David Johnston served as Canada’s 28th governor-general.
The world today is filled with both optimism and promise, but also deep-seated fragility and vulnerability.
The challenges and risks of climate change are growing each day, with the tragic flooding in Pakistan, and the destruction wreaked by storms along the Atlantic Coast serving as just the most recent examples of its urgency. There is also a rise in global conflict and violence, and growing economic instability. Forces of division and anger are on the rise. Things seem grim. But Canada can show the way, and this fall we are reminded of the seeds of that kind of positive change. Fifty years ago, in an unprecedented move, this country accepted thousands of Asian refugees fleeing Uganda, including many members of the Ismaili Muslim community.
This week, members of the family of the Aga Khan – the 49th hereditary imam of the Ismaili Muslims – were in Canada, commemorating this anniversary and inaugurating a number of initiatives across the country, from a multigenerational community hub in Toronto to an addition to the magnificent Aga Khan Garden near Edmonton. This occasion gives all Canadians the opportunity to reflect on the example set by the Canadian Ismaili community over the past half-century.
Here in Canada, we have what I believe are the ingredients for hope: our talent for diplomacy and sharing knowledge, the power of our pluralism, and our capacity for both empathy and trust. Together these components provide a recipe for hope, not just for ourselves but also for those around us, as well as the institutions we rely on and the communities in which we live.
It was some 40 years ago, during my tenure as principal of McGill University, that I first had the privilege of meeting the Aga Khan at the opening of the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. I remember then being impressed by the ambition and boldness of his initiative. The challenge of opening a nursing school, in a region of the world where there are traditional barriers that limit the ability of female medical professionals to treat male patients, required immense cultural sensitivity and innovation. Even at that early encounter, the Aga Khan recognized the value that Canadian expertise and experience could bring to a vastly different part of the world.
It was this early experience that first attuned me to Canada’s first ingredient for hope, what I would call the “diplomacy of knowledge” – the process by which distinct peoples and cultures come together and improve lives by sharing knowledge across borders and disciplines. It is an idea best encapsulated by Thomas Jefferson’s metaphor for the power of knowledge as being akin to the light of a candle: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself, without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.” A flame symbolizes not only enlightenment but also the transmission of learning from one person or group of people to another. This is the diplomacy of knowledge.
The second ingredient is the power of pluralism: As the Aga Khan has remarked, “What a wonderful, liberating thing it would be if more of us, more of the time, could see diversity not as a burden, but as a blessing; not as a threat, but as an opportunity.” Indeed, Canada has often succeeded when it makes a commitment to pluralism. Canadian society is at its best when it mirrors its geography: broad, expansive, diverse. Canada has an opportunity – a responsibility, even – to demonstrate that pluralism is viable and is perhaps the only path to lasting peace and prosperity.
The third element, which builds on the value of pluralism, is Canada’s capacity for empathy and trust. We live in a world in which technology and the proliferation of social media have made connections and the sharing of knowledge easier than ever before. This is an achievement to celebrate. However, this same technology has also enabled the creation of echo chambers, in which our own views, interests and perspectives are subtly mirrored back to us in ways we rarely recognize. In such an environment, our capacity and ability to engage with views that are different from our own have been dangerously limited.
As the Aga Khan has observed: “The danger is that knowledge gaps so often run the risk of becoming empathy gaps. The struggle to remain empathetically open to the Other in a diversifying world is a continuing struggle of central importance for all of us.” Here in Canada, the institutions and activities initiated by the Aga Khan, and those of the development agency that he leads, the Aga Khan Development Network, have worked to build these capacities.
In such a dark world, there is reason for hope, and Canada at its best can be a powerful catalyst for change, strengthened and inspired by the work of the Aga Khan. As the world is loosened from its moorings, let Canada be its anchor.