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Adrienne Clarkson celebrates Canadian diversity, 'cosmopolitan ethic'

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/11/2011 (3203 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and His Excellency John Ralston Saul at a citizenship ceremony in the gardens of Rideau Hall in Ottawa in June 2003. The photo was used on their Christmas card that year.


Then Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and His Excellency John Ralston Saul at a citizenship ceremony in the gardens of Rideau Hall in Ottawa in June 2003. The photo was used on their Christmas card that year.

This is a love letter about Canada by someone who has travelled more of its breadth than most of us.

Canada, enthuses former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, is "the most successfully diverse country in the world."

Each year, Canada welcomes a quarter of a million new people. In this book of essays and profiles, Clarkson tells the story of 10 individuals who have come to Canada from places of great difficulty and threat, places such as Uganda and Vietnam and Chile.

"There is room," she asserts, "for all of us."

Writing with a keen sense for a gut-wrenching story, Clarkson suggests that Canada is developing what the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Muslim Ismaili sect, calls a "cosmopolitan ethic."

And what an interesting cosmopolitan society she illumines. Clarkson weaves together stories of Tamil and Chilean refugees with the horrific memories of Holocaust survivors and Vietnamese boat people.

Her enthusiasm is sometimes too much. But no one can doubt Clarkson's sincerity and hope. She desperately wants her readers to share her optimism.

Herself a child of immigrants, Clarkson has famously gone on to a life marked by achievement. A broadcaster, journalist and publisher before she was appointed governor general in 1999, she has written novels, non-fiction books and even a memoir.

Her opening profile here is of the newly elected charismatic Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi. Clarkson tells the intriguing story of his Ismaili Muslim heritage and then reveals gossipy nuggets of the false starts and near-bankruptcies his family experienced in their struggle to find success in Calgary.

There is the story of Fred Bild, a Holocaust survivor who became a Canadian ambassador in Thailand, and David Albahari, a novelist who writes for a Serbian audience from his refuge in Calgary.

John Tran is a Vietnamese refugee who is now an award-winning cinematographer. Rathika Sitsabaiesan is a Tamil who recently was elected an NDP member of parliament.

An essay providing historical and political context precedes each profile. Clarkson often interjects personal experiences drawn from her own experiences as a child who came to Canada as a refugee with her parents.

Unfortunately, Clarkson frequently rambles and she has a propensity for broad generalizations. For example, in the chapter about the Pinochet repression in Chile during the 1970s, Clarkson reminisces about her own parents and how they often told vivid stories of their survival to their friends.

As a young child, Clarkson listened in; she recalls, "To me, the message seemed to be that you could survive anything if you decided you were going to."

Then, two pages later, after more personal recollections and just before she returns to the topic of Pinochet's impact, Clarkson reiterates, "I have always taken it to mean that you can't go on living if you don't accept what happens to you."

One wonders if the people she profiled may find these conclusions to be simplistic.

Nevertheless, there are some wonderful stories in this book, many truly inspiring.

The most engaging section is where Clarkson features Toronto radio celebrity Andy Barrie, a former American army deserter who came to Canada in 1969.

Barrie recalls a Dartmouth College assembly where a general was defending the Vietnam War. The general likened the United States to a football team that needed to follow the decisions of their team captain.

When a voice from the back at the room shouted, "General, I would like to congratulate, in football terms, captains Goebbels, Hess, Himmler, and Hitler for over six million touchdowns," Barrie experienced an epiphany. He knew he could not become a soldier.

His eventual desertion of the army led him to Canada, a place where he felt "instantly at home." He describes that sense of belonging as having been "homesick for a place where he had never been."

Clarkson puts a positive spin on all of the stories. She narrates a benevolent view of Canada, a place that gives "a wider berth."

She acknowledges the dark side of Canada's history in its treatment of aboriginals and Japanese; indeed, her stories reveal a subtle racism still present in Canadian society.

But Clarkson defends this country. Darker realities are normative for any family, she suggests. "When Canada adopts you," says Clarkson, "you are part of the whole family, with its benefits and with its dysfunctions, with its birthday celebrations and crazy Uncle Herb."

This book brings readers face to face with Canadian neighbours. Well, almost. There are no pictures.

From far and wide, our country is expanding into a cosmopolitan society.

Clarkson's love letter to Canada seeks to inspire us to make sure there's room enough for all.


Adelia Neufeld Wiens is co-ordinator of student advising at Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg


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