Adrienne Clarkson talks about belonging

Renowned Governor General delivers opening 2014 Massey Lectures at Concordia

Journalist, author, and former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson delivered a poignant and complex analysis of what it means to belong on the opening night of the 2014 Massey Lectures.

Her talk, entitled Belonging:The Paradox of Citizenship, provided a careful synthesis of ideas ranging from the personal to the antiquated.

Drawing on knowledge from a lifetime of curiosity and research, the larger part of her lecture was an in-depth analysis of literary and historical instances of belonging and citizenship.

Perhaps a deliberate nod to Quebec’s roots, France’s literary tradition and the evolution of one particular French town throughout the ages, from brute feudalism between secular and religious lords to enlightened democracy, was the main focus, with other examples pulled from domains like biology and philosophy.

For Clarkson, citizenship is an enduring web of connections, simultaneously an obligation stemming from the responsibility owed to others and a deep well to draw upon for strength. It is a peek into the persistent need, even of societies like our own, which concern themselves primarily with individualism, for “stabilization and confirmation outside ourselves.”

Clarkson’s debut also explored the mutability of these identities, showing that nothing is written in stone and the majority have final say about who is one of us and who isn’t. For all the talk of origins and common experience, outsiders are joined by threads above culture and approaching the fundamental human experience.

In a nutshell, “If we remove our sense of belonging to each other, no matter what our material and social conditions are, survival, acquisition, and selfish triumphalism will endure at the cost of our humanity,” she said, quoting historian Alan Turnbull.

While her speech was intellectual in nature and required a prior grounding for best effect, it was her personal history and opinion unlocked during the question and answer period which created the strongest emotional resonance with the crowd.

When asked about the limits of citizenship and integration, Clarkson dug into her own memories and experiences as a young girl in an immigrant family coming to a country still plagued by racialism and discrimination. By drawing the connections from state-sponsored exclusion, such as the head tax, to the Japanese labour camps of WWII, and finally to Quebec’s current battle over identity politics and accommodation, the lecture came full circle by reminding us of the very pressing and present Canadian evolution of belonging.

The Massey Lectures continue with dates in Halifax, Saskatoon Vancouver, and finally in Toronto. Recording will be featured on CBC’s Ideas in November.

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