Ottawa Food Bank’s Annual General Meeting

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Ottawa, Monday, January 17, 2011


Good evening and thank you for inviting me to your general meeting.

I am delighted to be able to speak to you about the pillars of my mandate as governor general, focusing on encouraging volunteerism and philanthropy, but also touching on supporting families and children and on reinforcing learning and innovation. These three pillars may be separate, but each one is tied to the other.

First, though, I would like you to consider: How many of us got up and went about our morning routines? How many of us, without thinking, poured a cup of coffee? How many of us have bought more food than we could eat, only to see it go to waste?

As parents, my wife, Sharon, and I taught our daughters the value of the food we put in front of them. We showed them the importance of eating a healthy diet and of appreciating what they had. We also raised them to believe in the power of giving.

In this room, you—the volunteers, supporters and beneficiaries of the Ottawa Food Bank—you know the value of something as simple as a can of soup or a box of crackers. You know the impact a balanced meal can have on the spirits of those who have so little.

Throughout the Ottawa region, you have helped thousands of men, women and children. So many shelters, centres and families rely on you for a basic necessity that many of us take for granted. That is why you were named a Recommended Charity by Charity Intelligence Canada for 2010. I congratulate you on this recognition, which is confirmation of the work you do for Ottawa and for the country.

As we begin 2011—which, incidentally, is also the 10th anniversary of the International Year of Volunteers—and as we march towards the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, I will continue to talk about how I think we can build a smart and caring nation. A nation where all Canadians can grow their talents to their fullest potential. A nation that increases and applies the knowledge of its citizens to improve the human condition of all—in Canada and around the globe. And now I ask you what you would do to create a smarter and more caring nation.

During Canada’s centennial, Lester B. Pearson said: “No other country is in a better position than Canada to go ahead with the evolution of a national purpose devoted to all that is good and noble and excellent in the human spirit.”

This still holds true today. We Canadians can define our identity by what we show the world and how we treat those in need.

I believe that we can build the country we want, in part, by helping others. I often speak on the example of a Mennonite barn raising—neighbour helping neighbour, utilizing their diverse talents and energy.

What you do here for the community is no different. You mobilize and motivate your members to move forward. You stand shoulder to shoulder to achieve a common goal. You use your abilities and, most importantly, your caring nature, to collect, sort and distribute food.

You support children and families during the most difficult of times.

Almost 40% of those you serve every month are children. That is a staggering number. It is hard to think that even in Canada so many children can go without food. But through you, children, as well as their families, can thrive. Through you, Ottawa’s youth have an opportunity to go to school and learn with energy instead of lethargy, with hope instead of despair. You give them not only a meal, but also the chance to contribute in meaningful ways to Canada’s future.

And in doing so, you also show them how vital it is to help others, thereby creating a new generation of givers.

But why should we, as Canadians, volunteer?

Julie Payette once said: “A given step, however small it may appear to one, may represent a great deal to another. Every hurdle one surpasses makes one grow.”

One man, woman or child at a time, volunteers are making a difference. The 2007 Canada Survey of Giving, Volunteering and Participating notes that more than 12 million Canadians have volunteered over 2 billion hours to causes near and dear to them. Whether you can solve the issue of poverty, or whether you can alleviate pain, give someone a sense of dignity or simply a hot meal, no cause is too big or too small for our nation to tackle.

Locally, the Ottawa Food Bank knows the importance of volunteers. In 2008–09, more than 2 400 volunteers contributed over 20 000 hours of their time.

Their dedication is encouraging.

We also can’t forget all those individuals and businesses in the area who have donated food and money. Their philanthropic spirit is another way we characterize who we are as Canadians.

There is a second definition for philanthropy—separate from, yet tied to, giving—that being a love of humankind. And when you give what you can, whether that is a large cash donation or one can of soup, you are, at heart, a philanthropist.

As I’ve spoken with volunteers and organizations across Canada, I’ve heard success stories and I’ve heard of the challenges of maintaining momentum for their causes. The Ottawa Food Bank is no different in that regard, as it needs to stay constantly in the public eye to continue offering its essential services.

But how do we keep the act of giving in the spotlight? How do we encourage more people to become involved in the community?

From experience, I know the difficulties of keeping interest in the effort to raise funds, increase awareness or, in your case, collect food. This is where my second pillar of learning and innovation comes in. I know that it is vital to teach people about the impact you have in the community, as well as to have a focused and innovative approach to appealing for aid.

Through your public awareness campaigns, you show how a lack of food impacts lives and what we can all do to alleviate hunger. By educating others about the issues involved and by showing what you do, you inform and hopefully drive people to action.

Along with teaching others, innovation is also important. Innovation is about seeing things differently; discovering new ways to approach volunteerism and philanthropy and to achieve our goals.

Thankfully, we live in a country of givers. We see this on a large scale in response to disasters around the world. We also see it at a local level. The Ottawa Food Bank distributes 14 tons of food daily, which is possible only through the generosity and heart of our fellow citizens.

And every single donation makes a difference.

I am reminded of when, some two decades ago, Mother Teresa came to Montréal. One of our neighbours, moved by her work with the poor in Calcutta, asked Mother Teresa how she could help. She replied: “Just look around you. In your own neighbourhood there is a family who needs your care and love.”

Shortly afterward, I read a criticism of Mother Teresa’s work. Her shelter in Calcutta gave succour to perhaps 200 people in a city where millions lived in abject poverty. Her work was described as one small drop in an ocean.

A few weeks later, I realized the shortcomings of this criticism. It was looking at her work from the point of view of physics, rather than chemistry.

My children, aged 2 to 9 at the time, would criticize the entertainment I was providing at their birthday parties. They would ask me, “Why can’t you do a magic show like Dean MacFarlane instead of telling us ghost stories that no one believes?”

At that time, Andy MacFarlane was the Dean of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario, where I was the Dean of Law. Being quite competitive, I attended the next birthday party at the MacFarlane home, where Andy was dressed as a magician, with a long cape and flowing sleeves. He was performing a magic trick, turning water into wine. He took a glass of clear water, raised it in the air, and uttered that magic phrase, “Abracadabra!” He then swept the glass into his sleeves while whirling 360 degrees, surreptitiously adding a few drops of red vegetable dye into the glass, and emerged with a glass of a lovely rose-hued liquid.

At that moment, I realized that Mother Teresa was changing the culture of Calcutta, and indeed that of the world. It was the transformation of the water—not the addition to it—that was improving the lives of so many families.

Across Canada, volunteers are working towards this same goal, transforming their communities through kindness and generosity.

Author Bill Sherk stated that “Someone once said that the greatest gift any human being can give to another is the gift of a good example.”

Volunteers in this room—and volunteers across Canada—are not only being the good examples we aspire to become, but they are also giving people a chance. A chance to focus on the health and well-being of their families. A chance to pull themselves from unimaginable situations. A chance for them to regain a sense of independence, dignity and respect. With each passing day, with every dollar donated, with every person you help, you are creating the smart and caring nation that I know we can achieve.

Through volunteerism and philanthropy, through support for families and children, through education and innovation, and finally through service, we are creating the Canada of our dreams.

As you gather for this year’s annual general meeting, I hope you use this time to celebrate the success of the previous year and to think about all those you have helped. I also hope you look forward to what the New Year can bring and what we as Canadians can do to further improve our communities.

In the words of Tommy Douglas: “Courage, my friends; ‘tis not too late to build a better world.”

Thank you.