Watching the excellent media coverage last week of the events marking the historic D-Day landings in France – exactly 75 years ago – it was impossible to remain unmoved.
The valour, the strength and skill, the raw courage and tenacity of the amazing members of the Canadian Armed Forces, and their comrades-in-arms from across the free world, as they stormed the beaches of Normandy, were truly breathtaking. Through those bloody, traumatic, terrifying hours on June 6th, 1944, they began to turn the tide in World War II and they changed the course of history.
More than 14,000 Canadians were in the battle on Juno Beach. Another 450 parachuted inland. Of all the allied forces, the Canadians made the greatest progress on that first day. Our losses totalled 359, with more than 700 wounded. Altogether, over 90,000 Canadians saw action in the Normandy campaign. More than 5,000 died; 13,000+ were wounded.
Most impressive in the D-Day commemorations last week were those moments when surviving veterans arrived. Loud and sustained applause greeted their every appearance. And rightly so. They are real life heroes who inspire enduring respect, admiration and gratitude.
They – and all their comrades who made the ultimate sacrifice – came from every corner of Canada, communities large and small and Indigenous, every walk of life, every cultural and ethnic background, every religion. And they stood shoulder-to-shoulder to defend our way of life – all those differences notwithstanding.
In this world of easy populism, demagoguery, division, fear and hate, it’s more important than ever to remember what all those brave Canadians stood for, and fought for, and died for, through all the wars of the past 120 years.
What we have inherited from them is something very precious, and unique in all the world – this Canada of ours has become the finest example of diversity, inclusion and pluralism the world has ever known. And it takes hard work to keep it that way, and to make it better.
Make no mistake, this is a difficult country to govern.
Our population is small compared to most other nations, but we are very complicated – starting with Indigenous peoples, and then the Norse and the French and the English explorers and settlers, and then wave after wave of enriching immigration from everywhere.
To the point now where our Canada includes every ethnicity, colour and creed, two official languages and many cultures – quite literally, the diversity of the whole world – all mixed together unevenly, not in a big American “melting pot”, but as a bright, vibrant, distinctive mosaic, spread sparsely across the second largest landmass on the face of the earth.
So how did we build a country from all of this complexity?
On a visit here some years ago, Her Majesty The Queen, our Commander-in-Chief, put it this way: Canadians, she said, do not ask each other to deny their forebears or to forsake their inheritance, but only that we value and respect the cultural freedom of others, just as we enjoy our own.
It sounds quite a bit like the Golden Rule.
It’s all about diversity, inclusion and mutual respect.
That’s the message captured in the official motto of my home Province of Saskatchewan – “From many peoples, strength!”
It’s the same message that’s embodied in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
But it’s not easy. It’s not automatic. Despite our good intentions, history records some tragic lapses.
There was a time when Canada levied a Head Tax to discriminate against newcomers from China.
We had internment camps for Ukrainian Canadians in World War One, and for Japanese Canadians in World War Two.
Desperate people were turned away from Canada on the Komagata Maru (from South Asia) and on the MS St.Louis (they were Jews from Germany).
There was a democratic election in Saskatchewan back in 1929 which, believe it or not, installed a provincial government with the overt support of the Ku Klux Klan. We’re shocked by that today, but it actually happened. One of them even got elected to the Parliament of Canada.
We’ve had 150 years without successful reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
Recent immigrants, refugees and minorities have come under attack by shock-jocks on radio, bots and trolls on the Internet, neo-Nazis and white supremacists. And the verbal abuse has turned physical, including six innocent people – six Canadian citizens – shot and killed only because they were at prayer in a mosque.
No, our pluralism is far from perfect. The truth is, we always need to work very hard at the principled values and conduct that bind this big, complicated, rambunctious country together.
Values like our sense of fairness and justice.
An unshakable commitment to freedom, democracy, human rights, due process and the rule of law.
A spirit of generosity. Compassion. Caring and sharing.
Open hearts and open minds. Pride in our vast diversity.
We always need to practice the creative arts of inclusion and accommodation, to make room for one another. To reach out. To listen to each other. To try very hard to understand one another. And then be prepared to take action with and for each other together.
Not because any such action is in the narrow self-interest of some comfortable majority. Not because we HAVE to. But because we WANT to. Because the action we take with and for each other together is right for the fair and decent and wonderful country that we aspire to be.
And so Canada is, more than anything else, a triumph of the human spirit. We are built and held together, not by the force of arms, or the force of laws, or force of any kind, not by geography or language or culture, but by our common WILL … because we WANT to.
And that kind of “nation building”, the Canadian way, is a never-ending process. We’re never “done”. Canada is now, always has been, and ever will be, a precious work-in-progress that we dare not take for granted.
Every day, it depends on “us”, and how we treat one another. It depends on ALL of us – respectfully, hopefully, relentlessly – always nation-building together…
…Believing passionately that in this Canada we love, BETTER is always possible;
…And remembering that we have all this good fortune and even greater potential because of all those brave Canadians who came before us and were prepared to give their lives to defend this country and what it stands for.
Lest we forget.