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Canada's changing face

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The huge billboard for a fashion store in Dundas Square, two blocks from where I live when spending time in Toronto, has a gaggle of attractive young women in swimsuits. It's appealing because the women have such an air of confidence and vitality. They look ready to take on the world. But they are not representative of Canada -- not because of their vitality or their confidence, but because each of them is white.

Canada is at an interesting stage as it moves from growing out of being a largely European-based society of Anglo-French descent into one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. The influence and presence of new immigrants from Asia are ever more apparent. If you walked down a Winnipeg street when I first came to the city 14 years ago, Asians were a rare sight. Not any more. Most Asian immigrants settle in Toronto or Vancouver, but Manitoba's aggressive immigration policies have had their desired effect.

Canada is richer for its cultural diversity, but that cultural diversity has yet to create any major impact on our cultural institutions. Our television anchors, for instance, remain largely white. Interestingly both Global TV's Kevin Newman and CTV's veteran Lloyd Robertson are being replaced by women, but neither represents the growing visible minority.

Which brings me to the question of Canada's next governor general, David Johnston, a man who represents the very best of the Anglo-French tradition of public service, but whose appointment stands in stark contrast to his two predecessors, Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean. Michaëlle Jean was born in Haiti, Adrienne Clarkson in Hong Kong. After two appointments that very firmly pointed to Canada's diversity, David Johnston represents a different tradition.

Should we be concerned at all about the symbolism of this? Indeed is there any symbolism in it?

The point about symbolism is that it exists whether you like it or not. So the symbolism here is that Canada is once again represented by a member of one of the founding nations and what could possibly be wrong with that?

Well, nothing. In many ways it is to be resoundingly welcomed. Mr. Johnston has had a distinguished academic career. He was a formidable president of McGill University in Montreal and, as president of the University of Waterloo, is largely responsible for building its reputation as a social- and hard-science research centre. The governor general-designate has not just been an academic proponent of creating a "knowledge economy" in Canada; with the industrial-academic partnerships that he developed at Waterloo, he has been instrumental in making it happen.

He is also a distinguished legal scholar at a time when, with the prospect of continuing minority governments in Canada, constitutional expertise in the role of the Queen's representative is a strong asset.

Not everyone agrees with all of the legal advice Johnston has given. His advice to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the mandate for the Mulroney inquiry is controversial, but legal scholars are entitled to give controversial advice and to be appreciated for it.

The question really is whether in the Canada of today any appointment, like the appointment of the governor general, can be "colour blind." I hope so. I hope that the appointment of Johnston is seen as what it is: the appointment of a highly intelligent man, steeped in Canadian values and culture, who will bring as much to the role in his way as Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean did in theirs.

I hope that what will not happen is that his appointment will be seen as a necessary balance with the appointments that went before. I hope the appointment of governors general will not become a game of switch between new and old Canada in a nasty echo of the Liberal party practice of exchanging English for French Canadian leaders.

It will be hard, though, in the future to avoid the issue of ethnicity. It is important that our cultural, political and sporting institutions become as representative of the entire population as possible and that our leaders do what they can to encourage the change. It is important that when Canadians think of who they are, when Canadians use the word "we," that "we" includes everyone: aboriginal people, visible minorities, immigrants and the descendants of Britain and France.

The choice of governor general is one critical way of telling the world and ourselves who we are. It says it as much with Johnston as it did with Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean. The symbolism should be that when Canada chooses the Queen's representative, it simply chooses the best person for the job. The pressure to send other messages, however, is going to be very strong. Let's hope it may be resisted. In advertising women's bikinis, however, it's way past time to get with the program.

Nicholas Hirst is CEO of Winnipeg-based television and film producer Original Pictures Inc.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 15, 2010 A10

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