Awards for Excellence in Teaching Canadian History

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Presentation of the Governor General’s Awards for
Excellence in
Teaching Canadian History

Rideau Hall, Friday, November 20, 2009

It is such a pleasure to welcome you to this residence, where history is very much alive in every corner and down every hallway.

We have come together this morning to pay tribute to some wonderful teachers, passionate women and men who look upon their classrooms as a theatre.

A theatre in which the full breadth of human experience acquired over time plays out, for the enrichment of their students.

We are also here to celebrate the exceptional work being done on two fronts: popular history and academic research.

Let’s give a warm round of applause to the recipients of the Pierre Berton Award and the Sir John A. MacDonald Prize: Paul Gross and Ian McKay.

We are also joined today by a number of young people.

Young people who are already so crazy about history that they have won awards and contests run by Canada’s National History Society and other organizations dedicated to history.

May I ask the young recipients to stand and be recognized. Let’s give them a round of applause as well.

Each of us wants those who are following in our footsteps to have better living conditions than we had. To have the means, to have the desire and the daring to go farther than we went, by benefitting and learning from our experiences.

Of course, we all know that prejudices are sometimes so entrenched, hatred so persistent that the abuses, injustices and conflicts of the past can manifest themselves today and mortgage the future of the next generation.

That is why we must never shy away from an opportunity to shine a light on our darkest shadows and right an historical wrong. 

That, I believe, is our greatest responsibility to the generation that follows us, which dreams of nothing more than a better, more just world. That is our responsibility. And it is the most demanding, too.

I have just returned from a visit to southeastern Europe, specifically Slovenia, Croatia and Greece.

It is a region of the world where the memory of dictatorship, conflicts and wars that pitted neighbour against neighbour is still fresh, but where the people have expressed their desire to move forward together on the path toward reconciliation and to strengthen the pillars of democracy.

The women, men and youth I met over there know just how much their collective future depends on their ability to recognize the wounds of the past and to transcend them.

In Croatia, in particular, in the city of Vukovar, I had the opportunity to meet with high school students in the company of President Mesic.

These youth, who come from both Croatian and Serbian backgrounds, study and live together in a city where the remnants of a war that divided their parents and their community are still readily apparent.

To this day, every wall in Vukovar bears the marks of gunplay and rocket fire. So many buildings stand gutted. A vast cemetery stretches out before our eyes, the final resting place of hundreds of men and women who lost their lives in a war fuelled by hate, that tore communities apart. Several mass graves have been uncovered, whose victims have not yet been identified.

These youth live at the very centre of the indignities. There is no avoiding it. And they know just how fragile and precious the ties they are trying to rebuild truly are.

History is there to remind us that the world in which we live is the result of a sometimes turbulent, often heartbreaking, rarely peaceful evolution, as Paul Gross also conveys so well in his film Passchendaele.

Some chapters are luminous and glorious; others are dark and overwhelming.

Here, in Canada, we are in the process of shedding light on one of our most painful chapters, that of the Indian residential school system. 

Remember that for over a century, thousands of Aboriginal children were torn from their families, from their communities, only to be subjected to forced assimilation and, in many cases, to several forms of violence, humiliation and abuse.

I do not believe it is possible to fully grasp the reality of Aboriginal peoples today and the nature of our relationships with one another without first understanding this tragic chapter in our collective history and recognizing the wrongs that have been wrought.

Through the massive deportation of their children to residential schools, the Aboriginal peoples have been dispossessed of their languages, their cultures, their dignity; they have been dispossessed of the precious, vital and emotional bonds between generations; they have been dispossessed of the handing down of ancestral knowledge.

And with that policy, we non-Aboriginals were also dispossessed of a priceless opportunity: to learn and grow through contact with these varied cultures, to appreciate and share the spirit, beauty and sound of their languages, their deep understanding of the land, their world vision, their journey, their timeless experience.

Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals have been dispossessed of a very unique and rich legacy, of possibilities to engage and grow together

In their place were built walls of denial and ignorance that perpetuate indifference.

This led to the separation of two worlds, right here in our country: on the one hand, development; on the other, chronic underdevelopment.

I was deeply moved when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission appointed me an Honorary Witness, and I agreed to take on this responsibility fully.

But this is not just my responsibility.

It is one that I share with all Canadians, and I sincerely hope that all citizens, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike, will attend the Commission’s sessions in great numbers.

We cannot combat the injustices, prejudices and racism still prevalent in our society without first considering their origins.

How many of our relationships have been damaged by systems and practices that denied the rights of some because of their differences?

Let me give you an example.

In March 2007, I held a youth forum right here to mark the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in the British Empire.

We must not forget that Canadians were active in the global movement to the establish universal principal of justice and freedom.

By the late 18th century, Lower Canada was seeing more and more citizens and lawmakers calling for the abolition of slavery.

Upper Canada, under the leadership of Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe, became the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to pass a law freeing slaves.

At the forum, the participants concluded that even though Canada now stands as a pinnacle of democracy, interracial harmony and equality, we cannot deny that decades of segregation and slavery have left us all a legacy of racism and exclusion that continues to manifest itself in our communities today.

And why do we celebrate each year, here in this very room, the Governor General’s Awards in Commemoration of the Persons Case if not to celebrate the efforts of women to obtain recognition of their rights and to remind us that there remains much to be done to do away with the sexist stereotypes and prejudices dating back to a not-so-distant past when we, women, were not even considered persons under the law?

This being said, I am very proud to stand here before you as governor general and commander-in-chief of Canada, a woman, a black woman, whose ancestors were slaves.

We came a long way and can be proud of what we have collectively accomplished.

Still, we need to remain vigilant … always.

We need to look to history if we are to explain the realities of today.

We need to look to a history that seeks to reveal the truth.

Yet while it is true that facts and events do not provide all of the answers, that they are neither just nor unjust, neither good nor bad, they give rise to thoughts that address the concerns of our time, concerns shared by our youth.

And when our youth seek answers to their questions, you, dear laureates, give them an historical perspective without which there can be no understanding of the present, nor vision for the future.

An historical perspective that helps your students to better define their place in the world, the role they want to play in it, and what they can do to make it better.

Today, we thank you. Thank you for taking on this task that is so essential to our children and our youth, with passion, imagination and dedication.

Thank you for sharing your love of history, a history in perpetual motion, in perpetual evolution, that the next generation will be called upon to enrich with its own interpretations, experiences, dreams, and unique contribution.