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Dear Canada

To mark the publication of The Idea of Canada, an epistolary new book by Governor-General David Johnston, The Globe invited a range of prominent Canadians to get out their pens – and write letters of their own



Dear Canada,

Each morning, I write two or three letters, often to Canadians whom I've been fortunate to meet. Some are sent to thank them for their service and gestures. Others are written to further develop my thoughts following meaningful conversations. I have collected 50 of these letters into The Idea of Canada: Letters to a Nation.

These letters reflect my preoccupations as Governor-General and as a Canadian. They have allowed me to explore certain fundamental questions, as well as the values, sensibilities, traditions and achievements that make this country unique. They have helped me form my idea of Canada.

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We are inclusive. We are 36 million people gathered from every part of the world. We welcome the contributions of all who inhabit this land – from indigenous peoples to the newest arrivals among us.

We are honourable. We desire peace, and we use our military power sparingly, but with conviction when we do so. And wherever and whenever we use that power in defence of what is just, we demonstrate our gratitude to those who stand in harm's way for us.

We are selfless. From the very beginning, our survival has depended upon an understanding of our mutual interdependence. We aspire to live up to this tradition of generosity, certain in our hearts that none but the gift passed from an open hand will multiply.

We are smart. We try to resist complacency and yearn instead for self-improvement. We encourage the love of learning and we cherish our right to it. We understand we are united, prosperous, and free to the extent we ensure that all Canadians have opportunities to learn, excel, advance, and thus to contribute.

We are caring. Our abiding concern for the common good makes us responsive. We stand by our neighbours in times of distress or natural disaster. Inspired by our common bond, we strive to come swiftly and resiliently to the aid of those in need.

My idea of Canada includes all of the above. We are fortunate to live in a country that is in many ways the envy of the world, yet we face many challenges. As Canadians, we must relentlessly aspire to be inclusive, honourable, selfless, smart, and caring at every turn without fail.

That is my idea of Canada. What's yours?

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Dear Canada,

After nearly three decades of living away from you, what I miss the most is the rich tapestry of society.

It is the experience of walking down a Toronto street and hearing several different languages spoken. It is the delight of finding an authentic Indian restaurant in Alberta, or the best Greek meal I've ever had in Montreal. It is the shift in perspective that comes from singing the national anthem in two languages.

There are, undoubtedly, other places in the world that offer such diversity, but (and maybe my impressions have grown more nostalgic with distance) Canada seems to live more harmoniously with its multitudes. The differences among people are expected, honoured and celebrated, rather than tamped down, shunned or shut out.

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Canada is still a fairly young country compared with the great civilizations of the world, perhaps now only in its adolescence. As such, I have been impressed and proud to witness from afar how the country has continued, collectively, to learn from its history and make progress: marriage equality for all; truth and reconciliation for native peoples; and soon, a woman's face on the currency. Canadians know the importance not only of welcoming diversity in the first place, but of evolving as a society to reflect it.

I know that change may not come quickly enough for some; others continue to disagree on the best path forward and that society will always remain imperfect, but there is much to be proud of.

Canada is a most excellent hostess. She answers the door when the bell rings, not knowing who will be on the other side. Yet, she opens her door wide, welcomes you, serves tea and food, and as long as you observe the house rules, will never make you feel unwelcome. Rather, she asks you about yourself – the hopes and dreams you want to pursue, the skills and contributions you have to offer. She invites you to join her in shaping and achieving the dream together, and you do. Until one day, you no longer feel like a guest, but a host yourself. And when the doorbell rings, it's your turn to answer. That is a beautiful act of faith and kindness, one to be admired and learned from, around the world.


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Dear Canada,

Here we are in another Olympic year. Each cycle of summer and winter Games leads to the inevitable plethora of Olympic-sized doom and gloom: real issues of political mayhem, disease outbreaks, corruption and collusion; sport-specific problems of unfinished venues, doping in sport. The list goes on. The media focus leading into an Olympics is often what's wrong and who's at fault.

The athletes do their best to focus on the higher, faster, stronger ideals, hoping for the elusive race they've worked to achieve. Every ounce of energy is saved for the perfect performance.

So, Canada, what does all this mean? Should we even care about the Olympics? Why does sport at the elite level even matter when so few have the chance to even dream of the possibility of representing their nation?

What it meant for me over six Olympiads was the realization that the true value of sport and play lies not in success, but in participation. Excellence lies in actions, not results.

The transformative powers of sport and play are often displayed in the places and spaces between medals won. Physical activity at the most basic level of movement is a powerful healing tool for many. For some, sport is an escape from poverty, abuse and trauma.

I've never felt this power more strongly than last summer at the closing ceremony of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Listening to survivors of residential schools talk about how being a good athlete helped them endure the horrific experience. This made me realize there's so much more to sport than the ideals set by the portrayal of competition.

Right To Play has taught me that sport and play can foster education, empowerment and child protection.

It's time we celebrate the opportunity sport provides, and make sure the chance to participate is there for ALL children in Canada. It's not the medals athletes may win; it's what they do to help provide this opportunity that will make them true champions.


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Dear Canada,

As we approach your 150th birthday, I've never been so proud of you – of your energy, of your kindness and humanity, about the possibility and opportunity you embody for all.

I recently had the great fortune of taking part in a welcome ceremony at Calgary's City Hall where more than 1,000 newcomers to Canada filled the atrium. They were greeted with a traditional First Nations drumming circle and blessing, welcoming them to the land we now all share.

As I sat onstage, watching this blessing from one of our community's elders, I looked out into the crowd and was moved to tears when I saw two men holding two large signs. One read, "Thank you, Calgary," and the other, "Thank you, Canada."

I thought to myself: This is Canada. This is exactly who we are. The people who have lived and loved on these lands for thousands of years are welcoming those who have just landed looking to start a new life. Our greatest strength is each other, and we are strongest together.

Canada, you have been good to the people of this nation for the past 150 years. For your birthday, I think you deserve a really big gift – or rather, 100 million tiny gifts for you and for the world.

In Calgary, we've started something called 3 Things for Calgary. It's a simple idea that asks each Calgarian to do three things each year to make our community even greater. It could be something as small as cleaning up trash, or hosting a barbecue for your neighbours in your front yard, or something big like joining a non-profit board.

Now, imagine 3 Things for Canada. Imagine everyone of us doing 3 things next year to make our community and our world stronger.

I hope you'll like that birthday gift. Because, Canada, you deserve it.


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Dear Canada,

I first fell for you when, on a humid July day, wearing a butcher-paper parka trimmed with cotton-batting fur, I served as the embodiment of the Northwest Territories for Canada's centennial celebration at Lambton Kingsway public school in Etobicoke, Ont. I sang "CA-NA-DA. (One little two little three Canadians.) Weeee love thee" and meant it with my entire tender, unfurling seven-year-old heart.

You are grand, expansive, changeable and various, if sometimes challenging to love. I have learned languages for you. French: Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver. A word or two of Hul'q'umi'num: Uy'netulh! I listen to your music. I read your books. I eat your wheat, fish, and fruit, and drink your water, beer, and wine. From Grand Bank, Nfld., to Masset, B.C., I have visited your seas and lakes and fields and forests and cities. I have skated with my sons and daughter on that shining ice ribbon that completes Ottawa like a bow in February.

You have delivered miracles large and small. An outdoor concert in the late sixties when Joni Mitchell's voice made the Gatineau Hills vibrate. That time in Saskatchewan when a trick of air and light turned the blue sky into a lesson on infinity and existence over my dazzled head.

I know you love me, too. And I know you have a sense of humour. Oct. 30, 1995, in front of the library in Kamloops, I joined a spontaneous love-in for you. I sang O Canada while my infant daughter, strapped to my back, gummed a paper flag. Later, mining her diaper for the tiny gold coins from one of her brothers' toy sets, which she'd gobbled like candy despite our vigilance, I plucked from the grime and glitter an unexpected symbol of your love: a wrinkled bead that opened in my palm into a red and almost perfectly complete maple leaf.


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Dear Canada,

( pace Allen Ginsberg's America)

Canada, when will we finally enforce a Pax Canadiana in America, replacing all their automatic weapons with hockey sticks?

Canada, the dollar closed at .77 today, April 11, 2016, for the first time since October, 2015.

I'm feeling sunnier than ever.

Canada, once Saint-Pierre et Miquelon applies to join our union, please invite the Turks and Caicos too – and Bermuda – It's only fair! Canada, I'm very pleased with all the saints of Nouveau-Brunswick:

Andrew, John, Stephen, etc.

It's a real blessing to have such a plenitude.

When will we have that painting of the Fathers of Confederation redone, showing each dandy grandee puffing a spliff?

When will we turn every legislature into a Native Friendship Centre with dollar-a-day daycare spaces?

When will we celebrate again the glories of hydroelectric power?

There was once a time when Hydro was electrifying, helping to spark humming-along revolutions, whispers of happiness as the lights turned down.

Canada, the CANDU reactor was secretly Buddhist! Canada, the supermarkets are full of dieters! The donut and the donair, poutine and perogies, are almost endangered menu items – at least in the organic, fringe-movement communes.

Canada, I'm still missing the passion that erupted at Expo 67, and again in '88, briefly, that time we claimed The World's Fastest Man.

Canada, it's fetching how you made over Neil Armstrong into Neil Young, thus bringing stardust down to earth.

Clearly, the best way to settle any disagreeable dispute is to patriate a Constitution, almost any one will do, Andorra's looks interesting.

It's quite agreeable to borrow monarchies too, especially if they're photogenic (so I hear).

As for Grey Owl, the Anglo impersonator, he likely helped us sell a lot more William Henry Drummond and a lot more John McCrae in the souvenir shop at Vimy Ridge, Canada, our terra firma in France.

Canada, the apple blossoms are arriving! Canada, I was a fan of Albert Einstein and of Bobby Stanfield:

I liked Einstein's quasi-Afro and Stanfield's serious long johns.

My psychologists pitch excellent tax advice.

I found bliss in reading Pierre Elliott Trudeau's descriptions of McIntosh and dancing madcap crazy in Beijing in October, 1960.

(J.F.K. couldn't top that!)

Pick up a copy of Deux innocents en Chine rouge.

See for yourself! I'm addressing you as a poet.

We are going to study Cartier together and occupy Cuba again next winter.

I enjoy that Latin phrase on our coins – " Dei Gratia Regina":

It helps us stay on our linguistic toes – in case we end up on Jeopardy! I'm obsessed by Jeopardy! but only because it almost matches Question Period for elucidation, enlightenment, radical improvement! There's no other way to have Peace, Order, Good Government.

There's no other way to have that headline, that T-shirt slogan, that tattoo.

I want Peace, Order, and Good Government, especially in nations that don't have it, and then we'd have a planet finally regulated by guilds – vintners, printers, carpenters, brewers, glaziers, etc.

I think that that's what it'd look like.

Canada, I want to continue, but there's a word limit.

There's always a reason.

Canada, I'm finally forging my black-ink signature on the Constitution.

No HST due.


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The keys to Canada’s musical history reside in Glenn Gould’s pianos One of the prized pianos of famous Canadian virtuoso Glenn Gould resides at Rideau Hall with the Governor-General. Laura Stone explains how it ended up there.

Be inspired by this passionate reading by Canada’s poet laureate


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