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Former governor general Adrienne Clarkson on COVID-19, misinformation, and discrimination

For the last six months many Canadians have struggled through the effects of widespread shutdowns and isolation at home. Our most marginalized citizens — including BIPOC, new immigrants, and low-income Canadians — have been especially hard hit. 

We spoke with the 26th governor general of Canada and ICC co-founder, The Rt. Hon. Adrienne Clarkson, to discuss the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Canadians, as well as the rise of discrimination and misinformation in the wake of the pandemic. 

As a former refugee, Madame Clarkson offers her perspective on why Canada needs to reaffirm its commitment to immigration and refugee needs even during the pandemic. 

Sejla Rizvic: Since the pandemic began, many long-standing social issues have come to the fore. What is your perspective on some of the discrimination that’s arisen since the pandemic, particularly against Asian Canadians and the recent Black Lives Matter protests?
Adrienne Clarkson: I think what the Black Lives Matter protests are telling us is that we can’t keep saying, “Okay, let’s try to make things nice, little by little.” We really have to buckle down and say there is systemic racism — not that every single police person or every single person in authority in a certain place is a racist, but that the system, which they represent, was based on a racist model: that white people are better than anybody else. That’s systemic racism, the colonial system in which we all live in, and that has to end now.

I was a young person at the time of the civil rights movements in the 1960s. It’s now about 60 years later and it has not unfolded as it should have. We have to take some really drastic action. And that’s where my point of view has perhaps changed in that I now feel that we must take very direct action to get a quota of Black people onto boards of organizations and into structural management. We can’t wait anymore. The inequality is too great and the human suffering is too great. 

In terms of anti-Asian sentiment, I think it’s most unfortunate that people think that Chinese people are to blame for COVID-19. Of course it’s a result of total ignorance, bigotry, and hatred especially seen south of the border, spewed from the highest office in the land. And that is disgusting, reprehensible, and totally unjustified. I read the stories about people of Chinese descent in Vancouver, where there is a very sizable and visible community, who are Canadian and who are being discriminated against. Asian Canadians are actually being attacked or spat upon. It’s absolutely dreadful. 

As a former CBC journalist, what’s your take on the alarming trend of misinformation we’ve seen surrounding COVID-19? Is it comparable to anything that you saw during your time as a journalist?
No, and I’d say that is because of social media. Now anybody can get online and say whatever they want. And when you have the leader of the nation next to you spreading the misinformation himself saying nonsensical and frightening things, even lying that COVID-19 is just going to go away then it’s not hard to understand why the misinformation spreads so fast. Misinformation has just multiplied: it goes on social media and people end up listening to things that have no basis in facts.

Another issue that we’ve talked about in our series is the impact that the pandemic has had on refugees and new immigrants to Canada. I know that you’re a refugee yourself, and actually, so am I — my family came here from Bosnia in 1995. Global refugee resettlement was paused during COVID-19, but there is still an ongoing refugee crisis. What responsibility do you think governments have to not forget about refugees during this time?
I think this is the time to really be thinking about refugees and about taking in more people. I’m very, very adamant about that. I read recently that immigration will be down by at least 30 per cent this year because of COVID-19. That’s terrifying because we need immigrants, we need refugees. 

We know from all the statistics that after 2030 we will have no growth in our population except by immigration. We are not having enough children in order to do the things we need to do to keep up our pensions, to keep our universal health care, and so we need immigrants. We need people who came here, like you 25 years ago, probably little, with your parents. Right?

I’m self interested, perhaps, because I was a refugee and I was taken in. It’s not without difficulties — nothing was gold-paved for us in any way, shape, or form. But Canada is a country where if you wanted to live your life, bring up your children, and you had lost everything somewhere else, you can do that. And if we can’t do that because there’s a pandemic, this is a real problem. I think we have to then make up for it as soon as possible after we come out of lockdown. 

Obviously, this is a very strange and difficult time to be arriving in the country. What kind of message do you have to give new immigrants?
Well, if you’re just arriving now, this is not the way we always are [laughs]. We would be welcoming you with smiles — you can’t see a smile through a mask — we would be trying to help you. 

Some people who arrive are sponsored by a social group, a church group, or a synagogue group or whatever, and my own parish church has always adopted a family. It takes about six or seven families to look after one family that comes because they have a lot of needs when they first arrive because they have to set up an apartment, the children have to go to school. We can do little things, too, like getting them skates to go to the skate rink. All of these are personal citizen touches which we have always done so well in Canada. 

The world is a terrifying place and people are thrown out of their homes for no reason, but Canada gives people another chance. I always say that immigration, even without very much, is a chance to be transformed; you’re not going to be the same person that you were even if you had stayed in your own country. Canada is a place for second chances and I think that’s what all of us who have been refugees or immigrants feel about Canada, even if we don’t say it in so many words, that this is a place that gave us the ability to become something else and even more than what we could have been had we stayed in the country where we were born. 

I’m interested in looking to the future now and asking what the world might look like in 20 if we’ve handled this crisis in the right way. What lessons should we be implementing now to make that possible in 20 years?
I wish I had that foresight. I’ve always been wrong in anything I predicted would happen [laughs]. What I want to do is to continue to defend refugees and to take in as many as we possibly can, welcoming immigrants and refugees throughout the country, not just in large centers.

We must welcome the people who are coming now, the way we did or the way our grandparents came — starting with nothing but only their hopes — coming to a country that has a great parliamentary structure, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to move anywhere, anti-hate laws. We need people from all over the world because we can transform them into Canadians.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.