Up ] Dr. Siddiqui ] Hon. Roy McMurtry ] Barry Leon ] Senator Poy ] Ambassador Wilkins ] Paul Cavallluzzo ] Hon. Peter Milliken ] H. E. Farid Shafiyev ] H. E. R. Argunay ] Prof. Errol Mendes ] Zaib Shaikh ] Goldy Hyder ] Mrs. Vicky Heyman ] [ Mr. Tony Burman ] Hon Thomas Mulcair ] H. E. Sparwasser ]


Keynote Address by Tony Burman  at the 19th Annual Canada Day Celebrations and Canada 150 celebrations in 2017

Thank you very much.  I appreciate the introduction.  I appreciate the invitation. And I feel quite honoured to be part of this important occasion.

 Happy Canada Day.  Happy 150th Canada Day.  (I swear you don’t look a day over a hundred…)   But seriously, we have so much to celebrate.

 We have no reason to feel smug, or righteous or complacent.  Canada is not perfect.  Of course, we have challenges ahead of us, and problems still to solve.  But let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture: Canada – in our magical diversity - is a wonderful country that has helped make this world better.  

 I feel particularly privileged to be honoured tonight by the Association of Progressive Muslims of Canada.   It is a wonderful Canadian organization.   At its core, it reflects the Islamic values of peace, justice, respect, understanding and equality.  Since its creation, it has brought together different communities and faith groups.  Canada, as a whole, has been enriched by these initiatives. And so much of this has been due to the dedication and hard work of its president and founder, Mobeen Khaja.

 Last weekend, as Canadian Muslims, you celebrated the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.  It was an occasion when family and friends gathered to give thanks for the spiritual growth and blessings throughout the holy month.  For Canadians as a whole, it was also a reminder of the invaluable contributions of Canadian Muslims to our national life.

 For much of my career, I have worked and traveled outside of Canada, most recently when I lived in Qatar working for Al Jazeera.  This was a fascinating journey for me.  From a unique perspective, it has been an opportunity to reflect on Canada’s changing role in this changing world.

 One thing I certainly learned is that people beyond our borders have very high expectations of Canadians, and a clear sense of Canadian values.  More than ever, they count on individual Canadians – such as those of you here tonight - and Canadian organizations like the APMC to embody those values.  And you do so with such distinction.

 As you know, I spent most of my professional career at the CBC.  I worked closely with  many gifted journalists – such as Joe Schlesinger, Brian Stewart, Peter Mansbridge  and the late Barbara Frum who – as many of you will remember – was the iconic host of The Journal on CBC Television.

 This week – in fact tonight – is the last time that Peter Mansbridge will be anchoring The National.  He is retiring after nearly 50 years at the CBC.    There were several informal celebrations this week at the CBC paying tribute to Peter.  But on Tuesday, there was a celebration by CBC staff of Barbara Frum, and Peter was the host.  For years, the two of them were co-anchors of the CBC’s Ten O’Clock Hour – The National and The Journal, and I was executive producer of The National for eight years.

 Last Tuesday, Barbara  was chosen to be part of the CBC News Hall of Fame – joining the late Knowlton Nash and Joe Schlesinger.  In Peter’s recollection of Barbara, he mentioned that it was her interview with Nelson Mandela that she regarded as her most memorable moment.

 I remember that moment.  I was Barbara’s producer in South Africa.  It was about 27 years ago in the black township of Soweto outside of Johannesburg.  Together, we were witnessing a profoundly transformational event:  the release from jail of Nelson Mandela.

 A few years earlier, I had done a documentary about Mr. Mandela that included a reenactment of the 1963 Rivonia Trial.  This was the trial that convicted him on bogus terrorism charges and sent him off to jail.

 His wife, Winnie Mandela, saw the documentary, and liked it.  And because of that, the CBC was one of the three networks in the world to get an interview with Nelson Mandela after he was released.  This was Mr. Mandela’s first experience with freedom since 1963.

 As we were setting up for the interview, he kept quizzing us on where we had been.   Barbara said the two of us had recently come from Moscow where we had done a series of programs on the looming demise of the Soviet Union.

 I added that I had also just come back from the Middle East to cover the “first Intifada.”  I remember saying, in passing, that — if the world was in upheaval and experiencing massive change — the Middle East was a region that seemed impervious to change.    

 Mr. Mandela looked at me when I said that, and replied in a very soft voice:  “That is what they said about South Africa, didn’t they?  But I am now here in front of you. The Middle East will change one day. Because it has to.”

 He then went on to say something else that was very important.  Mr. Mandela wanted us to thank the Canadian people on his behalf.  Canada, he said, led the way in the 1980s against South Africa’s apartheid regime. 

 By having the courage and vision to stare down Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the campaign to end apartheid – he said – the Canadian people showed the world the way. 

 “Never forget that,” he said. “You are such a welcoming country.”

 He was right, of course – and it is something we should remember as we celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. 

 I was thinking of Mr. Mandela’s words when I saw this story on the front page of The New York Times this week. 

 It was headlined: “Canada’s Secret to Resisting the West’s Populist Wave.”

 The story’s opening said it all:

 “As right-wing populism has roiled elections and upended politics across the West, there is one country where populists have largely failed to break through: Canada.

 “The raw ingredients are present.  A white ethnic majority that is losing its demographic dominance.  A sharp rise in immigration that is changing culture and communities.  News media and political personalities who bet big on white backlash.”

 Yet – the story goes on- “Canada’s politics remain stable…Not only have the politics of white backlash failed, but immigration and racial diversity are sources of national pride.”

 Among the lessons that Canada can offer other nations, according to The New York Times, is Canada’s multicultural identity: “Identity works differently in Canada. Both whites and non-whites see Canadian identity as something that not only can accommodate outsiders, but is enhanced by the inclusion of many different kinds of people. Canada is a mosaic rather than a melting pot.”

  That was an interesting piece.  It often takes an outsider to remind us of simple truths.  Canada is not perfect.  But compared to any other country on this planet, it works well.

 To any American observer – in this current political context - what is really striking  about multicultural Canada is its openness to immigration.  We don't quite have an open-door policy -  but the goal of high immigration has been central to Canada’s  approach for decades. And that has shaped how this is country is evolving.

 As a result, we have a diverse, dynamic and relatively young population that is growing.  By mid-century, Canada’s population may match some of the largest nations in Europe.  We are growing at the same time so many of our rivals – and neighbors – are stagnant.

 Let me cite a newspaper article in today’s Washington Post.    This is the headline: “The U.S. fertility rate just hit a historic low.  Why some demographers are freaking out.” 

 In a country where immigration has become a constant source of controversy, the story reports that the number of American women giving birth has been declining for years and just hit a historic low.  If the trend continues, the United States could face economic and cultural turmoil.

 There are obviously still many challenges ahead of us.   Violence is still rampant throughout the Middle East, and it often extends beyond that region’s borders.  This, in turn, has triggered unprecedented levels of anti-Muslim behavior.

 New data from Statistics Canada draws a depressing picture.  Between 2012 and 2015, the number of police-reported hate crimes targeting Muslims in Canada more than tripled.  This is despite the fact that the overall number of such crimes actually decreased over the same period.

 I share the view of distinguished journalist Haroon Siddiqui -  recently retired as a Toronto Star columnist - that the Canadian news media have contributed to Islamophobia by conflating Muslim terrorists with all Muslims. 

 In a lecture last year at the Aga Khan Museum, he said that journalists needed to explore “a taboo topic”, as he put it – and that is the link between Western wars on Muslim nations and Muslim terrorism.

 As he framed the question: “If Islam is a violent religion, what explains the fact that the phenomenon of widespread Muslim terrorism as we know it today has exploded only in recent years?”

 At the heart of Mr. Siddiqui’s argument is the role of journalism in this increasingly chaotic 21st century.    Is it the “problem”, or can it be a “solution”?

 Either way - whether in Donald Trump’s America or in Saudi Arabia’s Middle East -  the existence of a strong, free, independent news media is increasingly under threat.

 The latest example is in the Gulf.   Great wars rarely begin in the full glare of daylight. They often start in the dark, in the dead of night, when few people are able to see the danger.

But there is genuine danger now in the showdown underway in the Gulf, and Qatar’s ground-breaking Al Jazeera news network is emerging as the real target.

With the initial blessing of Donald Trump, several Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia announced a blockade of the tiny Gulf state of Qatar on June 5. They severed diplomatic ties, accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism and being sympathetic to Saudi Arabia’s despised rival, Iran.

But much of their anger is being directed at Al Jazeera, whose Arabic news service has been a source of irritation to Gulf and Arab rulers since its creation in 1996. They want Al Jazeera closed down.

For decades, Al Jazeera’s journalism has tried to live up its credo as “the voice of the voiceless” by examining the Gulf monarchies and secular Arab dictatorships such as Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt.

In a region where censorship was the accepted norm, Al Jazeera challenged the establishment elites and, for the first time, brought a wide diversity of perspectives into Arab living rooms. This included radical and Islamist voices, as well as viewpoints from Israel.

In the growing struggle against Arab dictatorships — particularly during the Arab Spring of 2010-11 — the network gave considerable voice to the Muslim Brotherhood and other popular movements.

The Economist – the influential British news magazine - said it well in an editorial – titled “Hands Off Al Jazeera” - in the issue coming out this weekend.

This is part of what they wrote:

Irony is not dead in the Middle East. In April, Saudi Arabia, a land where women may not drive, or leave the country without the written permission of a male “guardian”, or appear in public without an all-enveloping cloak, was elected to the UN’s committee on women’s rights. Now that same monarchy, where the government censors everything from political dissent to risqué Rubens paintings, and where a pro-democracy blogger named Raif Badawi has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and ten years in jail, is trying to shut down the only big, feisty broadcaster in the Arab world, Al Jazeera. This is an extraordinary, extraterritorial assault on free speech. It is as if China had ordered Britain to abolish the BBC.”

I find this a powerful critique from a magazine that is usually a model of British restraint.

We certainly live in an increasingly challenging world.   Imagine how it must have felt a hundred years ago – in 1917.  The Great War was coming to an end.  But how many then could have known what enormous changes were to come in the turbulent, violent 20th Century that was to unfold.

I suspect historians will one day judge this period as a defining period in this 21st century.  The centres of power are shifting.   In historic and epic terms, the ground is moving beneath our feet. Power is shifting from the West — from the United States – to China, India and other parts of the developing world where the world’s new 21st century economy is taking shape.

After the rise of the West for the past hundreds of years, it’s now the “rise of the rest,” as one writer put it.    That doesn’t mean we’re entering an anti-American world.  But we are certainly moving into a post-American world, one defined and directed from many places and by many people.

For Canadians — living in perhaps the most multicultural nation on earth — this should have special resonance.  If we only understood it better.  In the full sweep of history, one could argue this is precisely the time when understanding other cultures and other faiths is a necessary prerequisite to truly understanding your own.

This is just one reason why organizations such as the Association of Progressive Muslims of Canada are so important.  And why all of us in Canada need to better understand the enormous contributions Canadian Muslims are making to our national life.

I remember a survey released last year by the Environics Institute.  It was a study of the attitudes of Canada’s Muslim population. 

There was one finding that really stuck in my mind.  Muslims truly stand out as being among the most enthusiastic group of Canadian patriots.  More than eight in ten of you are very proud to be Canadian – considerably more than in the non-Muslim population.  And this number has been increasing over the decade.

I feel very privileged to have witnessed the Citizenship ceremony that took place before this Canada Day dinner.  It was so moving and inspiring.  And what a wonderful event to experience on the eve of Canada’s 150th birthday.  

We are lucky to have these new citizens join our Canadian family.  Thank you for your attention.  And Happy Canada Day.


Mr. Burman's bio:

TONY BURMAN is former head of Al Jazeera English in Qatar, and of CBC News in Canada, responsible for all TV, radio and digital journalism. Since 2011, he has written a weekly column on world affairs for the Toronto Star.

      Between 2011 and 2016, he was visiting professor of journalism at Ryerson University and was also Ryerson’s Velma Rogers Graham Chair in News Media and Technology. 

      While Managing Director of Al Jazeera English  from 2008-2010, the network’s worldwide audience more than doubled to 220 million households.  He worked in Washington from 2010-2011 as Al Jazeera’s Strategic Adviser for the Americas.

      In October 2009, Arabian Business Magazine named him the second most influential non-Arab in the Arab world.  In November 2009, the Canadian Expat Association announced he had been voted the third most influential Canadian living abroad, after Michael J. Fox and Wayne Gretzky. 

      Before Al Jazeera, he spent more than three decades as an award-winning news and documentary producer, and senior broadcast executive, at the CBC, including more than seven years as its Editor-in-Chief.  With Brian Stewart, he was one of the first journalists to cover the Ethiopian famine in 1984. 

      Working in more than 30 countries, he produced many documentaries that were rebroadcast on the BBC, PBS and other international networks.  This included Mandela (1986), one of the first TV biographies of  Nelson and Winnie Mandela, which was rebroadcast in 18 countries.

       He was born in Montreal, educated at Loyola College and began his journalism career as a reporter with The Montreal Star.