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  1. The Governor General of Canada
  2. Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette
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Discussion on Preserving Culture and Heritage - Croatia

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Discussion on Preserving Culture and Heritage in an Open Society

Dubrovnik, Croatia, Monday, October 26, 2009

I stand before you in one of the bastions of the rich heritage of the Adriatic Coast, a place renowned for its radiance, beauty and history.

We are at the confluence of the Slavic and Mediterranean worlds, of East and West, in a city that wears the traces of its past, of the peoples who have coveted it, of those who have settled in it, of the cultures that have shaped it and the influences that have passed through it.

From high atop the ramparts where I stood yesterday, one can stare at centuries of experience.

And I was so moved yesterday, when the Mayor told me that six hundred years ago, in this very city, the State city of Dubrovnik, the practice of slavery was officially condemned, a first in world history.

But it is impossible to come to Dubrovnik without thinking of its more recent history.

We feared the worst when shelling damaged the old city during the armed conflict following Croatia’s declaration of independence.

The city once called the Venice of the East was shaken to its core: its secular heritage was threatened with destruction.

The city was under siege for months and months; fire, no water, no electricity, panic in the street, were daily realities.

Everyday was Apocalypse.

Once peace returned, reconstruction began, thanks to the mobilization of your society’s best and brightest, restoration experts and a comprehensive plan implemented by UNESCO, which placed Dubrovnik on the list of World Heritage Sites in 1979.

You scrupulously respected the principle of authenticity at a time when all of the old trades had virtually disappeared.

In the same way that you would erect a building brick by brick, you also had to reforge values that Dubrovnik has always stood for, values of openness, peace, and tolerance.

It is widely recognized that in no time at all, you rose to a colossal challenge on the road to reconstruction and reconciliation.

I believe that we have a great deal to learn from you.

You who are the guardians of a heritage over a thousand years old.

You who are deeply aware of the responsibility that is yours to protect this treasure, one that you share with all of humanity.

But to the dangers of armed conflict, natural disaster, theft and looting is now added the danger of unbridled development, heedless of the environmental and human community in which it takes place.

Perhaps more than ever at this time of real estate speculation, urban sprawl and large-scale tourism, we need to be keenly aware of history and the weight of our decisions.

In that respect the university in which we have gathered, the youngest university in Croatia, eloquently demonstrates that it is possible to respond to the constraints of urban life and to reconcile modernity and tradition.

Cultures and heritage throughout the world are threatened by the standardization, uniformity and commodification toward which market globalization is pushing us.

We must be vigilant always in the face of that globalization, which could become a steamroller driven solely by commercial logic.

In some regions of the world, as is the case in Canada, the preservation of intangible heritage has become an urgent issue.

In particular, the preservation of the ancestral languages, cultures and lifestyles of First peoples, increasingly subjected to the pressures of our modern age.

An entire art of living and conceiving the world could disappear if we do not act.

It is important to place out of time, and away from the perils that beset it, this shared heritage of humanity represented by the tangible and intangible traces of our passage through the world.

For those traces are the invaluable witnesses to all those things that are etched in the depths of our collective memory, and which constitute the wealth of civilizations.

In this magnificent city of yours, the past can be seen, touched and sensed, and within each fragment resound the murmurs and gestures of a civilisation.

To look at Dubrovnik is to experience a profound feeling of belonging to an ingenious, creative and prodigious humanity.

And it kindles within us the hope that a genuine dialogue can be established among the cultures of the world, based on the values we share rather than the borders that separate us.

I hope this discussion will enrich our reflection on how to preserve the priceless treasure of our cultures and our heritage.

And, once again, Mr. Mayor, through you, let me congratulate  the people of this city for preserving such a marvel, with vision and rigour.

Thank you.