Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us

By: J. Patrick Boyer

Photo credit to Silvestri Matteo.

The celebrated “gift to see ourselves as others see us” requires gaining an objective distance to appraise qualities hard to recognize from too close up. It can be sobering, and instructive. In 2017, Canadians are celebrating a century and a-half of Confederation under 1867’s Constitution by focusing overwhelmingly on ourselves, a self-referencing paradigm, a mirror not a window.

That’s why it’s doubly good to have a dose of realism about how others see us.

In my book, Foreign Voices in the House, those “others” offering such a vantage point are the five dozen presidents, prime ministers, monarchs, and transnational leaders who’ve addressed the Canadian House of Commons, from their perspective on this country, over the past hundred years.

These exceptionally diverse leaders, speaking at intervals ever since Rene Viviani of France and Arthur Balfour of Britain began the tradition in 1917, offer a kaleidoscopic view on a country evolving from colonial status to independent nationhood, in a world constantly remaking itself in geopolitical, economic, and technological ways.

The word “unique” aptly describes their collective body of insights, injunctions, inspiration, and invitations to specific actions through the Great War, formation of the League of Nations, world economic depression in the 1930s, the Second World War, formation of the United Nations, evolution of UN Peacekeeping with Canada in a central role, emergence of new trading arrangements, international monetary regimes, world health organizations, and roiling changes in technology (from the atomic bomb to the internet) and cultural values.

“Wars” on poverty, drugs, and terrorists woven into this fabric, alongside ground wars in Korea and Cold War engagements around the globe. The Cold War ended without nuclear annihilation, segregation was overpowered in the United States by the civil rights movement, and apartheid ended in South Africa without the bloodbath revolution that seemed inevitable.

boyer-j-patrick-foreign-voices-in-the-houseNelson Mandela spoke in the House of Commons at Ottawa just five weeks after his release from 29 years in prison. He also spoke a second time, again with uncommon wisdom, as president of South Africa in 1998. Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant, spoke in Parliament in 1964 just as news was reaching Ottawa about Canadians being fired on, as members of the UN Peacekeeping force, in Cyprus.

The immediacy of these global events and how they were being refracted through the highest forum for democracy in Canada, our parliamentary podium, was not isolated to Mandela’s moving message, or the urgency of front-line dispatches. Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, even Charles de Gaulle and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, the most powerful woman in the world at the time, addressed Canadian parliamentarians during the Second World War.

Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin, who’d been central to the Soviet Union’s operations but now, following transformation, delivered the most scathing damnation of communism ever spoken in our Commons, even by the most rabid anti-Communist at the Cold War’s icy depths.

President Sukarno of Indonesia, who just succeeded in liberating his island country from decades of impoverishing colonial exploitation under the Dutch, and Prime Minister Kwame Nkruma who’d lead Ghana into freedom from Britain’s self-enriching colonial grip, both described—from a refreshingly different perspective than normal—how Canada’s passage from controlled colony to independent nation had been an inspiring model for evolving by peaceful means rather than bloody revolution.

These dozens of colourful world leaders were at their height of power, in the process of making history, when they focused on their country’s relationship with Canada. I decided to collect their remarkable addresses when, as a member of parliament from 1984 to 1993, I heard a dozen of them and knew they were too important to fade into oblivion.

Each is a fixed frame, all make a rolling movie.

Foreign Voices in the House gathers for the first time in one place all their recovered speeches, grouped according to the country or region from which the leaders came, with photographs of each leader on Parliament Hill or in the House of Commons, pithy biographies of each, and overviews about the connection between their country with Canada.

These speeches are clear, hard-hitting, agenda-setting messages that over time and in a variety of ways, meshed with evolving patterns in Canadian public affairs. If any country is open to the world, it is Canada. If any people are open to constructive criticism and exhortations to do more, it is Canadians. Foreign Voices in the House maps the route by which we got to where we are today.

J. Patrick BoyerJ. Patrick Boyer studied law at the International Court of Justice in The Netherlands, served as Canada’s Parliamentary Secretary for External Affairs, and works for democratic development overseas. The author of twenty-three books on Canadian history, law, politics, and governance, Patrick lives with wife, Elise, in Muskoka and Toronto. He’ll be at IFOA 2017