“I am a Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose those who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind.” Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, July 1, 1960.
It’s almost 50 years since Diefenbaker challenged Canadians to take up this national pledge along with his proposed Canadian Bill of Rights. Parliament eventually adopted the Bill of Rights, but the pledge, and the very idea of a pledge, simply fell by the wayside.
Maybe Canada really is that “kinder, gentler nation” whose meek citizens are reluctant to self-promote and proclaim its greatness.
Diefenbaker admitted that he had built the pledge on the framework of the 1947 American Freedom Pledge, but that doesn’t take away the power that these words have—even today—to remind us of the rights and freedoms that Canadians enjoy. At a time when our patriotism rarely seems to rise above the level of defending the dignity of beavers and tuques (e. g. Molson’s I AM Canadian ads), words like these can inspire a nation and serve as a powerful reminder of all that we have.
But even in the absence of great words, there are other reminders of the freedoms for which we should be thankful, like the images emerging from Iran, where people are rising up to challenge their political leaders in the aftermath of a rigged election.
Cellphone videos and tweets are telling a graphic story of a bloody government crackdown on protesters. The image of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltani, a young woman dying in a pool of her own blood, is now etched in the world’s collective conscience. Yesterday, comments on Twitter told of Iranian militia beating protesters with axes ( “chopping ppl like meat—blood everywhere—like butcher”).
We recently remembered the events that took place 20 years ago at Tiananmen Square, where thousands were killed and wounded in their stand for democracy. In April, the world witnessed the women of Afghanistan protest against a law that took away the very rights that had just been restored to them (the right to an education, to work outside the home, to be political leaders) and essentially reduced them to chattel at the disposal of their husbands.
In doing so, they not only took a stand against Afghanistan’s fledgling democratic government, but also against a patriarchal society deeply rooted in extreme Islamic tradition.
Some high-ranking women were assassinated; most likely paid the price at the hand of their husbands or fathers at home.
That’s the real cost behind the struggle for human rights and democracy, and it’s important for recent generations of Canadians to see. We’ve grown up in times of relative peace and prosperity; we’ve never been threatened or called upon to fight or make sacrifices for anything, let alone for such basic ideals as democracy.
Sadly, when there’s been no sacrifice, it’s easy to blow off the right to vote in an election and, as the pledge says, exercise the freedom “to choose those who shall govern my country.” Consequently, voter turnouts in recent elections have fallen to record lows (59.1 per cent in the 2008 Canadian election; 41 per cent in the 2008 Alberta election), even as the cynical electorate remains disgruntled and untrusting of political leadership.
We’re griping about minority governments and the possibility of yet another federal election while others are literally dying just to have one.
When generations have been born into a ready-built nation, it’s easy to send our troops to ‘nation-build’ and protect democracy in other countries, even as we neglect to nurture and continue to build our own.
For more than a decade, Dominion Institute surveys have shown that young Canadians no longer know the most basic details of Canadian history (like the date of Confederation) and only 17 per cent can correctly answer six of the 10 questions on Canada’s citizenship test.
The events on the international scene are a good reminder to us that nation-building is never easy.
The statistics from home remind us that it’s never over.