Inauguration of the Jeanne Sauvé Lecture Series

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Inauguration of the Jeanne Sauvé Lecture Series

Rideau Hall, Thursday, February 18, 2010

Let me begin by thanking you for inviting me to take part in the Inaugural Jeanne Sauvé Address, on an issue that is so close to my heart:  “Youth Engagement in the 21st Century:  Inspiring Change in an Era of Globalization.”

I am particularly touched and honoured to inaugurate this event, because it is deeply embedded in the legacy of one of my predecessors—an incredible woman with whom I share such a strong affinity of spirit—the Right Honourable Jeanne Sauvé.

Like millions of Canadian women, I am profoundly indebted to Madame Sauvé for her courage and vision.

She helped pave the way for greater gender equality in Canada by becoming the first female elected as Speaker of the House of Commons, the first person to open a daycare on Parliament Hill, and, of course, the first woman to serve as governor general of Canada.

Moved by her deep conviction that, in her own words, “Canada is, above all else, a country of hope,” she refused to yield to the pressures of prejudice and patriarchal tradition.

Instead, Madame Sauvé chose to work tirelessly to advance national unity, global peace, and excellence among young people across Canada and abroad.

And I sense that the Sauvé Scholars Program, which we are celebrating this afternoon, may constitute a pinnacle of Madame Sauvé’s efforts to promote a global culture of peace through youth leadership.

In her opening speech to the National Conference of World Leaders in 1991, Jeanne Sauvé spoke of the need to encourage young leaders to explore “the diversity and plurality of cultures, religious beliefs, ideologies and systems (…) and discover workable principles and elements that are common and sacred to all mankind.”

And I echo those words, for while it is important to celebrate, as we like to do, the richness of our diversity, and to assert our differences loud and clear, it is just as important to identify and to draw from the intermingling of cultures the sum of everything that can better unite us. In that respect, universities, including McGill University, have a key role to assume and play.

We need to explore, enthusiastically and creatively, everything we have in common.

We need to draw on that rich mosaic of ideas that find their strength in their universality, and that have traversed time and history.

There is no better way to appreciate the rich fabric of experience from which the great human family is woven.

We need to cultivate and increase that knowledge, and use it within a dynamic and creative process for moving forward.

For we are living in a world in which spaces for critical debate, reflection, and civic action are increasingly being assailed by the alluring sirens of fleeting gratification, and cultural conformity.

More and more, impersonal market forces are influencing public life, while notions of the common good and altruistic action are being challenged by an ethic of “everyone for himself or for his clan.”

In the minds of many today, globalization has become synonymous with the logic of wealth accumulation, diminishing the capacity of citizens, and even entire societies, to tackle challenges in their communities, their countries and the wider world.

Therefore, it is urgent that we, as a global community, begin asking ourselves a few critical questions. 

In this era of globalization:

How do we reconnect citizens with their inner and collective power to effect change?

How do we breathe new life into the universal principles of fellowship, human dignity, compassion, justice and freedom?

How do we reintroduce the aim of bringing people together around common goals?

How do we revitalize the “public sphere,” to use the expression of Jürgen Habermas?

Believe me, for each of these questions, I have seen hundreds of young people identify and implement concrete solutions.

It is so inspiring to see them move from words to action.

Over the last four years of my mandate as the 27th governor general of Canada, whether in the country or on missions abroad, I have had the privilege of meeting with so many young people in their own communities, where they work and play, in so many schools and universities, in the street and in community organizations, in places of artistic creation and cultural gatherings, in urban centres, rural towns, and Indigenous communities.

Based on the countless conversations and discussions I’ve had with all those young people I’ve listened to, at the numerous dialogues and forums I’ve participated in with them, and throughout all those initiatives undertaken by and for young people that I’ve gotten to know and visited, I have been struck everywhere by the relevance of the ideas and solutions put forward by youth. I have seen everywhere how much their leadership is an undeniable strength, and what a mistake it would be not to heed it.

That is why I stand before you today, convinced that one of our greatest hopes for a better world resides in the luminous engagement of young people.

This may be hard to believe when so many youth are portrayed as being hypnotized by the “shop until you drop” doctrine, or caught up in a “me, myself, and I” mindset.

Yet a completely new generation of young people is actually using the instruments of globalization as critical tools of engagement, reviving the very ancient concept of citizenship.

Let us take as an example the global urban arts and hip-hop movement, with which I have collaborated through the Governor General’s Urban Arts Forums and Youth Dialogues.

I wanted to reach out to young people on their terms and on their ground.

While hip-hop has become a multimillion-dollar entertainment industry, in which violence against women, homophobia and crime, are often glorified, I discovered a new movement is afoot.

Millions of young people around the world are working in their barrios, favelas, neighbourhoods or “hoods,” and other spaces to release the arts from the grip of the market and transform them into instruments of social transformation, thus giving a voice to the voiceless.

For them, creating art is not simply a matter of aesthetics or profit.

Art is about sowing the seeds of hope in places left barren by the “fend for yourself” mentality.

For young artists are using the tools of global communication to exchange ideas and collaborate with their peers in other parts of the world, in ways that would have been unimaginable just fifty years ago.

And I have heard so many young people tell me, “Excellency: the arts saved my life”

This new “habitus,” to cite Pierre Bourdieu, is bearing interesting results.

Lower crime rates:

I think of the youth of Graffiti Gallery in Winnipeg’s neighbourhood of North Point Douglas who, in the space of 8 months, mobilized their entire community to reduce an extremely high crime rate by 70%.

More socially conscious and politically engaged citizens and communities:

I think of youth organization, Apathy is Boring, which is using art and new information technologies to empower a new generation of voters.

Ilona Dougherty will soon be telling us more about this organization’s sustained efforts to combat indifference and promote democratic participation among youth.

The survival of dying languages:

I think of Samian, the first Algonquin rapper in Quebec, who uses hip hop to preserve a threatened Aboriginal language and culture.

Saving lives that exclusion throws in the street:

I think of the Côte-des-Neiges youth centre here in Montreal, which is using poetry, music and dance to re-forge ties, to bring young people together around constructive projects, and to give them a new lease on life.

Suicide prevention:

I think of Blueprint for Life, a grassroots break-dance collective that is offering young Inuit an opportunity to re-embrace life, to share their thoughts on common challenges, and to believe in themselves and their capacities.

And let me tell you: this is actually saving many, many lives. And encouraging a growing number of youth in the North to go back or to stay in school. 

Campaigns to influence multilateral forums:

I think of the Ignite the Americas movement, which is allowing disenfranchised youth from across the Americas to influence policy-making at the Organization of American States.

Efforts to promote greater mutual understanding:

Just last week, as the honorary patron of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Truce, I engaged in a high-energy dialogue with 600 indigenous and non-indigenous youth from across Canada.

Despite the great diversity in the room, the young leaders all shared a desire to shatter the barriers of cultural differences, prejudice, exclusion, racism and ignorance in order to foster greater understanding, reconciliation and collaboration among all sectors of Canadian society.

It inspires and enthuses me to see all those young people acting on a very local scale and also building extremely dynamic networks within a larger and more fluid movement, a global movement for change.

A global movement that relies on new information technologies as tools to circulate ideas and generate strong bonds across the borders of space, time, culture, religion and language.

And in so doing, they are partaking in, what I would describe as the “globalization of solidarities.”

The globalization of solidarities refers to citizens saying no to a world in which the survival of the fittest dictates social relations.

Saying no to a world in which our obsession with profit makes us turn a blind eye on suffering.

Saying no to a world in which prosperity is detrimental to our environment.

And yes to a world in which we stand together, hand in hand, to build societies in which everyone, everywhere, has an equal opportunity to achieve his or her highest potential.

I firmly believe that humanity advances when indifference is forgotten and when forces come together to face the impossible.

I also believe that we are entering a new era, where a strong ethic of sharing is beginning to hold sway.

I think that one indication is the unprecedented response by the whole world, including here in Canada, to the terrible earthquake that devastated Haiti.

While the unbearable images of devastation, distress, suffering and destitution were seen worldwide, the wall of indifference was also shaken to its core.

We are seeing citizens, school and university students, local and national organizations, institutions, corporations, governments—municipal, provincial and federal—artists and media together, employers and workers, rich and poor, major powers and developing countries, all join forces to help the poorest country in the Americas.

Joining forces at the outset to provide emergency assistance, and again a month later to support reconstruction efforts that will take decades.

Wherever I go, so many people approach me to tell me how they would like to do something, to campaign, or simply to inform me about their initiatives in solidarity with the people of Haiti.

This unprecedented outpouring, which seems to have endured, even as the humanitarian crisis no longer leads the media headlines, leaves me hoping that we have all the reasons to believe that we are participating in the emergence of a more fraternal world.

This is about instilling a new global consciousness of caring and sharing.

But this process starts when every one of us accepts our shared responsibility, and takes action and moves out of our comfort zone.

One step at a time.

Every gesture counts; every action matters.

I know that many of you here are already engaged in this endeavour.

I look forward to hearing about your experiences.

Thank you.