Canada’s respect for diversity a global asset, says Joe Clark

Today’s world is changing faster than it ever did before, Joe Clark told graduands at York’s Spring Convocation ceremonies Friday morning. “There is literally no predicting what you can do with your life or what kind of world you can shape,” said the former prime minister.

The generation that survived a depression, fought a world war and built a super power has been called the greatest generation, Clark said, but “we should not assume that our greatest generations are behind us.”

Left: Joe Clark

With an ever-changing world comes challenges and Canadians need to be alert. They need to realize that some of the most promising capacities for future accomplishments are in this country, said Clark, who received an honorary doctorate of laws during a Faculty of Arts ceremony.

The Alberta-born Conservative served as Canada’s youngest prime minister from 1979 to 1980, and as leader of the opposition in the House of Commons from 1976 to 1979 and 1980 to 1983. But many commentators think he was most successful as external affairs minister from 1984 to 1991, after Brian Mulroney led the Tories back to power.

Canada’s wealth, aspirations, freedom and profound respect for diversity can sharply increase Canada’s international influence and relevance, Clark said. This is at a time when indispensable international attributes include the ability to bridge hostile cultures, draw differences together, manage and respect diversity and to earn and generate trust. These are the very attributes that are considered Canada’s signature qualities, rooted in history and in day-to-day behaviour.

“The Cold War was animated by ideology, and the post-Cold War by a faith in trade and economic growth. Now the critical conflicts are rooted in culture, and stoked by poverty and inequality,” said Clark. “Those conflicts cannot be resolved by mere military power or the magic of the market. There is no real central command, no driving interest in economic growth. So where the roots of conflict are different, the remedies must be different.”

And this is where Canada can play a huge role, he said. “Our diversity, the growing equality of rights in Canada, and our example and our success as a society, are Canadian assets. They are as important in this turbulent era as our resource and material wealth."

If Canada fails, however, to take up the challenge, to invest its distinct international assets, its place in the world will decline. “In the conventional terms of economic growth, there is a roster of countries that could overtake us. The Goldman Sachs’ projection of the world’s largest economies by 2050 put Canada at 2050 at 16th, a little smaller than Vietnam, a littler larger than the Philippines,” Clark said. “But if we marry our economic strength with these new assets of international relevance, we can be a significant and positive influence in the world taking shape.”

A Fellow of McLaughlin College, Clark said he believes it is Canada’s tradition of diversity which has characterized this large land literally for centuries, long before the Europeans settled here. “We deliberately respected the minority and the minority culture. And that set the pattern, which made it possible for waves and waves of different cultures…from everywhere to come here and cooperate here and in relative harmony and respect.”

He recognized there are tensions in Canada, as well as discrimination, prejudice and bursts of violence, and “the continuing scar of the conditions of life of our Aboriginal Peoples”, but at the same time, he said, Canada “may be the most successful country in the world at bridging cultural differences.” And that is why it is important that Canada play a larger role in international affairs. “Our own culture is to respect cultures. Those qualities are in our history, and they are in our nature, but they are not our birthright. They have always to be earned.”

Clark warned against being increasingly self-absorbed and lacking in a sense of common purpose. That, he said, could result in Canada becoming smaller than its whole, burrowing into its regions, its economic sectors or its people into their own private lives and diversions.

“Canada has always been an act of will. We didn’t come together naturally, we don’t stay together easily,” Clark said. “Confederation was an act of will. So was medicare. So was equalization. So was the Charter of Rights. So was free trade.”

His bottom-line message to graduands?

“Our future will reflect your will.”

For a complete listing of the ceremony schedule, click here. York University’s 2009 Spring Convocation ceremonies will be streamed live over the Internet.