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Carolyn A. Milne Leadership Forum

Toronto, Wednesday, April 17, 2012

Thank you for inviting me to speak to you here today, particularly during National Volunteer Week.

From the outset of my mandate, I have been exploring ways that we as Canadians can work together to build a smarter, more caring nation. I am humbled that many have taken up this cause.

In fact, community foundations across the country, including this one, have been discussing ways that we can apply this locally, creating smart and caring communities.

How can we go about doing this?

The first step is to identify the strengths and weaknesses of our communities, which will lead us to the needs of the community.  

Overall, Canadian communities are strong. The very first World Happiness Report was released recently and ranked Canada fifth overall, based on many indicators, including our social capital, that is, our relationships with and within our communities.

Canadian research supports this as well.

The Canadian Index of Wellbeing, based at the University of Waterloo, seeks to improve our lives by helping us to understand key factors that influence our quality of life.

One of the indicators of this index is community vitality. To share with you just some of our strengths: crime rates are dropping, and volunteering in the community is rising.

But there are difficulties as well. We still struggle to deal with issues of poverty and inequality. Last month, at Rideau Hall, my wife, Sharon, met with representatives from Aboriginal communities to talk about the issues of health and well-being that affect their children and families. There is still much work to be done.

When looking at the evolving needs of the community—any community—there are many different areas to consider.

For example: demographically, we are an aging population, with all of the associated challenges. Knowing this now, what can we do to ensure that the older generation is well cared for? For that matter, what can we do for the younger generation to prepare them for this change?

Economically, some find themselves in enviable positions while others struggle to find sound financial footing. According to the OECD, our wage gap is increasing and is now at record highs. What can we do to combat the perils of poverty and inequality?

Some non-profits, meanwhile, are looking for additional funding sources, brought about by a stagnation of donations in recent years and an increase in competition. How will giving evolve? How will non-profits evolve?

Looking at the challenges we are facing, knowing what our needs are, we have to ask: what can be done?

The first step is to collaborate so that we can strengthen our communities together. But this is no simple task, and requires great effort from all sides.

A 2010 study by the Canadian Council on Social Development on the subject of community vitality reported that more than half of Canadians surveyed felt that “you can’t be too careful in dealing with people,” an increase from 2005.

This issue of trust and compassion in the community is central because it informs how we collaborate. Without trust, we cannot work together. And, more importantly, without trust, volunteerism and philanthropy, compassionate giving, cannot thrive.

As governor general, I have a role to play in encouraging more trust, which I do by sharing stories. Let me share one with you now.

Yesterday, I was honoured to present, for the first time during my mandate, the Caring Canadian Awards.

One of the award recipients was Élaine McGee. Élaine created the foundation Marchant à tes côtés, which works to break the cycle of poverty. She has given young people, including single mothers, and others a chance to return to their studies, to help their families gain renewed hope for the future. Élaine has also set up a network of benefactors and volunteers, all dedicated to the cause.

In this way, Élaine is engendering trust. Not only within her network, but also with the families who receive their help. And when others are exposed to the trusting nature of a group such as Marchant à tes côtés, they are more likely to trust in the caring nature of others and to volunteer their own time to help someone else in need.

I often draw on Jefferson’s image of a burning candle when illustrating the importance of sharing our knowledge and experiences. In fact, I have crafted this image, along with that of books, which represent learning, into my coat of arms.

The candle symbolizes not only enlightenment, but also the transmission of learning from one person to another.

The sharing of knowledge collectively enlightens our societies and our world. And when you light your candle from mine, my light is not diminished, it is enhanced.

Trust begets trust. Élaine’s story shows this and so, too, do the people involved with Hamilton Community Foundation. And now I urge you to spread your own stories of giving. Share your light with others and help them see that to build a better community, a smart and caring community, they need to trust in their neighbours and in themselves, as well as to collaborate with others so that we may all benefit.

Sharing our stories is important, collaborating is important, but so, too, is thinking innovatively.

Last year, I met with representatives from Pathways to Education Canada in Toronto. Pathways ensures that all youth, no matter their social or economic situation, have the same opportunity for academic success. 

And it has made great progress towards achieving its goals. Working alongside the school system and in partnership with dedicated volunteers, Pathways is helping to reduce dropout rates, which have plummeted from 56% to 12%. In addition, 80% of its graduates attend college or university.

These results from Regent Park, its first site, led Pathways to replicate its success in five other communities across Ontario and Quebec in 2007.

Its volunteers and staff have built an organization from the ground up, transforming a troubled neighbourhood into one that offers a brighter future for its children.

This transformation resulted from a dedicated few seeing a problem in the community and thinking of ways to overcome obstacles. This is social innovation at its best—new ideas for a new time.              

And it is new ideas that will be required as we redefine volunteerism and philanthropy for the 21st century.

Hamilton knows how to be a leader. It knows how to be innovative. History has borne this out.

Nearly 60 years ago, the very first community foundation in Ontario found roots right here. That was no accident. The citizens of Hamilton recognized that the model that began elsewhere in Canada could work perfectly here to build a better city, a more sustainable city. 

Hamilton is home to caring and giving people who see the importance of strengthening the community for today and for our children’s future.

You have transformed your city for the better. You are able to attract compassionate people because you are compassionate yourselves in all you do. The innovative ideas that will be vital in the years to come will come from community organizations like yours.

In fact, that is precisely what all community foundations have been doing throughout their histories. Its members embody the ideals of smart and caring communities. You know what needs to be done, you know how to be innovative, and you have achieved the desired results through altruism, original ideas and sheer effort.

National Volunteer Week is the perfect time to talk about where we want our country to be and what we want it to look like in five years’ time, when we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada. How will we volunteer? How will we give? And how will Hamilton Community Foundation continue to create the smart and caring communities of tomorrow?

Let us share what we know, communicate, collaborate, innovate, and build the better country that starts with people like you.

Thank you.