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  2. Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette
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Opening of the Governor General’s Women's Conference: “Together for Women’s Security”

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Opening of the Governor General’s Women's Conference:
“Together for Women’s Security”

Rideau Hall, Thursday, September 9, 2010

What a joy it is to welcome so many of you to Rideau Hall to open this two-day conference, which has meant so much to me, and which is what I have passionately worked toward over the past five years as governor general of Canada.

It is a great pleasure to see some of you again; those who have assisted me during my many visits across the country or accompanied me on State visits abroad.

And everywhere along the way, I have taken the time to listen to your concerns and to learn about the realities that have immediate repercussions on the lives of women.

So I will begin by thanking everyone who has worked so hard to make this meeting possible and those who want to share what women have to say.

And I also want to extend a warm greeting to all of the women, men and young people I have encountered in organizations working in the field, and who, with often hardly any resources and with even less recognition, are succeeding in the fight against the exclusion of women and improving their living conditions. 

I believe, as you do, dear friends, that preventing over half of humanity from accessing fundamental rights and from living in security is one of the greatest scandals of our time, as I have said on numerous occasions.

For instance, every year on March 8th, when we proudly mark International Women’s Day, I have delivered that message, and repeated it here in Canada and throughout the world. 

In 2006, in Victoria, speaking to concerned British Columbians about violence against women, which is rightly considered to be an unacceptable and shameful stain on our society.

In 2007, in Kabul, speaking to Afghan women working to rebuild their communities ravaged by misunderstanding and tyranny, often risking their very lives.  

In 2008, in the company of women from First Nations, Métis peoples and Inuit, who are increasingly taking the reins of power and becoming leaders for the well-being of their communities, and who do not stop exposing the sorry fate of their sisters, daughters and mothers who have disappeared and been reduced to statistics or relegated to brief news items. May I just say that this is not an Aboriginal issue, but a Canadian issue.

In 2009, in Liberia, at the invitation of the first woman president in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, during the International Colloquium on Women’s Empowerment, Leadership Development, International Peace and Security, where I applauded the courage of African women in their ongoing struggle against the forces of brutality and misery.

And in 2010, in the poorest country in the Americas, my native Haiti, a few months after the terrible earthquake, which destroyed everything in a matter of seconds, to say once again that no reconstruction is imaginable, or even thinkable, without the full participation of Haitian women, who have been the guardians of hope for so many and for so long. 

From all of those meetings, which have inspired our thoughts and our actions, one theme has quickly emerged: today, throughout the world, women and girls of all ages are living in fear, imprisoned by walls of silence.

Women’s security is a fundamental priority, because it is essential for their emancipation and their participation in all key sectors of our societies.

Let us be clear: the issue of security, here at home and abroad, is multifaceted. It is not just a question of physical or psychological violence, as unacceptable as they are. Security also includes issues related to the full capacity of women to participate, to speak and to live freely.

Even here in Canada, one of the most advanced democracies in the world, with a rich tradition of rights and freedoms, women have introduced themselves to me as “survivors.”

One by one, they have told me their story.

A story that is unfortunately repeated from town to town, village to village, community to community.

A story where, behind closed doors, no one can see, in the secret places of the heart and the mind, women and girls, some no more than infants, are mentally and physically bruised and beaten.

So, if they are to become truly free, free to think and to act in their own interests, and to gain respect and dignity, all women must be able to rely on inalienable rights and an environment where security is assured unconditionally.

There are a number of factors that jeopardize the lives of women or put them in precarious or vulnerable positions: any and all attacks to their physical, sexual or psychological well being, but also poverty, a shortage of social housing, the lack of access to education and training, any form of exclusion, and any attempt to make the degrading and contemptuous attitudes and behaviour that women face and bear the burden of commonplace or banal.

The feminism we advocate today began when Simone de Beauvoir completed The Second Sex in 1949, hoping for the advent of the “reign of liberty.”

And when we say liberty, we obviously mean respect.

De Beauvoir said that, “To gain the supreme victory, it is necessary, for one thing, that by and through their natural differentiation men and women unequivocally affirm their strong bonds.”

And by “strong bonds,” we obviously mean respect.

And it is with the encouragement of such inspiring and unifying words that we open this conference here today.

The words we will share with one another in the coming days have a power of transformation and action.

In contrast, the words and situations we keep to ourselves continue to cry out within us.

Those silent cries perpetuate solitude, while the spoken word paves the path to solidarity.

I am convinced that this is true. Aren’t you, dear friends?

That conviction inspired the young woman I was, whose first commitments were spent providing support to women who were victims of various forms of violence, and helping to set up a network of shelters where they could find refuge.

And that conviction still sustains the woman who stands before you today and who firmly emphasizes the importance of living together, rather than the “everyone for himself and his clan” mentality that is still the bane of so many societies.

Wherever I have travelled, as governor general of Canada, I have met with women who are singularly remarkable and collectively uplifting. 

I have learned from those women.

We have learned from those women.

For our lives are filled by their reassuring voices, their welcoming hands, and their tireless energy.

From those survivors like my grandmother Dejanira, who wore her fingers to the bone sewing clothes that she sold on the sidewalks of Port-au-Prince to send her children to school, I learned that “education is freedom.”

From those fighters who find within themselves the courage to rebuild their lives after years of violence and abuse, I learned never to cast my eyes down or to give up.

From those healers from the First Peoples of the Americas, I learned it was possible to break the circles of exclusion and oppression and replace them with circles of sharing and healing.

From those who oppose all forms of fundamentalism, I have learned that the fight for freedom will never be over until it has been won for all women and men.

From those resisters who, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, freed themselves from the burka that imprisoned their faces and who looked straight in my eyes, I learned the power of indignation.

From those brave women in Mali who decreed that the practice of genital mutilation is a violation of fundamental human rights, I learned that traditions should not be practised to the detriment of some and with the complicity of others.

From those enlightened women throughout the world who flout divisions invented by warlike minds, I have learned that respect for human dignity is the greatest antidote against barbarism.

From those voices for justice who denounce the vile cruelties inflicted on daughters, sisters and mothers, notably in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I have learned the madness of “a war that ends in women’s bellies.”

From those mothers whose children die in combat, I have learned words that express loss.

From those women leaders, leaders like you, whose numbers are growing, I have learned that defeatism is the antithesis of progress, at home and in the poorest countries.

From those women whose clear-sightedness lights our way ahead, I have learned to translate their thoughts into action.   

I still have much to learn from you, women I am close to and men who see us as equals in life.

And, out of all those hopes, the one I want to pass on to my own daughter comes to me from the work of women who, although they have only a small portion of the world’s resources, devote themselves body and soul to improving the lives of all around them.

I am speaking, as you know, of the work of women who measure their success in terms of what they put in, not what they take out.

Excluding women is a recipe for failure.

For women never forget that life is our most precious asset.

And that’s why we must be listened to, dear friends.

And we will be listened to; I am more convinced of that than ever.

If we do not want to [translation] “die from technocratic anaesthesia or emotional abstentionism,” to use Julia Kristeva’s striking expression.

So that we do not live [translation] “stranded, with a vast continent of intimacy, emotion and words beyond our grasp,” as Kristeva continues.

So that we form, with those we love and who listen to us, a promising and unifying word of life.

Yes, dear friends, in the coming days, let us be for one another, and for all humanity, a word of life against all the world’s solitudes.   

Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart, for being here.