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The fabric of our country

Former Governor General and journalist Adrienne Clarkson discusses her CBC Massey Lecture series and the nature of citizenship
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JANICE LIU/THE VARSITY
JANICE LIU/THE VARSITY

Being inside Adrienne Clarkson’s living room is not unlike entering a small, personal museum. Everywhere you look, a different piece of art catches your eye and makes you wonder where it might be from and who created it. Waiting for Clarkson to greet me for our interview, I tried out three different couches in a goldilocks-like attempt to find one I didn’t look remarkably out of place sitting on.

My nerves were amplified not just by the stature of the room but by the woman I was about to speak with. Clarkson’s list of achievements is genuinely staggering; her official title is the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, Queen’s Privy Council for Canada (PC), Companion in the Order of Canada (CC), Commander of the Order of Military Merit (CMM), Commanders of the Order of Merit of the Police (COM), Canadian Forces Decoration (CD). A U of T graduate, she held the office of the Governor General of Canada from 1999 to 2005, being the second woman and first visible minority to  ever be appointed to the role. Clarkson has written five books as well as several articles for various Canadian publications including Macleans. As Linda Cullen put it in the CBC Radio series Double Exposure, she is “…Adrienne Clarkson, and you’re not.” 

ON THE CBC

Settled into the correct couch, the interview began, and the conversation turned immediately to the CBC. 

Clarkson is also renowned for her work as a journalist, co-hosting the CBC investigative program The Fifth Estate from 1975 to 1983, and later hosting the arts program Adrienne Clarkson Presents from 1988 to 1999.

She has just completed the annual CBC Massey Lecture series, in which she travelled to five different Canadian cities and gave a lecture to each in turn — the final of which was delivered at Koerner Hall in Toronto last Tuesday. At the event, Clarkson referred to CBC Radio as being “the blanket of Canada,” and spoke of having it permeate her home from an early age. 

Speaking about the work of the CBC, Clarkson said ,“the difference is quality — you can’t always see it immediately, but people know the difference.” 

No one else does it like the CBC does, really, anymore,” she told me, discussing how the CBC still works within a structure of various different producers and journalists. She explained that journalists today are expected to have diverse skills and to be able to take their work through much of content production, rather than specializing in certain areas of the process.

As this year’s Massey lecturer, Clarkson recently released the content of the series in a book entitled Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship

Related to her lecture, Clarkson said, “I think journalists can certainly affect change,” elaborating that they have the opportunity to facilitate change through their ability to connect people on different sides of a debate.

“TO DESIRE A BETTER COUNTRY”

Citizenship is a subject Clarkson is well-acquainted with, having come to Canada as a refugee from Hong Kong at the age of three, as well as in her work as Governor General. 

“Well, I founded the Institute for Canadian Citizenship… so when they approached me to do the talks, citizenship was the word that really got me,” she explained.

In Belonging, she writes, “It is worth noting that the motto of the Order of Canada is ‘to desire a better country.’ This motto indicates, with typical Canadian understatement, that the country is not a wonderful basket of goodies to which we and others contribute and draw interest from. Instead, it assumes that as citizens we are proud of our country and therefore we will help make it better.” 

The concept of Canada as a membership, rather than a nation of individuals, is a key theme of the lectures.

Building on this, Clarkson also focuses on the contrast that exists between the desire for personal achievement and acknowledgement of public good. 

“So much emphasis is placed on our becoming individuals, with particular stress on competition and victory over others,” she writes, continuing, “The greatest challenge for us is to understand and satisfy both our natural competitive instincts and this deep longing for cooperation.” 

When asked how she balances personal drive with an understanding of the needs of a greater community, Clarkson responded, “I’ve always been a very driven person, it was something that was instilled in me from my family from a young age… I don’t know if I would say it is an immigrant [thing], but I think it is Chinese, I think that would be fair to say.” 

Clarkson described having a constant need to complete the things that she is working on, and never being able “to drop anything.” 

The only thing she recalls ever having put on hold is the book she is currently writing for Penguin, which she postponed in order to participate in the Massey series, an opportunity which she could “not pass up.”

“I would say that I have this constant humming within me, that never really goes away,” she reflected, adding, “I think I have an energy that’s going to stay with me — it’ll leave me when I die, but it won’t until then.”

CITIZENSHIP AND IDENTITY

“Our actual being, who we are, how we are perceived and accepted by other people, is all we’ve got,” Clarkson writes in Belonging. She expressed that she feels that who she is as a person is inextricably linked with her identity as a refugee.

When asked what questions about identity new immigrants to Canada face, Clarkson responded, “I think there’s the fact that you have to prove yourself in a sense — if you’re a doctor in another country, it’s not the same as being a doctor in Canada. Even how you relate to your patients will be different.” 

Clarkson explained that she was not “aware” she was trying to prove herself due to her status as an immigrant when she was young. She recalled having a similar experience when she went to study in Paris in her twenties. 

“I didn’t want to be French, but I wanted to learn the language, I wanted to immerse myself in the culture,” she explained, providing a look into the feeling of coming to a new country for the first time. 

“It was through imagining that I could be part of [Canada] that I did become part of it,” she writes in Belonging, continuing, “My grade seven teacher, Miss Bernice Jackson… said to me: ‘You weren’t born here, but everything you do and will do will prove that you know what it is like to have been born here.’”

Clarkson’s identity as a woman also presented certain challenges in Canada. In her Massey lectures, she described how, as a child, she always assumed that she would have to sacrifice certain things to succeed as a female. 

“At the time, I didn’t question that I would have to make sacrifices. All around me were examples of friends’ mothers who had obviously sacrificed. Their faces were often, as the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald observed of women over thirty, ‘relief maps of petulant and bewildered unhappiness,” she writes. Looking at Clarkson’s face, it’s clear that Fitzgerald’s words do not apply — still, I asked her if she felt she had made sacrifices as a prominent female figure.

“I mean, I [identify with] second wave feminism, because when I was [in my early twenties], that’s what was happening,” Clarkson said. “I remember when I came to my producer and told them I was pregnant… they told me I would have to be back on the job in six weeks, or I would be fired.” She expressed satisfaction that proper maternity leave now exists for women, but wishes that universal day care was available for working mothers, as in France.

TALKING POLITICS

Clarkson’s experiences have given her extensive perspective, rendering her incredibly well-informed when it comes to approaching the problems facing Canadians today. 

During her lecture on Tuesday, one audience member asked Clarkson about how best to engage with the idea of change in Canada, to which she responded that she believes that, to affect “real change”, you have to go into politics, because being involved in Non-Governmental organizations (NGO’s) only results in lobbying.

When asked what could be done to engage the people of Canada with various political and social issues, her response was that engagement needs to start from an early age. Clarkson credits much of her success to access to good public education — she frequently refers to it as one of the largest connecting forces available to all Canadians, and often speaks of her high school English teacher in interviews about education.

“I’m of the Piaget school of thought, who says that children don’t really change in any significant way beyond a certain age, say five,” she explained. For Clarkson, having parents engage their children in their country is of critical importance. 

She also went on to discuss the idea of politics as being something people choose not to discuss. I brought up the old adage: “it’s not polite to discuss religion or politics at the dinner table.” She responded that politics is not merely a topic of conversation but “the fabric of our country.”

ON BOOKS

Finally, the conversation turned, inevitably, to books. One of the funnier, albeit quite poignant, moments in Clarkson’s lectures is when she shares the experience of having a man ask her if she read. “From time to time,” she answered, prompting the response: “A woman after my own heart! I don’t believe in reading. It fills your head with ideas and makes you think too much.”

Recently, Clarkson’s head has been filled with Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, although she explained that she spends much of her time reading older works and non-fiction. She announced that she considers  Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate to be the best work of the twentieth century and something everyone must read.

Clarkson confessed to reading Middlemarch every five years or so, and expressed her admiration of Ernest Hemingway: “He really is the technician, he is the craftsman of writing. You know T.S Eliot says, ‘what does the poet do, purifies the language of the tribe,’ that is what Hemingway did, he was purifying the language of the tribe.” 

CEASELESS DRIVE

Somehow, however, the topic of our discussion always returned to the idea of citizenship. In Belonging, Clarkson writes, “In Canada, we understand what it is to have at the heart of our citizenship an act of immigration. We know that we can be citizens who are not related to each other by blood, religion, or even past history… We start in this country not with a political status quo from which an idea of ‘citizen’ devolves, but with an idea of citizen from which a nation evolves.”

After our conversation, I couldn’t help but connect this sentiment with all her accomplishments, and her seemingly ceaseless drive.

When interviewing people to work at the CBC, Clarkson explained that she would sometimes present them with a hypothetical situation: you walk into a studio in complete disarray. What do you do? “And if they said, well I would go down to maintenance and ask what the problem was, I wouldn’t hire them,” she said, resolutely, adding: “But the ones that I did hire would say, ‘well, I would just start clearing it up.’” 

Correction (November 3, 2014): A previous version of this article contained some factual inaccuracies. The Varsity regrets the errors.