A nation builder talks about what it means to be Canadian

Two nation builders and old friends faced each other on Sunday, June 28, and hugged. York Chancellor Roy McMurtry was bestowing an honorary degree upon Roy Romanow, former premier of Saskatchewan and most recently head of the Royal Commission on the Future of Health Care in Canada. In 1981, the two then provincial justice ministers had played key roles in a pivotal moment in Canadian history – federal-provincial negotiations to entrench the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in, and repatriate, Canada’s Constitution.

Right: Roy Romanow and Roy McMurtry

“Thus Canada formally gained its sovereignty and confirmed that the protection and advancement of human rights was a basic core and fundamental value in Canadian society,” Romanow told the graduating class of the Faculty of Health. “Today’s honour as bestowed by you,” he told McMurtry, “especially makes this truly one of the most memorable moments of my life.”

In his speech, Romanow examined the shared values and commitments that unite and distinguish Canadians in a globalized world.

Our shared values stem from a common immigrant experience, said the son of Ukrainians who settled in Saskatchewan. Romanow grew up in a working class neighbourhood with Poles, Germans, Czechs, Jews, Russians and English. “Being new Canadians in a new land, we quickly learned from each other and learned to accept and appreciate our differences. In fact, there is no other way to live.” In a harsh Prairie landscape, people worked together to survive.

“Our identities are indelibly linked to the place that we call home. Whether we’re born here or came here, the concept of community still remains a central defining feature of our society, of our institutions, of our beliefs and most importantly of our core Canadian values,” said Romanow. Though “we have our different narratives and distinct identities, we do share a common background of shared values and nation building, of struggling to create a community, a province, a nation.”

Today, Canadians no longer face challenges like settling windswept prairie, bridging impossible distances or clearing land. But the spirit and resolve of our forefathers “is needed more than ever,” argued Romanow.

Left: Roy Romanow

“Our welcoming society has enriched our culture. Our dedication to both individual and community rights has guided us in the building of a more compassionate society filled with ever more new and exciting opportunities. But,” said Romanow, “our future goals in today’s globalized world will not be accomplished by merely stating them. We must articulate a national vision and then pursue it with action.”

Canadians still face many challenges, said Romanow. For instance, how is it possible there are still one million Canadian children living in poverty? he asked. Why does the income gap between rich and poor continue to grow? Why have Aboriginal concerns been unanswered, if not ignored? How can Canadians promote peace better in this world? And most importantly, what steps need to be taken to strengthen national unity?

“We can begin by understanding the nation’s narrative [immigrant survival] and building upon it,” said Romanow. Canadians are committed to fairness, human dignity, social and political inclusion, and to improving the world in which we live. “These commitments represent but some of what it means to be a Canadian.”  

Finding solutions to the challenges Canadians face “will not be easy,” Romanow said. "But one thing I have learned from my time in public life is that we must always seek the longer-term view.”

“We can take comfort,” said Romanow, “in the knowledge that Canada’s path has been hewed by the courage, the vision and the moral force of those Canadian saints and heroes who have gone before us. And that path is the path of a good state, the path that is still beckoning us toward an even better country of virtue and goodness. Unless we take moments like this” to articulate what it means to be a Canadian nurtured by an education and a health care system and by fairness, he said, “then that path will become overgrown with selfish desires and small visions.”

“I wish you the wisdom, the strength and the courage that York gave you to do the right things for your country and your world, because your generation is now charged with that responsibility.” He ended with a quote from poet Alfred Tennyson: “Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

To watch archived video of convocation ceremonies, click here. This speech is part of ceremony No. 9.