses in the effective participation of individual Canadians in the process of election and control of those who constitute our governments at the federal, provincial and local levels; but these shortcomings appear almost insignificant by comparison with other countries. With 150 years of responsible government Canada is rightfully regarded as an authentic pioneer of democracy. It is a blessing to live in a country whose history was described by an eminent professor at the University of Edinburgh as “second to none in the world in the crucial combination of mass participation, human rights and self-government.”
Our privilege is to live not only in one of the most advanced democracies in the world but also one with a most remarkable history of compassion, a heritage which continues to bind us together today. Under our federal system of government we have learned gradually to accept our differences and to develop respect for opposing views. We have learned to compromise in coming to terms with our differences and thereby we were able to march forward without letting the past continuously poison and compromise our future. In this process Canadians have demonstrated amazing regard for the interests and concerns of their fellow citizens. Recent demonstrations of these human values include the generosity of Canadians in response to such tragedies as the Saguenay and Winnipeg floods, the great Ice Storm and, beyond our borders, the devastations of hurricane Mitch.
This spirit of compassion has also made it possible for Canada to attain a level of income redistribution through government programs unequaled by any other federation in the world. Our national program of equalization grants, designed to ensure that the governments of the provinces with below average per capita sources of revenue can provide comparable levels of public services (e.g. education services, transportation networks, etc.) with reasonably comparable rates of taxation, is one of the most, if not the most comprehensive and generous in the world. In addition, every time that our social programs are financed in whole or in part by the federal government some of the monies levied from the higher income regions are redistributed to the lower income regions. Canada is certainly among the world leaders in its many manifestations of a caring and sharing society.
It is also true that in Canada we have been increasingly successful in learning from each other, in learning from our differences. However, this has been a slow process, sometimes excessively slow, difficult and even painful. An example is found in the relations between our English and French speaking communities. Even thought the French and the English languages have cohabited in the territory of Canada for over 400 years, it was only in the 1970’s that the majority of Canadians have really started to understand and to appreciate the richness and the full significance of our country’s linguistic duality.
In the 1960’s we have witnessed the “quiet revolution” which resulted in the transformation of the Quebec francophone society into a vibrant, modern progressive and open society. In the 1970’s and 1980’s we have witnessed another quiet but equally profound revolution, one which continues to change the attitude of the majority of Canadians regarding the place of our linguistic duality in our day-to-day lives and its importance as a basic feature of our identify as Canadians.
For almost a century English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians lived mostly in separate communities, as two solitudes, often ignoring each other, sometimes fearing each other and sometimes competing with each other or even despising each other. With the passage of time and thanks to our two quiet revolutions, although there are recurring unfortunate manifestations of stubborn resistance, Canada’s two linguistic communities have come a long way toward overcoming the shortsightedness of our past behaviour. Our two official languages are now increasingly recognized and accepted from coast to coast; more and more Canadians understand and speak both languages; in spite of pockets of fierce resistance, public services are increasingly accessible in both English and French and the communities which give live expression to our two official languages in regions where they are in minority situations are slowly but gradually being treated on a basis comparable to that of the majority. We still have some distance to go before equality of status is attained everywhere but we are moving decidedly in that direction.
While these fundamental changes were taking place in our society, millions of people from all over the world (from Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Latin and South America) elected to come to Canada as immigrants or refugees. These migration flows and our policy of multiculturalism resulted in ensuring the cultural diversity of our nation for the benefit of all Canadians and the world in which we live. At the same time our governments (federal and provincial), with the support of the majority of Canadians, have been taking measures for aboriginal Canadians increasingly to have their place in our society: for Canada’s first nations people to be able to share the benefits of citizenship in full respect of their own heritage and cultures.
In my opinion, no other country in the world can boast a better record of achievement in giving expression to such human values as described above. I am confident that Canadians will not allow uncontrolled greed and unregulated globalization to undermine our democratic institutions or seriously weaken or compromise our social programs. In this way the upcoming and future generations will be able to reap the rich benefits of Canada’s linguistic duality, of our cultural diversity, of our special spirit of compassion and of our deep attachment to the principles and practice of democracy. I am proud to be Canadian.