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Speech delivered by CMHR President and CEO Stuart Murray at Youth Parliament of Manitoba’s gala in Winnipeg, April 26, 2013

News release details

Thank you for that very thoughtful introduction. C'est un grand plaisir pour moi d'être ici avec vous.

When I was about the age of most of you here in this room…

…one of the most recognizable faces on the nightly news was the long-time CBC news anchor Knowlton Nash.

It may not immediately ring any bells for you when I say that name, but if you picture someone like Lloyd Robertson or Peter Mansbridge…

…but about ten times more serious…

…then you start to get a picture of Knowlton Nash.

Knowlton Nash was serious about the news because he was serious about Canada. He was serious about our democratic institutions, and he felt that Canadians' right to understand what was happening in their country was something that should never be trivialized.

In fact, the way Knowlton Nash described the job of journalists was this:

He said: "It's not our job to make the things that are merely interesting seem important, but to make the truly important seem interesting."

In other words, he held a belief that you in this room understand intuitively:

That the things that some in our society may brush aside as "boring"…

…are in fact the most important things because they impact the shape of our democracy, the well-being of our families and communities, and each us individually as citizens.

I have no doubt there's an enormous diversity of beliefs and values and interests among the people in the room tonight…

…but one common factor that binds all of us here this evening is that we share the view that our parliamentary democracy is "not boring," but extraordinarily important. Politics really matters.

Of course, expressing that view may not make you the most popular person in the room at your next cocktail party, but it doesn't change the fact that politics is pretty important stuff.

You understand this fundamentally. You fundamentally embrace it.

You get the fact that for all that may be wrong with our political systems, at the end of the day it's our elected political bodies who debate and decide how our taxes are spent; how our hospitals and schools are funded; how many police officers we'll have on our streets; who gets to sit on the bench of the supreme court; even how much a case of beer costs.

These things are important because they directly affect our lives. And so the system and processes underlying these decisions are also important.

Now, you in this room have internalized this so deeply that your idea of a good time is holding a mock parliamentary debate.

And I congratulate you for that, for two reasons:

One, because I'm one of you –– the kind of person who can openly admit that a good political discussion gets my blood pumping.

And two, because the regrettable truth is that for every young person who votes in this country, there's more than one who doesn't. And I personally find that trend very troubling. I note that this trend is not only found amongst young people.

Now, I also believe that we can change this, and I'd like to spend part of our time together talking about why.

But I also want to quickly impart an insight:

All of you in this room have a passion for politics.

Many of you in this room are going to make a decision at some point in your lives to run for public office. Many already have.

And some of you are going to convince the electorate that you're the best person for the job.

And if ever you do hold public office, you will very quickly discover that people will look at you differently.

They'll look at you as someone who has access to the levers of power.

They'll look at you as someone who gets to directly influence decisions over the things that matter.

They'll look at you as someone who has sway over what happens in other people's lives.

When you hold public office, you are always aware that people see you as someone who has the power to shape how the world works.

You're always aware of this –– that people see you and see that you have something of incredible value: agency.

But, at some point you leave public life. And you go back to a previous passion or pursue a new one. Maybe you even go on to become CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

And if you do, you become freshly aware that it's now not only your job to make a difference in this world, but to try and encourage others to do the same.

But you realize something in this:

You're reminded that agency isn't an either/or scenario. Agency exists on a continuum.

And what really matters is that those who have any of it…

…make the decision to do with it all that they are able. And that includes creating opportunities and removing barriers so that this power doesn't remain with a few.

This is a powerful thing.

Do you know what motivates people to become involved?

Do you know what really convinces people to set aside the cynicism, or the apathy, or the belief that anything they could do on an individual level is too small to count?

What motivates people is when they believe in their hearts that their actions actually can make a difference;

…That they actually possess the power to change something, even in modest ways;

…That they have agency.

People will vote if they feel that their vote might achieve something.

Similarly, people will take a stand in the name of human rights if they feel that their actions might genuinely make a difference in the life of someone else.

Well, we in this room know the real truth:

There is no person in this country who doesn't have it within them to make a difference.

And goodness knows: we need all hands on deck.

Through one lens, sure, we're making incredible progress.

Think about it:

As little as ten, perhaps even five years ago, would anybody have taken you seriously if you said that a black person had a legitimate shot at becoming president of the United States?

No. It would have been unimaginable.

Ten years ago, how many people would have even conceived of the idea that same-sex marriage could become legal? Or something that both homosexual and heterosexual voters would cast a ballot for? I know that this is a subject area that I have learned a lot about since my time in politics.

But look what's happened in the past couple years alone.

If you're a youth parliamentarian in 2013, you grew up in the internet era.

But at the start of it, even ten years ago, computer culture was almost entirely male-dominated.

Who would have ever believed that in 2013 the CEOs of companies like Yahoo, Hewlett Packard and IBM…

…would all be women? Or that of Canada's 13 Premiers, 6 who be women!
(Nunavut, Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador)

Certainly there are people who believed and were fighting to make that happen, but I can tell you that it was not always widely held belief.

So there's been incredible progress in an incredibly short period of time.

A nod, perhaps, to the health of our democracy, and a sign of true progress along the path of human rights.

But:

We don't need to look too far beyond our own back yards to see that we have a distance still to travel.

In a nation of opportunity;

…In a country as prosperous and abundant as the one we have the privilege to call home…

…we see a disproportionate number of our First Nations continuing to experience poverty, where things like rates of illness and disease are far higher…

…but indicators like high-school graduation, university attendance and even life expectancy are far, far lower than the general population.

That's not right. Social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability and orientation still limit or influence the opportunities that individuals have.

For all the strides we've made in breaking down barriers to same-sex equality…

…a 45-minute drive from here we have restaurant owners shutting down shop because they couldn't endure the anti-gay taunts and insults any longer.

And in classrooms and on school playgrounds across this country, kids who are really no different than any of us continue to be bullied, sometimes mercilessly…

…and sometimes, as we were painfully reminded again just weeks ago, to the point that they feel so helpless and beaten down that they take their own young lives.

In fact, for all the forward progress we've made, if you talk to educators they'll tell you that bullying is endemic, and in many cases is getting not better, but worse.

So, we have work to do.

And I'm only talking about the immediate human rights challenges.

Look out the window and we also see economic turmoil right across the globe, and on a scale that we haven't seen in nearly three generations.

And: New, truly global-scale challenges that we're only beginning to understand, like terrorism, resource depletion and trends of intolerance.

So my point, my friends, is if ever there has been a time that we need you to make the decision to actively participate and take responsibility to finding solutions, it is now.

The world needs your engagement, your passion, your energy, your ideas, your enthusiasm, and your leadership…

…the kind you've already shown as young parliamentarians, taking a stand and passionately debating issues that truly matter.

But we also need your less-engaged contemporaries to recognize that this is not an exclusive club. That they have the ability to follow your lead, and follow your good example.

So here's my challenge to you:

You must continue to blaze your own trail, but you must also inspire your friends, your classmates, your peers, to do as you're doing, and to engage and participate.

Help them understand that their voice, their ideas, their involvement and their contributions really do make a difference.

Help them understand that the wheel of human rights and democracy turns faster when there are more hands to help.

And show them what you already know:

That the truly important is actually pretty interesting.

And, that the act of strengthening our nation and our democracy in turn enriches the quality of our own lives.

So I ask you to take up that challenge. And at the risk of sounding dramatic, I want to affirm in the clearest terms that your nation needs you to do this.

What is your big idea? What is your vision?

Let me provide you with an example that came from someone who served politically – the late Israel Asper. He saw some of the challenges and opportunities in what I've shared tonight and he had vision.

As a result, we are now building the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to engage, to empower and to inspire.

We are building a place that will be an ever-present reminder of the fact that everyone can make a difference in the life of someone else.

We know that democracy and human rights are rooted in the same place.

We know that the strength of our democracies is directly proportionate to the rights and liberties we're entitled to enjoy.

We know that with those rights come great responsibilities.

History reminds of this time and again; not only here but in nations around the globe.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will challenge us to summon new strength.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights will challenge us to grow, to reach out, to engage, both as individuals and as a nation.

The museum will inspire us to imagine what we want this nation of ours to be. And it will remind us that just as we have broken through barriers before…

…we can again break through the barriers that still stand in the way of creating the kind of country we know that our already great nation Canada can become.

Canada's new human rights museum will be many things, but the heart of our offering at the museum is an inspiring encounter with human rights.

That's the core.

How are we going to do this?

Well, one of the key ways is to spark reflection and a new conversation about the people who have created real change in our country; the human rights champions and defenders who smashed the barrier so that others wouldn't have to face it.

And this is vitally important, because one thing that you quickly realize when you're reading and hearing the stories of human rights champions…

…is that human rights champions are nearly always ordinary people.

They're regular people who because of choice or circumstance were motivated and inspired to do extraordinary things. 

I can't overemphasize how fundamentally critical this distinction is.

Being inspired by a human rights champion is different than being inspired by a professional athlete or a world-class musician.

You look at someone who can sink an 80-foot putt or compose a four-movement symphony and you think, "I could never do that."

But you hear the truly inspiring stories of those who made a decision to take a stand, or challenge an injustice, or stop a bully, and you realize that so many of the people we today recognize as human rights trailblazers…

…had no special skills or talents other than the strength of their own convictions.

Ordinary people with motivation. You don't need anything more to be a human rights defender than that.

So when people come to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, they're going to be reminded of this: Any one of us can make a difference. There's no special training required to help turn that wheel of democracy and human progress.

Let me tell you, it's pretty empowering stuff when someone realizes that they're already equipped to make a difference in this world.

So we're going to ensure people see their own potential reflected back at them when they come to our museum.

Another thing we're going to do is inspire you with our architecture.

I don't know if you read Doug Speirs' column last week. He said, "It takes a lot more than pothole-free streets and efficient snow removal to make a great city. You also need great stuff, the kind of world-class stuff that touches the hearts and minds of the people who live there and inspires the people who live far away to come and check it out."

We know that when people get a close-up look at the building and they're blown away.

Again, this is intentional. We didn't spend $351 million on this place for nothing.

Even before you get into the meat of our exhibits and programs, you're going to feel motivated and you're going to feel inspired.

Just being inside our building is a powerful experience.

And this is key. But as Doug said, we need to touch hearts and minds.

We are creating opportunities where people are primed to want to become involved, where they want to be immersed in something they know is important, and where they will want to preserve that intangible-but-powerful sense of knowing that they're part of something not only significant, but truly special, personally meaningful and unique.

Great architecture will do that to you.

People travel across the globe to find architecture that stirs the soul and captures the best of the human spirit.

We're building it in downtown Winnipeg.

We're also celebrating Canada.

This is the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

And yes, we will examine in detail the blemishes and darker moments that too often shaped our nation's past.

But we have an unyielding pride in this country, and a belief that we live in a nation that can punch well above its weight when it comes to the magnitude of its contributions to this world.

We believe that Canada, and that we together as Canadians, have something to offer that is of enduring and universal value.

And we believe that the future for this country is a bright one; that the best days of our nation can be the days that are still to come.

For our part, we are creating a museum that will bring Canadians together;

…That will renew our sense of civic purpose;

…That will inspire us to contemplate our own role as citizens of the world's greatest democracy and also invite new thinking about what we can achieve when we work together.

Our aim is to inspire more Canadians to follow your example:

To embrace the pursuit and practice of democracy as a good in its own right.

And to ensure that more Canadians see, as you do, that the hallmarks of democracy…

…equal opportunity to participate; opportunity to share a diverging view; dialogue as the tool of choice to resolve disagreements…

…are also the mechanisms by which we arrive at greater understanding, break down barriers and create a just and more humane world.

You have already proven yourselves to be leaders.

But Canada needs you to go further and to inspire others to do the same.

We at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights will also take up the task.

It's the very reason we're creating this place.

Together, we can inspire and equip more of our fellow citizens to pick up the torch;

…To embrace the very best of what we know this nation can be;

…And to remind each other that the weight of progress becomes lighter with every additional person who comes to discover that they already have all the strength they need to help carry the load.

Merci. Thank you.