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Supporting Newcomers & Refugees

Q&A with The Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson

Adrienne Clarkson-Headshot

Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson

Canada’s 26th Governor General


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Can you tell us about your experience growing up in Canada and the kind of support you received? 

My experience growing up in Canada as a refugee and immigrant was a very positive one. There had not been an enormous amount of immigration since the early part of the century. We came during the Second World War. We were Chinese. People knew that we had to flee the conquering Japanese forces in Hong Kong; therefore, they had a lot of sympathy for us, particularly in Ottawa, where we settled. My father had done work with Canadians in Hong Kong in business, so we were given a few introductions to people who had been friends, and these new people became our friends in Ottawa. 

As Anglicans, we joined the Cathedral parish, which was very supportive, and we found our first friends there and in the government office, where my father got a job. We lived in Lower Town, and the French Canadians around us were generous and helpful. Canada officially had been discouraging Chinese immigration for decades, but individual Canadians were kind to us. The neighbours’ children helped walk us to school, and we were met with curiosity, interest, and consideration. Of course, it helped that my parents spoke perfect English as we came from colonial Hong Kong, which was very British indeed. 

When I went to school, I was the only child in my class who was not white. A friend in high school said to me: “You’ve always been lucky because you’re a novelty.” Canada in the 1940s was not very diverse. Nevertheless, I was always encouraged by my teachers to do well and to aim to get into a good university. My high school English teacher enormously influenced my life as he helped me decide where I would go to university and prepared me to win a scholarship. 

We had very limited income as a family, but we took the streetcar to Rockliff Park or Britannia Beach and had picnics. We made many friends, and I have vivid memories of them. We didn’t own a car until I was 12.

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From your experience, what were some of the major adjustments your family faced upon immigrating to Canada?

The major challenge for my mother was learning how to cook and look after her own children. However, she was not shy about going to several Chinese restaurants and asking them if she could watch them while they made Chinese food! 

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As Canada’s 26th Governor General, how did that experience transform your life? 

The most important thing about being Governor General was that I was able to meet Canadians all over the country. That was heartwarming and gratifying. Our trips always lasted at least five days in any region. In my television career, I travelled a great deal through the country. I had fallen in love with the Arctic and Canada’s North on two small excursions there. So as Governor General, it was a privilege to be able to visit the North often and make it a theme for my mandate.

The most important memory of my time is meeting all the Peoples in our northern communities, in Nunavut, Nunavik, and the Northwest Territories. Camping with the Dene on the Mackenzie River and sleeping in a long house with the Haida were memories that are very precious and unforgettable. I consider these travels in the North a very important part of being Canadian. We have to learn about the North to be the kind of country we were meant to be. 

Also, as the first refugee, immigrant, and Chinese to become Governor General, I hope I’ve been able to open the door to others so that people who were not born in Canada and have become Canadian can hope that they can become Governor General as well. That is our country’s meaning — everybody will have access to everything we have all worked for. 

I particularly enjoyed our state visits to circumpolar countries like Russia, Finland, and Iceland because we brought many of our top artists, business people, and Indigenous leaders to meet their counterparts. We also wanted to show Canada as a real place with a real culture: francophone, anglophone, and Indigenous.

From my 30 years in television, I knew many people, and I was happy to bring them together and help make people understand that our culture and way of life are important and valid. That’s why I wanted to showcase what we have that is unique and as people who have made an extraordinary contribution to living in the northern hemisphere.

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What’s the inspiration behind the Institute for Canadian Citizenship initiative and the Canoo app?

I’ve always lived in Toronto within a kilometre of the Royal Ontario Museum, so I was familiar with seeing yellow school buses that offered museum tours to children. I often wondered whether their parents working on shift jobs or assembly lines would ever have the chance to visit these cultural institutions, which their taxes pay for. And that was the beginning of Canoo, which we called the Cultural Access Pass initially.

It allows people with families of up to four children to go to cultural institutions and national parks for free for one year as soon as they became Canadian citizens. I wanted people to feel that they have access to everything we are and have created as a country and that there was no barrier to their seeing all things Canadians see and take for granted. It’s been an enormous success; we’ve now had nearly half a million people go through the program. We’re also expanding so that performing arts are included, and there will be other dimensions in the future. 

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What’s the importance of visible minority representation in Parliament?

In 1942 when I arrived in Canada, it was a white country with white bread. Now 80 years later, the whole globe has contributed people to this extraordinary country. They all come from speaking different languages and from different backgrounds, and yet they all become Canadian. I believe everybody is transformed by becoming a Canadian. People who come here are not the same people that they would have been if they had stayed in their own countries. If they want to, they can leave behind old feuds, class distinctions, and repressive governments.

Our annual La-Fontaine Baldwin Lecture celebrates our democracy, which is the oldest continuing democracy without a change of constitution in the world! The Westminster parliamentary model is a thousand-year success story of representative democracy. We’re lucky to have it. Everybody who comes here should have a chance if they want to, to be part of the legislative function, which is our Parliament. 

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What’s your message for newcomers to Canada? 

My message to anyone who comes to Canada is to have a dream and to work hard to fulfill it. You can encourage your children with that dream by the example of working hard. I would also urge anyone to enjoy nature by learning to use our wonderful wilderness, to canoe and kayak, and learn to fish and swim. We have many accessible wilderness parks, and our familiarity with nature as Canadians sets us apart from any other country. And the future will require a great deal of care about the environment. And nature is where it begins. It’s so important that we all have access to nature, understand it, and consider it a part of the web of life. 

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Are there any other initiatives you would like to share? 

I want everyone to enjoy Canoo and take advantage of its cultural programs and activities. It’s free, and we’re always adding new attractions!

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