Sign up for very good book news and stay in the know!

Five Questions for Adrienne Clarkson


Former Governor General and Massey Lectures author Adrienne Clarkson took some time to answer a few questions for us:

1. What inspired you to write about the topic of belonging?

I think I was inspired by the idea of belonging because it is the story of my own life. When you come to Canada as a refugee, as I did when I was a young child, you realize that the most important thing in your life is to belong. I was uprooted, I had everything taken away from me except for my parents and my brother and one suitcase for each of us. I think then since the age of three I have felt that I must belong, no matter what. I have made enormous efforts to belong – to go to school and learn things, to make friends, to understand what Canadian life is like and participate in it fully. I always understood that belonging had its obligations: that in order to belong you had to know who you are belonging to. So I always felt I had to know about Canadian history, geography, and customs. And because I’ve always been a very curious person by nature, none of this was hard for me. I love to learn new things and I learned about my new country. I never felt that I didn’t belong. That may sound odd because I’m saying I had to make an effort to belong, but the reason I never felt I didn’t belong was that I always felt that people who were already here really welcomed me – our neighbours, the people at the Anglican church we went to, my teachers in public and high school, the friends (and competitors!) at my dancing classes. I know that I came to love the Canadian climate, especially the snow when my mother never got to use to it and always disliked it! I felt I wanted to explore the idea of what belonging was in the world as well as in Canada and the many attitudes that we can have towards it. I think many people struggle with this whole question which they link with identity. Personally I think that belonging and identity can be somewhat separated. And I try to make this distinction in various ways through the Massey Lectures. But I have to say for myself, my identity is as a person who is unique and different because I was uprooted and replanted in another soil. I believe in the very depths of my heart that this soil which I was not intended for originally has caused me to grow and bloom in a way which would not have been possible for me had I stayed in Hong Kong, China. I believe it is Canada which has given me my fullest potential to be a human being and for that I will be always grateful.

2. How do you think about the differences between belonging in a national context and an international context? Is it helpful or problematic to think of levels or degrees of belonging?

I believe that in Canada we have an idea of belonging which means that we can bring everything we have from the places we originally came from and add them to Canadian life and Canadian custom. This is becoming more and more true over the last half-century and gives us a very rich texture, culturally. We are not asked to conform to a certain pre-ordained idea of what a Canadian citizen is; we are the Canadian citizens becoming and creating ourselves. In other countries, especially the European ones like France and Germany, they have a preconceived idea of what a citizen is, how you must speak and act in a certain way in order to be a citizen of that country and underlying it all is this sense that you really cannot totally belong unless you are of French or German blood. It doesn’t matter that rule is no longer in the books, it still really operates. Even if it doesn’t take the form of ugly racism, there is an understanding in the older European countries that somehow a real citizen of their countries has to have been there in the beginning and be Caucasian. They have a real catch-22 in those countries because they cannot really accept immigrants and have them fully belong because what they mean by belonging no immigrant can ever be. I feel sorry for them because it means their civilization is doomed to a kind of arid continuation which does not welcome being fed by new and exciting sources.


3. You talk a lot about Canada’s First Nations populations and the need for the nation to better serve First Nations peoples. What are the most critical points of intervention, for the state and civil society?

I try to deal with the question of Aboriginal people in our society today in Canada because it is one of the areas that we all must be concerned with all of the time. I grew up at a time when very little attention was paid to Aboriginal peoples and we studied them and talked about them as though they were part of an ancient history like the Greeks and Romans that we were studying. They are a vibrant and real part of our society today and we would not be the Canada that we know without them. Therefore it is important that they have equality in our society and that they be treated as we treat all Canadians. Inequities such as the amount of money spent on schools per child must be rectified, the details I have in my book talk about the number of reserves that have no clean water and the housing situations that must be corrected. On the other hand we have to realize that there are provinces like Manitoba, and Saskatchewan where enormous strides are being made by Aboriginal people and where populations of those provinces understand that Aboriginal peoples are taking leadership not only in their own communities but also in society as a whole. We have to come to terms with this and realize that to have a society that is truly equal and treats everybody the same, we must address all questions having to do with Aboriginal peoples in the manner which the Royal Commission of 1995 asked us to do.

4. Do you think there is a form of belonging peculiar to Canada?

The nature of belonging in Canada is specific to this place because of immigration and because of our Aboriginal people. We, however poorly, have come to recognize the importance of the fact that this land was inhabited and lived on very well and soundly by Aboriginal people before we came to it. I think the nature of our belonging in Canada has to do with all of us being immigrants and having come from somewhere else and having to make our place in an inhospitable climate and a rugged terrain. Nature plays a very important part for us in belonging as we do feel that we have a special relationship with the land. I feel that it is a given for anybody who has grown up here – that we have a special relationship to nature and to the wilderness and to lakes, rivers, and mountains. We have nature and we have a lot of it. I like to tell Europeans that they have countryside and we have wilderness. It gives us a unique opportunity to deal with the environment. I think that our future in the next 20 years, just as a realistic timeframe, should be spent dealing with all that has to do with taking care of the environment and showing how we can live with it and also use its resources in a way which is helpful to the Earth and to ourselves as human beings living in a rough climate.

5. In “The Circle Widens,” you write: “It seems there is a kind of fictive trust among people today. The realities of Facebook and Twitter allow people to exchange knowledge about each other and therefore to exercise that sense of the communal. In the past, people did not feel connected to each other the way they do today. We now have many witnesses in our lives, but not many witnesses to our lives.” Can you expand on this? What is the role of social media for our communities?

I am fascinated by the contacts being made between people through social media. I think that these are very important developments in our human landscape, and I have learned to use some of them – especially tweeting – to great fun and advantage. But I think we must not ever forget that ultimately we still have to meet human beings and have relationships with them and that there is still only one way the human race can be continued and that is through physical contact. The preliminaries leading to physical contact engendering new human beings has many ramifications – meeting people, sorting through people to find a group with which to be friends, and a commitment to the duration of relationships. All of this is best done through personal contact and over a long term. I am personally extremely happy that my closest friends are people that I met when I was in my late-teens at university. It is a source of great joy to me to have walked along a path of life where I have seen how they have developed and they have seen how I have developed. There is a great value in knowing people who knew you before you were you! I am not certain how the digital age will work this all out. I am certain that meeting people with initial preliminaries such as “do you like sushi?” online can get you farther along quicker than a number of meetings, often uncomfortable and awkward. But however awkward, meetings must still be endured because that is the nature of human life. Nothing is perfect and we all have to come to some sort of compromise in meeting people and adjusting to them. I think that friendship is best nurtured in face-to-face conversation and sitting in the same room with people and even in talking on the telephone. I don’t think that e-mails or texting can replace this. I do find when I am away that I do write rather long letters on e-mail to personal friends, but they do not replace face-to-face contact. It is only by walking the road together, metaphorically hand-in-hand or side-by-side that we watch other people’s lives whom we care about and they watch ours. That is what friendship is and that is what it means to have a witness to your life.


Belonging is now available in the award-winning Massey Lectures App for iPad with text and audio together for the first time! Use the app to download your favourite Massey Lecture collections, explore hours of bonus content and video, and participate in discussion on the message boards.

scroll to top