Canada’s 26th governor general, Adrienne Clarkson, experienced a rude surprise earlier this year. She received a photocopied document from B.C.’s archives showing that she, her parents, and her brother Neville were all registered for the Chinese head tax.
Clarkson and her family had arrived in Canada in 1942 as refugees from war-torn Hong Kong. While she was aware of the head tax growing up, she never thought it affected her family until it was pointed out to her by UBC historian Henry Yu. To this day, she’s certain that her father never paid the fee, which was imposed only on immigrants from China.
“Our family talked about everything,” Clarkson told the Georgia Straight over the phone from Montreal, where she was about to deliver a CBC Massey Lecture. “There never would have been anyone knocking on the door for $500 for each of us without him having told us.”
She recounts the story in her new book Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship, a compilation of five Massey Lectures that will be broadcast on CBC Radio’s Ideas program starting on November 10.
Despite having been identified in government records as a member of a discriminated-against minority group, Clarkson said she felt accepted in church and encouraged at school while growing up in mostly white Ottawa. It’s one of the paradoxes of citizenship that she explores in her lecture series. Her Grade 7 teacher from “deepest, darkest Orange Ontario” told Clarkson that even though she wasn’t born in Canada, she would change the country.
“Canadians—beyond any things that might have been on the books—were actually extremely welcoming and helpful and all the rest of it,” Clarkson recalled. “We were welcomed by French Canadians because we lived in a French-Canadian neighbourhood when we first arrived. And we never felt excluded.”
For her, another paradox of citizenship comes in the feeling of being most “authentically individual” while expressing a commitment to the community. Clarkson revealed that as governor general from 1999 to 2005, she felt that most acutely in smaller centres, such as Swift Current, Brandon, Red Deer, and Bridgewater.
“All of these places really give you the feeling that you are Canadian, that you have a sense that the values that are there—the relationship of the individual to the collective—is such that you don’t have to give up anything in order to be part of a group,” she said.
Then she joked, “Nowadays, of course, if you say you believe in community and the collective, some people…treat you as though you were Stalin trying to get the kulaks into a collective.”
More seriously, she noted that she grew up with many people who had been displaced from Eastern Europe after the Second World War. And she said that those who were absorbed in what they had lost had the most difficulty adjusting to their new country.
“You can’t live by loss,” Clarkson advised. “Canada gives you a chance not to forget that you lost something, but to say, ‘Okay, we lost, but now we’re going to gain things back. And they’ll be different things.’ ”
In Belonging, she cites literary critic Malcolm Ross’s description of the country as a tray of melting ice cubes rather than a cultural mosaic to demonstrate that as we come together, we remain open to others while retaining our shape. “Our transformation happens very slowly,” she says.
Her big break came in 1965 when CBC hired her for the Take 30 show, making her the first Canadian national TV host of Chinese descent. She later worked for The Fifth Estate, served as Ontario’s agent general in Paris, wrote five books, and cofounded the Institute for Canadian Citizenship. For many years, she’s had a keen interest in the impact of immigration on Canada’s democracy.
She said that in her lectures, she wanted to go beyond the “western-Greek” concept. At the same time, she acknowledged that as a 12-year-old, she was quite taken with Athenian democracy. “I think that’s what you do when you’re 12,” she said. “You idealize it. You realize [later], of course, that it’s based upon women and slaves and people not from Athens not being citizens, but that the narrowness that it operated on was pretty beautiful.”
Clarkson’s Massey Lectures borrow heavily from her travels to Asia, South America, Africa, and Canadian aboriginal communities, where she’s observed how these cultures achieve consensus. This has led her to suggest that our notions of democracy will undergo substantial changes. That’s because younger Canadian politicians are influenced not only by Greek ideals, but also by other traditions, be they Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu.
“There is a different way of looking at how modern society can be structured,” Clarkson said, “and we sometimes think when we go there that we’ll learn about it, but what is going to happen is it’s coming here. And that is going to change things enormously.”
Adrienne Clarkson will deliver the fourth of her five Massey Lectures at 7 p.m. on Wednesday (October 22) at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.