Peter Herrndorf is former president and CEO of the National Arts Centre.
The following speech was delivered on June 1 at the ceremony for the 2018 Governor-General’s Performing Arts Awards at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
Canada “is a country that does not ask about your origins; it only concerns itself with your destiny.”
Those words were spoken by Peter Munk, founder and chairman of the Barrick Gold Corporation, who, over the course of his life, became so much more than that.
A founder of the Munk School of Global Affairs. The philanthropist who ensured that the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre offered the very best health care that Canadian patients and their families could hope for. And a man who, when he died earlier this year, left Canada a much better place.
He was also an immigrant.
When Hitler ordered the occupation of Hungary in March of 1944, Peter, his father and grandfather left on the Kastner train – 35 cattle cars that left Budapest carrying nearly 1,700 Jews.
Peter Munk’s story is one we hear time and again – immigrants who devote their lives to making Canada even better.
Rosalie Abella was born in a displaced-persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany, and became a renowned Supreme Court justice.
Wajdi Mouawad, originally from Lebanon, is recognized as one of the most gifted theatre artists of his time.
Mark Starowicz was born in England to Polish émigrés, and created the definitive television history of Canada for CBC and Radio-Canada.
Yaprak Baltacioglu, who grew up in Turkey, rose to the highest levels of the federal public service.
Adrienne Clarkson left Hong Kong and Michaëlle Jean left Haiti. Both became exceptional journalists, broadcasters and governors-general.
Like the people I’ve just described, I’m also an immigrant.
We arrived in Winnipeg from the Netherlands in the late winter of 1948. I was seven years old, and had a lot to learn. How to speak English, how to play in the snow … and of course, how to skate.
But what I wanted – most of all – was to learn about my new country.
And so I read its books, sang its songs, attended plays at the Manitoba Theatre Centre and listened to shows on CBC Radio. And through its stories, I came to embrace Canada as my own.
I have been fortunate throughout my career to collaborate with some of our legendary journalists and artists as they chronicled the ongoing “Canadian Journey.” And my passion for that storytelling stemmed in part from the gratitude I felt for the unconditional welcome that my family and I received in Canada in the late 1940s.
All those years later, my love affair with this extraordinary country continues to burn brightly, and as a result, I’m even more touched by the wonderful honour of the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Lifetime Achievement Award.
Let me express the hope that Canadians will always remember that immigrants have helped make us the envy of the world.