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  1. The Governor General of Canada
  2. Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette
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Speech at UNESCO

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Speech at UNESCO

Paris, Monday, October 5, 2009

Thank you very much for this distinguished invitation to speak before the members of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. I hope that we can all find inspiration in Aimé Césaire’s beautiful words and together, reshape the horizon and reach beyond its limits.

I am especially moved because Canada is a founding member of this institution whose values I share, values that guided its creation and that it continues to defend and promote.

In a wonderful meditation on memory that she has just published, the illustrious Hellenist and member of the French Academy Jacqueline de Romilly recalls that after the war, under the aegis of UNESCO, she was part of a group of intellectuals interested in classical culture and that, working together, hoped to rebuild a friendship between peoples.

She described it as an attempt to re-establish a connection between countries based on culture.

Over 50 years later, though the circumstances have changed, the need to rekindle the bonds between us and to reaffirm the decisive role that the dialogue of cultures plays in promoting peace and democratization remains just as urgent.

It is for the sake of that very principle that an organization like UNESCO was created and remains relevant to this day.

This principle has also influenced other associations, including the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie which, in the 2002 Beirut Declaration, renewed its determination to “contribute to the emergence of a more equitable form of globalization that will bring progress, peace, democracy and human rights, in full respect for cultural and linguistic diversity, in the interests of the most vulnerable populations and the development of all countries.”

UNESCO’s mission has never been as important, as crucial, as it is today, at this point in our collective history, when it is vital that we urge the creative forces within our societies to reflect and take action, so that we might forge new and highly desirable, if not essential, bonds of solidarity and share their promises. 

And it seems to me that the current financial crisis gripping the world—difficult for some of our populations while threatening to devastate others—is in fact a crisis of values, urgently crying out for an ethic of sharing. 

While we need to continue rethinking the world together, we must also give ourselves the means to shape its future, such that thought and action commingle and serve to affirm a consciousness that encompasses the full breadth of human experience, wherever that consciousness takes root in the world. 

It is my firm belief that misunderstanding, exclusion and violence, which are never justified, are the result of dialogues that never took place and debates about ideas that were never launched. 

But our perspective—long limited to our own village, region or country—has now expanded to global proportions and calls for a more comprehensive redefinition of our realities. 

This unprecedented openness to the world requires us to work together to redefine the ties and values that bind us to one another and will endure as the legacy of our civilization. 

Of course, the extent of inequality, the fragility of our ecosystems, the rise in fundamentalism of every kind, the scope of commercialization of culture and life itself, the shameless contempt for human dignity have all caused great anxiety.

We cannot help but wonder: Where is the world going?

Where is the world going when children are deprived of education and go hungry?

When the globalization of markets challenges solidarity?

When growth is indifferent to environmental consequences?

When the concentration of distribution networks becomes a pretext for establishing a “monoculture,” to borrow the powerful term coined by anthropologist Claude Lévi‑Strauss?

In a world in which our fates are inextricably linked, we should be very wary of leaning toward a commercial logic without any safeguards, one in which the “fend for yourself” mentality would make the rules.

We should be wary because today’s challenges affect every citizen of the world and every culture they represent.

We have no choice but to acknowledge the situation and expand our definition of civic responsibility as a result.

We have no choice but to enhance the notion of freedom and our sense of fellowship.

Our freedom must no longer be defined in terms of individual interests; it should include everyone’s interests. 

That, I believe, is the beauty and extreme relevance of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, which Canada still passionately defends and which represents the first decisive step toward recognition of an international cultural right.

When culture is taken as more than a mere commodity and understood to be key to encouraging our unique contributions to the heritage of humanity, it is important that we do not sell it to the highest bidder, that we give every country the means with which to assert and emancipate the ways in which they express themselves, not to the exclusion of others, but in tune with them.

I am proud to have this opportunity to recognize UNESCO’s remarkable and historic efforts in this regard.

It is the difference between cultures that makes their encounter an inexhaustible source of renewal and that defines human genius. 

We do not want a world in which we are condemned to repetition, where we continue to see things in the same way, express ourselves in a single voice, circulate the same content across increasingly sophisticated networks.

We agree wholeheartedly with the viewpoint of France’s Conseil économique, social et environnemental, as presented by Ms. Julia Kristeva-Joyaux, that culture is neither an antidote to the decline in purchasing power, nor an outlet for social malaise, but rather a special place where new languages are sought, where thought and the desire to live and take action are renewed.

We need culture because it conveys our values and creates a vital link between us.

Without culture, there would be no points of reference, neither in time nor in space, and, as Quebec thinker Fernand Dumont put it, without culture, “[translation] my memory would be lost.”

For us, as Canadians, this notion of cultural diversity as a place of exploration and celebration is an historic and daily reality.

Beginning with the first encounter between European explorers and the Aboriginal peoples whose cultures date back to the dawn of time, and followed by the later contributions of women and men from every corner of the world, Canada embodies the ideal of a world where our shared values, rather than racial or ethnic distinctions, define the spirit of how we live together in harmony.

I, a Francophone from the Americas, born in Haiti, who carries in her the history of the slave trade and the emancipation of Black, at once Québécoise and Canadian, and today before you, Canada’s head of State, proudly represent the promises and possibilities of that ideal of society.

My own path, like that of my country, Canada, speaks of home and horizons, of close relationships and new encounters.

And that is why I made a commitment to ensure that the institution that I have represented since 2005 is a place where citizens’ voices would be heard, where the values of respect, tolerance, and sharing that are so essential to all Canadians would prevail. 

My husband, filmmaker Jean‑Daniel Lafond, and I have wanted to rally as many people as possible around these values that bring us together and are universal in scope. 

This will ensure that we succeed in breaking down solitudes, as the motto that I chose when I came into office proclaims.

As I expressed in my installation speech, one of my priorities is to awaken in youth the desire to explore their full potential and to encourage them to become active players in this reinvention of the world. 

I also want them to see education as the key to freedom. 

I was born in the poorest country in the Americas, and I know that education often represents the ultimate and surest way to rise above misery and to rebuild life.

Everywhere that I have travelled as head of State, from the City of Québec to Kugluktuk, from the Pacific to the Atlantic to the Arctic, from Africa to South America, Haiti to Afghanistan, north of the Arctic Circle in Norway to Ukraine, I have met truly remarkable young people.

They must be heard. Hearing them is a matter of survival.

Those young people have shared something very important with me.

They have told me that solidarity is a responsibility.

That we must now include the entire world in our definition of community. 

A community they define not in terms of ethnicity or even space, but in terms of common values.

Values that express the importance of preserving, celebrating and perpetuating life in all its forms, rhythms and colours.

These youth choose to focus on the ways in which we stand together rather than on the sum of our differences. 

They remind us that at every opportunity, in every forum, one must vigilantly “act as a man of thought and think as a man of action,” as philosopher Henri Bergson, one of the precursors to this indispensable institution where we have gathered today, urged us to do.

I would amend this slightly, as I am sure you will understand, in that for me, it is important to act as a woman of thought and think as a woman of action.

I spent many years of my previous life accompanying women who had suffered many forms of violence.

I will never forget the words of those women whose inner flame had been brutally snuffed out and who, little by little, found that spark again. Their words lift me up, in good times and in bad.

There is no question in my mind that women play a key role in creating social consensus around difficult, but unavoidable, issues such as family planning, the physical integrity of young girls, violence as a response to a lack of understanding, access to education, food security, crime prevention and environmental protection.

I am greatly impressed and deeply moved by the way in which women, from every background around the world, are able to come together to work together for the common good. 

Give women the means to act, and you will see a decrease in violence, hunger, illness, illiteracy, despair.

It is for the sake of life itself that women choose to mobilize and take action, to perpetuate in their every word and every deed—for their children and for humanity—that irrepressible and irreplaceable force that is every being who may at times suffer but who remains ever hopeful. 

I would not say, as others do, that woman is the future of man.

But, in applauding the nomination of the first woman to head UNESCO, Ms. Irina Bokova, I say with absolute conviction that woman, as the equal of man, must be able to face the future of humanity.

And let us never doubt, dear friends, that it is because of our joint daily efforts to build a better world that UNESCO remains relevant to this day.

This relevance will only grow if UNESCO takes into account the efforts, the actions and the initiatives of women and men everywhere. Recognition of this is crucial in today’s world. 

To those who would seek to push this institution into the realm of a utopia, I say loud and clear, in the words of Édouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau, that this utopia is the only realism that can untie the knot of what is impossible. 

And indeed, it is our shared desire to look upon the impossible as an opportunity for wonder that should guide how we see the world.

I therefore invite you, dear friends, to look anew upon the world and, in the words of Quebec poet Gatien Lapointe, to “[translation] deepen in all of us a breath of universal scope.”

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your generous and kind attention. I wish you every success and happiness that life has to offer.