Honourable senators, this is the first time I have had the privilege of speaking in this Chamber since I was sworn in as a member of this august body.
I believe it is altogether fitting that I begin my maiden remarks in this chamber by thanking my good friends and now colleagues, Senator LeBreton and Senator Meighen, for taking me by my arms and leading me to my seat in this place. I can think of no two Canadians who personify dedication to public service and devotion to the welfare of our country more than these talented, energetic, generous parliamentarians. They have done me a great honour.
Like them, I am deeply humbled and tremendously excited to have the opportunity to serve my country and Canadians from this very distinguished place. I can assure you all that I am keenly aware of the practical value of this body and of the vital role it plays in the functioning of our country’s democratic life.
This is a forum not merely of sober second thought. It is a gathering place for serious study; for the consideration of novel ideas; for the honest, non-partisan exchange of views on pressing issues.
I am also clearly conscious of the transcendent worth of this institution. It is the embodiment of our time-honoured values as Canadians—democratic government, the rule of law fairly applied, the equality of all men and women. It is a tangible expression of our fervent desire as Canadians to freely steer our own course, shape our future and fulfil our chosen destiny.
In fact, this institution not only reflects these values and this desire, it fortifies them. It further embeds them in our national life. It safeguards them for future generations just as it has for us, just as it did for the generations that came before us.
Honourable senators, I can assure you that every action I take, every word I speak will be in full awareness of my sacred responsibilities and of my utmost respect for this place. I will take no step and say no word that diminishes this great institution in the eyes of the people we serve.
At the same time, I recognize that no institution is perfect. No human enterprise is entirely without shortcomings. Armed with that realization, I will work with all of my colleagues to ensure this place becomes ever-more representative of the genuine needs and aspirations of Canadians.
I should also tell my honourable colleagues that I am an optimist by nature. I have always been hopeful about the future of our country.
How can I not be? Canada has enabled me to enjoy a secure, healthy, meaningful life—just as our country has for countless men and women across the generations. Men and women who have fully embraced the unyielding fact that the benefits that come from being Canadian are—and must continue to be—a direct result of our willingness to invest ourselves fully in the life and future of this country.
At the same time, I can assure all honourable senators that I am by no means naïve. My understanding of the modern world is not simple. My views on human nature are not entirely trusting. And I am fully aware of the daunting challenges that this country now faces. Of the perilous economic predicament we find ourselves in as a result of the current global financial crisis.
It is in such times that I am reminded of the wise words of writer Eric Hoffer. He said that in times of profound change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learnéd find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. In times such as these, honourable senators, in which the world we know is undergoing seismic changes, we must be particularly mindful of these words.
I can assure you that I am a learner. A seeker of novel ideas and new ways to solve seemingly impenetrable puzzles. Armed with this self-awareness, I am eager to work with you to ensure that actions taken by this parliament limit the damage caused by the current crisis. At the same time, we must not confine ourselves to the best practical responses to current challenges. We must ensure our responses leave us in the best possible position to overcome challenges unforeseen.
It is in this spirit of optimism and practicality that I want to speak about the recent federal budget. Indeed, I am privileged to enter this place when such a weighty piece of business is before parliament.
I am firmly convinced that Canada’s Economic Action Plan is the right response for an extraordinary time. It is a comprehensive plan to stimulate our economy, restore our national confidence and support Canadian families. It is a genuine action plan that not only dampens the effects of the current global economic crisis, but also invests in the four pillars of enduring economic growth: lower taxes, modern infrastructure, a competitive economy, a highly skilled workforce.
Honourable senators, I believe a highly skilled workforce is the most important of these pillars. For without it, none of the others is really possible. The budget clearly reflects this fact, and makes it possible for us to take concrete steps to develop a stronger workforce. One step in particular will enable our country to build that kind of workforce. That vital step is improving our ability to recognize foreign credentials.
As the Minister of Finance so clearly stated, if we want to attract the best and the brightest from around the world, we must modernize our immigration system to ensure immigrants have the opportunity to take full advantage of their skills and talents. This need is not theoretical or academic. Modernization of that system is imperative—right now. Many newcomers to our country still experience difficulty finding work that best suits their education and qualifications, in part because their credentials are not always fully recognized in our country.
I was pleased to learn that real progress has been made to improve foreign credential recognition through the Foreign Credential Referral Office and the Foreign Credential Recognition Program. At the same time, Canada’s first ministers and territorial leaders recently agreed to take concerted action to provide timely assessment and recognition of foreign qualifications. To be more precise, our national, provincial and territorial leaders asked their labour ministers to develop a common framework by September of this year.
I am thrilled to see that Canada’s Economic Action Plan provides $50 million over the next two years to support development of this shared approach to foreign credentials assessment and ensure that immigrants are better integrated into the Canadian labour force. After all, our country is one of the few in the world that has realized its national potential through the hard work of immigrants.
Indeed, immigrants are the flesh, the muscle, the sinew on the Canadian bone. As Richard Gwyn so intelligently pointed out, without a longstanding commitment to immigration, Canada would be quite different from what it is now: smaller, poorer, much more parochial, less powerful, less optimistic.
But improving foreign credentials recognition does not tell the whole story. Taking this kind of action is not done merely to place a checkmark in our national to-do list and move on to other matters. All men and women in this country must fully embrace the unyielding fact that the benefits that come from being Canadian must be a direct result of our willingness to invest ourselves fully in this country. Canadian citizenship has never been—and must never become—a flag of convenience for the so-called citizen of the world. Our country may have become a majority of minorities, but it must never be defined by its constituent parts alone.
To ensure it does not, all Canadians must get rid of the cultural silos in which we have placed ourselves. Let me repeat that: In which we have placed ourselves. No one else has put us in this position. In fact, I can think of no other country in the world that acts as we do; that encourages immigrants not to become Canadians but to become hyphenated Canadians.
Yes, we must continue to be a safe harbour for refugees fleeing violence and oppression. Yes, we must continue to be the shining Pole Star of the North— a beacon of opportunity to people from around the world, just as we were a refuge for slaves who followed the drinking gourd to freedom.
But this affirmation is only one side of the coin. We must work equally hard to fully integrate new arrivals and encourage them to take on the responsibilities of citizenship that all Canadians must assume to earn the benefits of citizenship.
Of course, governments at all levels have a role to play in this effort. But so do our schools. So do volunteer and not-for-profit organizations: local sports clubs, hospitals, library groups. We must encourage immigrants to play an active role in these organizations. And we must encourage these organizations to play an active role in seeking the involvement of immigrants. How well we do in this mutually reinforcing effort in the next decade will have a telling effect on the direction and indeed the future of this country. Of that I am convinced.
I come by my convictions from a unique perspective. I am a direct relation of Louis Hébert. I like to think of him as this country’s first immigrant. A confidant of Samuel de Champlain, Hébert was an apothecary by trade and is acknowledged as the first colon to support himself from the soil of this new land.
Hébert was in a position to claim this exalted honour because Champlain was profoundly sensitive to the differences of the people he brought to New France. He knew that to build a thriving community he required a careful blend of men and women from divergent walks of life—fishermen and entrepreneurs, tradesmen and farmers. The parallel between the early settlements of New France and our modern-day nation-state is abundantly clear.
Louis Hébert’s granddaughter, and my grandmother 11 generations removed, is Guillemette Couillard, the first woman born in New France. An extremely devout and generous woman, she lived to see fragile outposts grow into permanent settlements. And she played no small role in helping populate this new land. At the time of her death in 1684, her descendents numbered more than 250. Today, that number is beyond estimation.
I am proud to say that a branch of my husband’s family tree is equally distinguished. He is the great-great grandson of Timothy Eaton—an apprentice shopkeeper who left Ireland for southern Ontario in 1854. Fifteen years later, young Mr. Eaton purchased a dry-goods business that he transformed into a retail empire that would one day span the country, employ some 70,000 Canadians and establish the now-universal business principle of the money-back guarantee.
I tell these stories not because my family tree is more noteworthy than others. Each one of us has a special story to tell.
But, at the same time, I am proud of my ancestry and thankful for it. Through their example, my forebears demonstrated the enduring strength and satisfaction that comes when you invest yourself fully in your country.
Armed with this knowledge, I believe I am meant to be here in this place at this time. I do not adopt this stance in the spirit of party or partisanship. On the contrary. I am inspired by the power and the genuine satisfaction that comes from working with others and achieving great things together.
Goethe said that a man remains of consequence not so far as he leaves something behind him but so far as he acts and enjoys, and rouses others to action and enjoyment. I would remind Herr Goethe that the same rule applies to the other half of the species too.
Looking back, I realize that I have led my life guided by that thought. Looking forward, I realize my true strength—my true mission—lies not in striving to leave a legacy but in working with others—today, right now. In rousing them to action and enjoyment. I can think of no better place than this wonderful institution to put that commitment into practice.