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‘Whither thou goest, we will go’: Bob Rae’s speech to UN shows power of words in supporting Ukraine

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Seven years ago, Bob Rae published a book titled “What’s Happened to Politics?”

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/03/2022 (331 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Seven years ago, Bob Rae published a book titled “What’s Happened to Politics?”

In it, years before he was appointed to his latest job as Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Rae wrote about Canada’s particular value to the UN.

“As a country that is less than a superpower, Canada cannot rely on its muscle to make itself heard,” he said.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY - AFP via GETTY IMAGES Bob Rae, the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations, speaks on the Russia-Ukraine conflict at the General Assembly 58th plenary meeting in New York on Feb. 23.

“Our influence comes from a capacity for wisdom, from being a trusted source of information, knowledge and judgment on some of the most difficult issues facing the world.”

In these dire times, Rae is living up to those words.

He is a key part of Canada’s national voice on the crisis in Ukraine, along with Trudeau and a trio of cabinet ministers: Deputy PM Chrystia Freeland, Defence Minister Anita Anand and Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly.

Between appearances at the UN, Rae maintains an active and erudite Twitter feed.

“When you vote for the #UNCharter you are not ‘picking sides,’” he tweeted on Wednesday. “It’s about the #RuleOfLaw, ‘Be ye ever so high, the law is always above you.’ From the Hammurabi Code to Confucius to the Bible and the Koran — this is the basis of all great moral and legal thinking. #Humility.”

And in reply to Russian disinformation: “This is rich. How about your boss takes his hand off the nuclear trigger and you take your soldiers, tanks, cluster bombs, artillery, planes and boats out of Ukraine?”

In many ways, the man who has spent almost half a century on the public stage in Canada seems to be playing the role for which he was destined. Last week, he delivered a powerful speech to the UN. It was the product of experience and accumulated wisdom, of historical perspective.

From a podium, Rae has always been able to hold a room in his hands. But this was a big room, with big stakes. His remarks were given in powerful rhythm and cadence — the pauses, the flourish of his glasses, the scanning of his audience, the direct challenge to Russia.

It brought to the moment a striking moral clarity. And it would hardly have been lost on Rae that the speech was made 50 years after his own father, Saul, took up the same role for Canada.

As a speaker, Rae understands the power of strong openings and closings.

“We meet at a time of a direct threat to the peace and security of the world community,” he said to start his speech.

He pulled from his pocket and brandished his own copy of the UN Charter, reminding Russia what it had signed up for and what phrases such as “sovereign equality” among nations meant.

“It means that there are no second-class states in this organization,” he declared. “There’s no back of the bus in the United Nations.”

The world was not asking Russia for favours, he said. It was asking that country to honour its word and follow the rules.

Rae knows that brave words are not enough. “#UkraineWillPrevail with our deeds more than our words,” he tweeted on Tuesday. But he knows that moral suasion is an integral part of the fight.

To close his speech, Rae summoned a powerful memory. In the dark days of the Second World War, U.S. emissary Harry Hopkins met Winston Churchill, Rae said, and told him: “Whither thou goest, I will go. Whither thou lodgest, I will lodge. Thy people shall be my people.”

Then, after a pause, Rae said: “And so, Canada says to Ukraine and any challenged nation, Whither thou goest, we will go.”

They were words to raise the hair on the napes of necks.

In the 44 years since he was first elected an MP at age 30, Rae has seldom been far from public life. But he has never seemed as ideally suited to his role and the times as he does now.

Canadians can be grateful for it.

Jim Coyle is a journalism instructor at Humber College and a former columnist at Torstar.

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