The Viceregal Lion
  1. The Governor General of Canada
  2. Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette
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Volunteer Canada’s Annual General Meeting

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Ottawa, Monday, June 6, 2011


Thank you for that very kind introduction. I am always very sceptical when I am asked to give short and inspiring remarks. Let me tell you why. In 1979, I was named vice-chancellor and principal of McGill University; I should say I was a very young and naive principal.

I was then asked to give a short, warm and inspiring acceptance speech, and so I went with what I thought might work: stand up to speak, speak to be heard, and sit down to be appreciated.

That first month, we were dealt a series of Draconian budget cuts. But Hydro-Québec was offering lavish capital grants to replace non-electrical appliances with ones using cheap hydroelectricity. We leaped at the gold and, among other things, replaced the paper hand drying dispensers in all of the university washrooms with electric hand dryers.

Proud of this brilliant and decisive leadership, I went to inspect. The first washroom was the men’s room in the Engineering building. Before my wondering eyes was a sparkling white machine. But even on this first day, some graffiti had been scratched above the depressor button. It read: “Press this button for a short, warm, inspiring message from your principal.”

Now I would like to begin by thanking the members, supporters and staff of Volunteer Canada for your commitment and spirit of philanthropy.

I have often spoken about the concept of “barn-raising,” of neighbour helping neighbour. All of you here have realized the importance of helping others, once again showing Canada to be a smart and caring nation.

Since my installation, I’ve been inviting Canadians to join me in imagining our country as it could be. We strive for a smart and caring nation where all Canadians can succeed, contribute and develop their talents to their fullest potential. We want Canada to be a nation that increases and applies the knowledge of its citizens to improve the condition of all—at home and around the world. 

To achieve this vision, I have set out three pillars: supporting families and children; reinforcing learning and innovation; and encouraging philanthropy and volunteerism.

I know that you have challenged Canadians to share their views on the country they desire as we move towards the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, as I have been doing across the country since my installation as governor general. 

Specifically, you have asked about the state of volunteerism, a poignant and important question moving forward. How can we promote volunteerism to a wider audience? What can we do to reach our goals? How can Canada help define volunteerism for the next generation?

First, however, we must take stock of where volunteerism is today. How we measure giving is much debated, but there are certain indisputable facts. As you know, Canada has the second strongest volunteer sector in the world. Each year, 12 million Canadians spend over two billion hours volunteering.

In fact, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Your Better Life Index, 66% of Canadians reported having helped a stranger in the last month, higher than any other OECD country. To know that Canadians are taking it upon themselves, in their communities and in countries around the world, to help people in need is very heartening.

Your Better Life Index is an important tool to measure society, one based not on our economic viability, but on our quality of life. And although it gives us a good overview of our country in relation to others, the newly launched Canadian Index of Wellbeing, based at the University of Waterloo, will focus on individual Canadian communities, seeking to better our lives by helping us to understand key factors that influence quality of life.

The Index uses eight overall categories, with a subset of indicators, to gauge the health of Canada and of Canadian communities. The indicators measure key, interrelated factors that affect our well-being. They provide a snapshot of our community life, our democratic engagement, our educational status and the vitality of our environment. They help us to determine the health of our populations, our living standards, our use of time and our leisure and cultural activity.

Collectively, this Index helps us to determine trends in our overall quality of life, giving us a powerful tool for action. I know that community foundations have been involved with this Index since its inception; you recognize it as another important way to assess how our communities are doing, on their own and as part of the whole country.

I urge all of you to look at this research to see how we can improve our country, as well as how we can attract new volunteers.

It is essential that we incorporate new people and innovative ideas into the volunteering community. In this way, we can retain our status as one of the strongest volunteer countries, second only to the Netherlands.

But what separates our two countries? What lessons can be gleaned from the Netherlands’ success? How can we apply those lessons to attracting volunteers?

Besides the obvious differences in language, history and traditions, I am struck by one major distinction: trust. Trust and volunteering is not a new concept, but it is an important one that the Netherlands has promoted extensively and successfully.

We can examine trust from three distinct views: individual, organizational and societal.

The trust that is so prevalent in volunteers is formed early in life, partly through education and understanding.

As parents, it is our responsibility to foster this trust from very early on, to ensure that our children respect our differences and celebrate our country’s diversity.

This continues with education. In a school environment, we are able to learn about each other, work together and achieve common objectives.

And as we enter today’s interconnected world, we see that borders are no longer barriers to new ideas. People are sharing more of their culture and religion, and of themselves, finding commonalities and making an effort to understand one another. It is important to reach out to anyone willing to volunteer.

After all, helping others is a universal language. New Canadians are eager to get involved, to showcase their own abilities and to share their skills to the benefit of their new country.

Let me share with you a few stories to illustrate the kindness of some individuals.

Some two decades ago, Mother Teresa came to Montréal. One of our neighbours, moved by her work with the poor in Calcutta, asked Mother Teresa how she could help. She replied: “Just look around you. In your own neighbourhood there is a family who needs your care and love.”

Shortly afterward, I read a criticism of Mother Teresa’s work. Her shelter in Calcutta gave succour to perhaps 200 people in a city where millions lived in abject poverty. Her work was described as one small drop in an ocean.

A few weeks later, I realized the shortcomings of this criticism. It was looking at her work from the point of view of physics, rather than chemistry.

My children, aged 2 to 9 at the time, would criticize the entertainment I was providing at their birthday parties. They would ask me, “Why can’t you do a magic show like Dean MacFarlane instead of telling us ghost stories that no one believes?”

At that time, Andy MacFarlane was the Dean of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario, where I was the Dean of Law. Being quite competitive, I attended the next birthday party at the MacFarlane home, where Andy was dressed as a magician, with a long cape and flowing sleeves. He was performing a magic trick, turning water into wine. He took a glass of clear water, raised it in the air, and uttered that magic phrase, “Abracadabra!” He then swept the glass into his sleeves while whirling 360 degrees, surreptitiously adding a few drops of red vegetable dye into the glass, and emerged with a glass of a lovely rose-hued liquid.

At that moment, I realized that Mother Teresa was changing the culture of Calcutta, and indeed that of the world. It was the transformation of the water—not the addition to it—that was improving the lives of so many families.

That is the caring part, but let’s be smart about it as well.

In fact, let me tell you another story that has moved me and many others; a story that perfectly illustrates generosity and service to others.

Every year, Harvard University recognizes 11 individuals for the wonderful work they have done in their communities. In 1996, before a crowd of more than 27 000, it recognized two very different people: Mr. Walter Annenberg and Ms. Oseola McCarty. Mr. Annenberg was well known for his philanthropic work and, in 1989, established the Annenberg Foundation. And in addition to receiving many awards, it is estimated that he donated over $2 billion during his lifetime.

Then you have the inspiring story of Ms. McCarty. Word spread in the Deep South of a remarkable gift from an unexpected source: 87-year-old Oseola McCarty had given $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi in her hometown of Hattiesburg.

In an age of multimillion-dollar gifts to higher education, such a donation ordinarily goes unheralded in the national press. But this time, personal details made the gesture extraordinary. Forced to leave school after the sixth grade to take care of an ailing aunt, Ms. McCarty earned a living for the next 75 years by quietly doing laundry.

She decided to give most of her life’s savings to help needy black students at an institution that had desegregated only three decades earlier. Local businesses soon seconded her effort with a campaign for matching funds.

When it came time for Ms. McCarty to receive her honorary degree, she was having difficulty getting up because of her arthritis. Mr. Hannenberg, who was sitting beside her and also suffered from arthritis, tried to help her get to her feet. Can you imagine a very, very rich man, who was having difficulty getting up, trying very hard to help Ms. McCarty?

You can imagine the reaction of the crowd. Everyone started applauding, not only for their gift, but for the fact that you had a very rich man helping a very generous woman.

Before coming to Rideau Hall, Sharon and I made our home in Waterloo County, right in the heart of south-western Ontario. We lived on a beautiful farm there, where we keep horses.

One of the things that makes Waterloo County unique is its Mennonite communities. Mennonites are easily recognized by their horses and buggies. Their communities are well-respected for their beliefs, traditional ways of life, and the strong ties that bind their people together.

I love to tell the story about one of our Mennonite neighbours, Edgar, and barn raising, to illustrate just how much the bonds that unite a community can sustain it through thick and thin.

One day, Edgar was over at our house, while Sharon was going over the farm’s budget. At one point, she asked Edgar, “How much would it cost to replace the barn?” Edgar replied, “Why do you need to know?” To this, Sharon explained that she was trying to reduce the farm’s operating costs, and so was going over the insurance portfolio. For this she needed to put a price on the barn in the event that it burned down. Edgar replied that there was no need to put a price on the barn, because if it burns down, the neighbours and community members would volunteer their time and recycled lumber to come together to replace it, free of charge. He then hesitated for a moment, before adding, “Put $2,000 down because we’ll need new shingles.” 

I am sure many of you can relate to Edgar’s story.

In Canada, volunteer organizations have built trust over the years—they, too, are being monitored and accredited by the government—but they must be willing to go further to promote this trust, with the public and with their own members.

So many communities, so many people, rely on the day-to-day kindness of volunteers and count on them to be there in times of distress. Canadians are making the choice to volunteer, and yet there is still a great need.

As the discussion continues, and as we work towards the 150th anniversary of this country, I thank you for your commitment and dedication to volunteerism and to a smarter, more caring Canada.

After all, Canadians have always imagined what can be and have worked hard to achieve it. We dream of new possibilities and set out to realize them.

In the words of George Bernard Shaw, a famous British author: “Some people see things as they are and wonder why. We dream of things that ought to be and ask why not.”

Thank you.