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Room for all of us: Former Gov.-Gen. on why Canada is great for newcomers

Adrienne Clarkson has written a new book about the Canadian immigrant experiences.

Peter Power/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

In her 2006 memoir, Heart Matters, Adrienne Clarkson chronicled her remarkable journey from child of poor Chinese immigrants to television journalist to governor-general, the highest office in the country. But while her story clearly differed in its particulars, she was convinced that the life arc of many other new Canadians was roughly parallel – that they, too, had seized the abundant opportunities afforded by Canada and had triumphed over difficult odds.

In her new book, Room For All of Us, Ms. Clarkson seeks to prove her point, documenting the lives of 10 extraordinary Canadians, including Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, Rogers chief executive officer Nadir Mohamed, former CBC broadcaster Andy Barrie and retired Canadian diplomat Fred Bild.

She sat down recently at a dim sum restaurant on Toronto's Spadina Avenue – the ur-street of the immigrant experience in Canada – with The Globe and Mail's Michael Posner.

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You don't seem to see your own narrative as unique.

I don't. I see it as being part of one broader narrative, of which the people in this book are also part. It's like a single narrative. It's our story. What we went through, the choices we had to make, and what was lost or left behind. But in every case, their lives were transformed by Canada. And we have to tell these stories of the past, because without a past you have no present, and you certainly don't have a future.

But you see Canada almost as an agent of their success.

I do. I feel I'm part of the real immigration experience – that is, people who came with absolutely nothing. Everything we had was taken by the Japanese in Hong Kong and sold in the streets. Canada was a poor country, made by poor people, who said, "Well, we just have to get going, and do something about this." When I grew up, for example, we didn't own a car – until I was 12 – but I never noticed, because no one else's family owned a car either. I never felt poor.

Some people may say your sample is unrepresentative, because you've chosen only people who have become successful or are high achievers. The immigrant experience isn't always thus.

That's true. But I don't think so many people would have achieved the kind of success we have in any other country. Yes, of course, there are people who aren't doing well, but it's telling that so many can do well and they aren't confronted by impossible barriers to doing well. We didn't dream that Canada could be as open and as negotiable as it has been.

You say Canada is full of benevolent neglect. What do you mean by that?

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What I mean is that it leaves people kind of alone. We are the luckiest people in the world, living in a country that just lets you be.

But I don't think we should congratulate ourselves that we are successful as a diverse nation because we welcome and love immigrants – I don't think it's that. It's more a negative attitude – a "let's see what you can do" attitude. Canada has done terrible things. We didn't let Jews in during the Holocaust. We rounded up Japanese Canadians. We grudgingly took displaced persons after the war. But we have been capable of change, quickly. Since 1960, there's been a complete reversal.

What have we done right?

Once change happened, we dealt with it in a systematic way and declared that immigrants would become citizens and would be processed that way. That was smart. Other countries bring people in as disposable, economic units.

Bluntly or less bluntly, political leaders in Europe in recent months have said their own multicultural experiments are failing.

It's an excuse to deal with their economic crisis and it plays to their political base. Everyone wants to find a scapegoat. What we're pretty good at is not finding a scapegoat any more. Consider that from 1764 on, we said that another language, French, and another religion, Roman Catholicism, would have equal rights. And we had a Catholic prime minister, Louis Lafontaine, when Catholics in Britain weren't allowed to vote. We don't give ourselves enough credit for that.

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Are you more sanguine about the multicultural enterprise in Canada.

I am totally optimistic. I think we're going through a period where we try a bit of everything, in the name of what will work. We have to give ourselves time and breathing space, because we have made changes that are incredible, in a generation.

The demographics are phenomenal, both in terms of human history and in terms of things that Europeans don't want to face, such as intermarriage. There, citizenship is based on race. Ours is based on communally accepted values.

But I do wish people who wanted to criticize other religions would first read the books of those religion. If you want to understand Islam, read the Koran. It's interesting that in the fifth chapter, it says that the Creator could have made us all the same, but He didn't – as a challenge to us. It almost intimates humour.

With a few exceptions, we seem to have a pretty good job of encouraging people to leave ancient ethnic and religious enmities behind.

Think of what we used to have with the Irish.

I still remember Orange parades in the Ottawa Valley and in Toronto in the 1950s. That was an aggressive act, wasn't it: to celebrate the slaughter of Catholics by Protestants?

My own focus [as founder and co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship]is to help new Canadians feel involved and integrated, to accelerate the process between becoming a citizen and being right in the mainstream.

I remember when my own family arrived in Ottawa, people said, "In a generation, you'll be really Canadian." And my father said, "No, we're going to become Canadian now."

Do we have to like each other in order to live together successfully?

Not at all. That's the challenge of the country we have become – to learn how to live with people who are not like us at all.

You don't create a society with people who are like you. That's so easy. No, society is made up of people you hardly want to stand in the bus shelter with. And yet you must make room for them, as they must make room for you – as long as you are all committed to a peaceful, democratic society that does not threaten life, or harm minors, or contravene the laws of nature.

Michael Posner is a Globe and Mail feature writer.

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About the Author

Based in Toronto, Michael Posner has been with the Globe and Mail since 1997, writing for arts, news and features.Before that, he worked for Maclean's Magazine and the Financial Times of Canada, and has freelanced for Toronto Llfe, Chatelaine, Walrus, and Queen's Quarterly magazines. More

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