Presentation of the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award
Rideau Hall, Tuesday, April 17, 2012
Welcome to Rideau Hall. For nearly 150 years, this has been Canada’s gathering place—a place where Canadians celebrate their achievements; a place where Canadians are honoured for service, ingenuity, bravery and creativity; a place where Canadians meet, share their stories, learn from one another, and then take what they have learned to build a better, smarter, more caring country.
I can think of no people who more rightfully belong in this room than you. You’re living, breathing examples of everything that’s right and good about our country. You’re selfless, generous and compassionate. You’re creative, dogged and ambitious. And it’s those attributes that inspire your achievements as volunteers. You may think it’s your treat to be here. To tell you the truth, it’s really my privilege, my honour, my treat to welcome you here and to be with you.
We’re here today so that I can present each of you—each of the 28 extraordinary volunteers in this room—with the Caring Canadian Award. This is the first occasion since my installation as Governor General that I’ve presented this special award to anyone.
On the day of my installation a year and a half ago, I made clear that I consider my time as your Governor General a call to service, and that I intend to answer that call in one clear way: I will serve as a bridge to bring Canadians of all backgrounds and ages together to create a smart and caring nation that supports families and children, reinforces learning and innovation, and encourages philanthropy and volunteerism.
Volunteers are the foundation of all functioning societies and are representative of our human inclination to protect and care for one another.
Today, our volunteers stand shoulder-to-shoulder with effective governments, high-quality schools and pioneering organizations that carry out advanced research and make breakthrough discoveries. Together, you volunteers and those institutions make essential contributions to creating a smart, caring country for all Canadians. That’s what volunteering is and why volunteers must be honoured.
Volunteering also exists in the larger context of giving. Giving of money in the form of philanthropy; giving of talent in the form of professional expertise; and giving of themselves in ways that go beyond the traditional boundary of volunteerism.
While Canadians today are expanding the boundaries of volunteerism, the essential importance of volunteers isn’t a modern-day phenomenon. From day one, the efforts of volunteers have been a vital element in the success of our country. In fact, the spirit of volunteerism explains the caring, healthy country we have today. That’s no exaggeration. From the first days of life on this land, people—native-born and newly arrived—have worked closely together and given of themselves to others—diligently, freely, selflessly.
We can trace that generous spirit of giving from the experiences of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, here before the European settlers. How do we know this to be true? In the first comprehensive history of New France—itself based on the detailed record of Samuel de Champlain—Pierre de Charlevoix observed that Champlain and the other French settlers in Canada learned that the Indians of the St. Lawrence River valley judged the virtue of themselves and other tribes on one fact: how they treated widows, orphans and the infirm.
Inspired by this lesson, the earliest Canadians settlers themselves quickly realized that, if they were going to survive and thrive in this always beautiful, sometimes foreboding land, if they were going to build better lives for themselves and their neighbours and hold open brighter futures for their children, they must give freely to others of their time, toil and talents. They had to. Like the Aboriginal peoples of this land, they realized that our country is too vast, our climate too harsh, the challenges of starting anew too daunting for anyone—even the strongest and most resourceful—to make it on their own.
The experiences of those early Canadians lit a spark that soon grew into a bright flame. Merchants in New France set up the Office of the Poor. This first voluntary agency in Canada gave food, money and shelter to the sick, the elderly and the incapacitated; found work for the unemployed; and gave tools to labourers so they could carry out their trades.
Other organizations soon followed. Local parishes, religious orders and lay groups founded charities such as the Hall of God, the House of Providence and the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul to care for the sick and the elderly, support the destitute and teach young boys and girls from poor families.
In the decades following Confederation, volunteer groups sprang up across Canada to help settle European immigrants and keep their traditional cultures alive. Immigrants from Iceland set up a network of libraries and reading clubs. Canadians of German descent in Halifax established the country’s first funeral and burial society. Canadians from Poland who settled in Kitchener founded Canada’s first mutual-aid society. Homesteaders from Hungary and Ukraine became unofficial settling agents, helping newcomers from all lands start new lives on the wide-open Canadian prairie.
As our country grew, crusading advocates such as the St. John Ambulance Association, the Canadian Red Cross Society and the Young Women’s Christian Association provided crucial services for vulnerable people such as children and young women, and spearheaded social reform to help ensure all Canadians had access to decent homes, adequate healthcare and free education.
In recent years, dozens of community groups such as the United Way, Habitat for Humanity and the Community Foundations of Canada have been formed to respond to community needs, economic hardship, natural disasters and war. National charitable organizations such as the Canadian Lung Association, Canadian Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Muscular Dystrophy Canada, Alzheimer Society of Canada and many others have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to help find cures for diseases and help comfort those afflicted with them.
At the same time, development agencies based in our country are taking the conviction, passion and know-how of Canadians and applying them to help people throughout the world.
In these ways and countless others, the spirit of volunteerism runs like a vivid thread through the fabric of our country’s history. We can all call on telling examples. My family and I lived in an Ontario farming community for many years and we saw that spirit alive and well in the tradition of Mennonite barn-raisings, where a community rallies to help whenever a farming family—of any faith—must build or repair a building.
So what have we here today learned from all these experiences? Three things.
First, we’ve learned that volunteerism has evolved from being an activity carried out by a select few to a mass activity in which every person can contribute because everyone has something of value to offer.
Second, we’ve learned that new Canadians have brought to our shores new ways of thinking about volunteerism.
And third, we’ve learned that the very idea of volunteerism is never static. Thousands of Canadians right now are serving their communities in ways that neither they nor others would likely define as volunteering in the traditional sense. Though this work exists outside of conventional bounds, it’s of great value because it encourages others to contribute in unconventional ways and it helps all of us form a truer idea of citizenship.
The latest numbers bring these three points to life. According to the most recent research, 12.5 million Canadians, or 46 percent of Canadians aged 15 and over, volunteered with a formal volunteer agency in Canada. Those Canadians volunteered 2.1 billion hours a year—the equivalent of more than one million full-time jobs.
Why have Canadians in communities across our country embraced volunteering so closely? It’s because while volunteering most often takes place in our neighbourhoods, we know that when we combine our volunteer efforts with others, we do more than help and support those locally. We nourish our shared country, making it stronger, healthier, more vibrant for us all. We create a healthy nation that is the sum of the individual healthy communities that make it up. That’s why there are few tasks more noble or more profound than the seemingly simple act of helping, of sharing, of volunteering.
There are some people—some cynics—out there who say I’m wrong. They say people volunteer solely because of what they themselves get out of it. I disagree. Just as certain species of birds care for chicks that are not their own, just as bees sting intruders and, in doing so, die to protect the hive, just as humans put their own lives on the line to rescue children from burning buildings or freezing rivers, we help others because we know in our hearts, we feel in our bones that helping others is right. We do so because we know that helping others makes our neighbourhoods, communities and country stronger.
Is volunteering different now than it ever was? Until now, volunteering has been largely people responding to pressing, immediate needs. Today—and more and more into the future—volunteering is as much about finding ways to help that were never even dreamed of a generation ago. Retired workers are rechanneling their hard-won professional knowledge, skills and experiences to teach and help others. Newcomers are enabling all Canadians to take advantage of different traditions of helping. And Canadians of all backgrounds and ages are going online and using advanced communications technologies to carry out virtual volunteering, micro-volunteering, customer volunteering, on-demand volunteering and crowd-sourcing.
Young Canadians are especially goal-oriented, mobile and tech-savvy. They set aside conventional methods and use new technologies to find exciting ways to express their willingness to help—whether it’s accessing Facebook to help identify missing people in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake; taking advantage of their web-development skills to build websites for charitable organizations in developing countries; or making the most of their smartphones to conduct quick bursts of volunteer activity several times throughout the course of a day. In these and many other ways, young Canadians are changing the very way we volunteer.
You caring Canadians are also at the leading edge of this new era of volunteerism. You personify what it means to be both smart and caring. You’re clever and gutsy. Until today, you’ve been the unsung heroes of our nation. On the frontlines in this country. Persuading people to see what you see, believe in your cause, follow your lead. That takes conviction. That takes intelligence. That takes guts. You believe in your own way of helping. And you have the backbone, passion and intelligence to make it work. By doing so, you make Canada a smarter, more caring nation.
But what about the other half of our population? What about the 53 percent of Canadians who don’t volunteer? What are we going to do as a country and as Canadians to make sure the on-off switch of volunteerism is always on?
There is one thing you can do right away to encourage Canadians to keep that switch turned on. I want you to go home and unleash the power of your stories as caring Canadians. Be proud to tell people what you’ve done—not in arrogance, but in confidence. You’ve found innovative ways to help your neighbours; now go find equally innovative ways to tell your stories. This is no time to hide a light under a bushel. Let that light shine. Use the brilliance of your light—of your inspiring stories—to encourage more Canadians to volunteer, start their own volunteer groups, revive or even revolutionize existing organizations. That’s my challenge to you.
Now, I want to share with you a question and a promise. First, the question. I’ve been asking Canadians, what’s going to be your birthday gift to our country on the 150th anniversary of Confederation? Put another way, I’ve been asking them to think of what they’re going to do between now and 2017 to strengthen their commitment to volunteering, reinforce volunteering as a fundamental Canadian value and celebrate volunteering as a cornerstone in developing smart and caring communities in an ever-smarter, evermore caring country?
Now, my promise. My wife Sharon and I have read your stories, and I’ll be meeting all of you and talking with all of you personally here today. I promise you that we’ll be telling your stories wherever we go in our great country. We’ll be sharing with Canadians your wonderful examples of helping and caring. We’ll be using your achievements as sources of inspiration to encourage more and more Canadians to discover what they can start doing now—what they can contribute to others now—to mark our country’s 150th birthday in 2017. It’s not only my delight to tell your stories, it’s also my duty, my job. And you know what? You make my job easy.
Thank you for that. Thank you for your gift to our country. Thank you for showing—with such creativity and resolve—what it means to create a smarter, more caring country. Thank you for being caring Canadians.