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Adrienne Clarkson says Canada is a country of people who have come from all sorts of places with different experiences

Adrienne Clarkson is a former governor-general and is co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. She came to Canada in 1942 as a young child with her family, who left Hong Kong as refugees. Ms. Clarkson is delivering this year's Massey Lectures, broadcast on CBC Radio and published by House of Anansi Press.

The title of your lecture series is Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship. What does that mean?

In other countries, citizenship in the traditional sense is a label of expectations imposed on the person who becomes a citizen. We allow people to become what they are. We don't say you're going to fit in to an idea of "the citizen." In effect we have redefined what citizenship is. We are a country of people who have come from all sorts of places with different experiences, what I call, borrowing from [Canadian literary critic] Malcolm Ross, 'the impossible sum of our traditions,' and that is what makes us different and special.

You mention an incident with a Grade 7 teacher who was influential in your own process of belonging. What happened?

You arrive in a country as a little immigrant, refugee child, you go to a public school and your teacher tells you, 'You will be able to be part of this country.' That's what's happening in public education all the time in Canada. You look down on a gymnasium of kids in a public school in Scarborough, for example, and you don't know what country you're in. Those teachers are teaching a foundation, our tradition of parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, and they're saying to these children, "You can become part of this. This structure is the one you are going to base your life on." That's what Ms. Jackson said to me, and I never doubted it for a moment.

What does Canada expect of its citizens? Should we have mandatory voting?

Citizenship is more than patriotism with privileges. The Australians get 91 per cent turnout in their elections and we get 60 per cent if we're lucky. People say it doesn't mean anything if you only vote because you'll be fined, but I don't believe that. I think in a literate country you'll take a few minutes and watch a debate, read a newspaper and make up your mind. I don't know if the result will be any different, but the civic action should be encouraged. I'm also very much for lowering the voting age to 16.

You write that for new citizens accepting Canada's history as their own, including its treaties with aboriginal people is very important. Will that become more difficult over time?

No, I don't think so. New Canadians may be a source of interest in this. The nature of belonging we are taught by aboriginal people is something we need in a desperate way in our country. Their basis, the circle, is part of the belonging that is in our DNA as a nation. It's something we ignore at our peril.

So what does a four-way stop sign on[Toronto's] Rosedale Valley Road tell us about who we are?

You've heard of this phenomenon of "pay it forward" at Tim Horton's, where people pay for the coffee of the person behind them. Well, I don't think that happens anywhere else. We do that because we have a history of co-operation and the collective. I must use that stop sign four times a week and I'm always amazed. I keep thinking some day I'll see a crash, because you'll have 20 cars lined up and yet it always goes in order. You would never see that in France. People would never let anyone get ahead. You go to Regina and try to cross a four-lane highway and all the traffic stops in both directions.

You mention a dating column in a Toronto paper where no one comments on the fact that many couples are of different races. Why do you think that is? Are Canadians afraid to talk about race?

No, I think people are just used to it. We have a rate of intermarriage that's rising – racially, religiously, culturally – and I think it's just natural because of our public education system. When you put people all together and meet at the age when they're interested in pairing off, then you're going to have that. There's always a little stillness when you talk about that in Europe, because there's still that feeling that somehow races don't mix. I think it's wonderful that we don't even think about that anymore. I, of course, was ahead of my time. I married someone who wasn't Chinese.

You say citizenship is an act of imagination. What does that mean?

It means we imagine ourselves as part of a democratic structure, as equal, as able to get on with our lives without having to worry about our rights. We behave "As if" people who come here will be able to take their place in society and by doing that they are able to do so. [Northrop] Frye said that our imagination gives us our vision of what our society is and what it could be. Rather than having a grid imposed on us, we have become part of each other's wishes, part of each other's dreams and in the process we're creating a new kind of society.

This interview has been edited and condensed.