'I am beginning not to recognize this country': Bonnie Klein on receiving the Order of Canada

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"They desire a better country" (Desiderantes meliorem patriam) -- Order of Canada motto

September 1967. We are holding our breath. We have to get into Canada immediately or Michael, my new husband, will be jailed. At the advice of the Montreal Committee to Aid War Resisters, we have arrived at Dorval Airport after midnight, when mostly sympathetic French-Canadian immigration officers are on duty. Michael has a hastily-offered letter of employment from Montreal Children's Hospital. Twenty minutes later, we are relieved to be welcomed as landed immigrants! We are among the wave of over 200,000 Vietam-era women and men who became an integral part of the Canadian mosaic.

Before our immigration, Michael had been offered a position as a medical officer in the American military but had planned to go to jail rather than serve the Vietnam War in any capacity. Serendipitously, the day he received the commission, I was at a seminar for documentary filmmakers and had just seen the Canadian documentary Mills of the Gods. In it, director Beryl Fox bravely sat filming from the cockpit of a helicopter as it sprayed napalm on a Vietnamese village. We Americans who opposed the war knew about the atrocities, but our U.S. media never exposed them. A Canadian woman did, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired her film.

Arriving during Canada's Centennial year, we made Expo 67 our first stop. This exuberant celebration marked Canada's proud place in the world. We spent our first summer in an intensive French immersion course.

Soon I found the iconic National Film Board and lucked out on a job in "Challenge for Change," a bold program whose mandate was to provide grassroots feedback to the federal government on how its own programs were working -- or not.

In 1970, after three exhilarating and productive years in Canada, we returned to the U.S. for medical training not yet available in Canada. We left reluctantly, with two young new 

Canadians, our children Seth and Naomi. After five years in the U.S., we chose to immigrate to Canada a second time. In the interval, Canada had initiated universal Medicare. The NFB had created Studio D, the first and only government-sponsored feminist filmmaking unit in the world. Most important to us, Canada had the values and spirit, different from those in the U.S., in which we wanted to raise our children. As far as we knew, Canada had stayed out of wars and coups in foreign countries; it chose to be a peace-maker. We were not naive about this "kinder and gentler place": Canada had its share of violence, racism and sexism, but also had the motivation and institutions to address its problems. Here we have remained and thrived, Canadian citizens by choice, the best choice we ever made.

I feel enormously thrilled and grateful to be recognized by my adopted country for the Order of Canada. And more than a little surprised. Yet this great honour comes at a moment when I am beginning not to recognize this same country.

Today's Canada is not the nation that we chose in either 1967 or 1975. It is no longer proud of its difference from the U.S. Instead, the government of Canada seems to aim to emulate its southern neighbour as much as possible, even to grovel for its favour at the cost of this country's independence and uniqueness.

We are following in the footsteps of the U.S, into countries in which we have no business. We loudly support Israel's occupation and expansion into Palestinian territories. Our country is closing its doors to immigrants and refugees, including political refugees, except those who can invest large sums in our economy or contribute cheap labour as temporary foreign workers.

We are compromising our historic public support for the arts and communication by starving and threatening our cultural institutions with cutbacks and commercialization. We have allowed our treasured Medicare system to atrophy rather than improve and fund it appropriately; this has made private medical care look much more attractive than it is.

Rather than protect our precious resources -- our land, water, air and our own health -- from climate disaster, we are shaming dissenting individuals and groups by labeling them "naive" or "subversive." We are allowing partisan interests to silence our scientists and civil servants. We are silent about the continued abuse and neglect of our native peoples, especially women and girls, at the same time as we condemn discrimination elsewhere. We are choosing militarization over taking care of each other and our precious planet.

Would I make the same choice today? I am proud and invigorated by young and old people who are raising urgent concerns about our country's basic values. I am inspired by the Idle No More movement, the Occupiers, those who have chosen to ally themselves with the 99-per-cent, and join with them in sometimes disorderly nonviolent activism.

On the occasion of my investiture as an Officer of the Order of Canada, I am a fierce Canadian, vigilant to preserve the best potential of the Canada we chose -- twice. We all "desire a better country."


Bonnie Sherr Klein's award-winning films include the series Organizing For Change: The Alinsky Approach and Not a Love Story: A Film about Pornography. She authored the best-seller Slow Dance: A Story of Stroke, Love, and Disability in collaboration with Persimmon Blackbridge and made Shameless: The Art of Disability, a collaborative film about disability artists. She and husband Michael live on the Sunshine Coast and in Vancouver.

 This article was originally published by The Tyee and is reprinted here with permission. 

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