How do we want to be Remembered?
This is my last regularly-scheduled column on the history of the Empire Club of Canada and how it pertains to life today. It has been an immense pleasure and honour to write these for you over the past three years (my first column appeared on June 30th, 2013). Thank you to all of those who followed these musings and so often provided me with encouragement. And thank you for allowing me to serve as your President this past year…it was an immense honour, and is something that I will never, ever forget.
The vast majority of speeches delivered at the Empire Club are in some way about Canada, whether it is business, politics, social and societal movements or culture. Since there are thousands upon thousands of speeches on record since the Club was set up 113 years ago, it becomes apparent that they reflect the times during which they were delivered, and while one generation of Canadians may have been avidly interested in their relationship with Great Britain or have been preoccupied by free trade, subsequent generations barely give these matters a thought and instead turn their minds to the rights of women or the place of French Canada in confederation. In this way, the Empire Club is really nothing more than a mirror of what is going on in the country at the moment, and gives Canadians of all stripes and colours a chance to think about important issues of their time, issues that actually affect their lives. This past year we have discussed everything from physician-assisted dying to negative interest rates as an innovative monetary tool in times of recession, and while these topics caused a lot of ink to flow (or to be less anachronistic more digital keyboards to be pecked at), we know that in a decade when some future President of the Empire Club is pouring over archives he or she may view these issues as quaint and wonder what the fuss was all about when they exploded onto the podium of the Club and attracted scores of people convinced that they were of the upmost importance. Such is the story of the world…the issues that enflame passions in one decade are barely noticed in the next, and the youth of society just smile and think quietly to themselves that previous generations were preposterous sticks in the mud who quite clearly got worked up about silly topics which would never bother them. And yet, those pioneers who fought for women to get the vote, for racial equality, for abortion and a woman’s right to choose, for same-sex marriage, and more recently for the right to die with dignity know that their battles were real, that their foes were bitter and sometimes dangerous. We are all living within the context and belief systems of our times, we are all the members of a generation which one day will be largely forgotten except for the battles we won that lead to a change in the law or to what is acceptable or no longer acceptable. Such is the eternal and relentless march of time, and those who do not keep up with it or are incapable of accepting it are quickly swept aside into the netherworld of irrelevance, unless of course they have purposely checked out to pursue inner spiritual meditation.
When historian Prank Yeigh came to the relatively new Empire Club on April 25th, 1912, he had these thoughts on his mind…what would Canada look like in the future, and how did his contemporaries want to be remembered? His highly philosophical speech no doubt made many of those who heard him wonder if the all-consuming issues of the day would even have any traction in the future. This little-known address is one of my personal favorites in our archives as it has strangely withheld the test of time:
“If the span of a Canadian generation just past tells such a story, shows such a record, what of the span of the generation to come? It is wise to look backward occasionally; it is equally justifiable to dwell on the present with all its allurements, because today is right here, but there is also a place for dreaming and for prophesying of the Canada that is to be. I cannot conceive of the Canadian who does not thrill as he pauses to think of the Canada of today; and of the coming Canada.
Let us therefore look forward for a moment or two, and if need be, dream. It may be dangerous business to prophesy, for the prophets of failure of Confederation were wrong; the prophets of the un-productivity of the West were wrong; the prophets of annexation were and are and always will be wrong, I take it; but among those who prophesied correctly ere Confederation came to pass was Joseph Howe who away back in 1851 predicted a transcontinental railway. Although it took thirty years to make his dream come true, yet he dreamed the dream and the dream came true”.
This is to many of us who love the Empire Club and what it stands for at the very core of what we believe, why we want to be involved in “conversations with power”, to use our own catch phrase. We want to understand the issues of the day so as to make better decisions for tomorrow, and be remembered as Canadians who challenged ourselves and walked boldly out of our comfort zone so as to be remembered as thoughtful men and women who rejected a blind acceptance of the status quo to ensure that the Canada of the future lives up to its full potential as a nation, as a beacon of tolerance and understanding that is based on the most thoughtful societal leaders of our time. We do this in a context of historical continuity, recognizing that our history must never be forgotten if we want to be truly open to building the best possible future for those Canadians who follow us. Our names and faces may be largely forgotten in a few decades, but the thoughts and ideas we put forward through this 112- year old instrument we call the Empire Club of Canada will live on for future generations to look back at, to better understand how we lived our lives, why we chose the leaders we did, and what really mattered to us as residents of the early 21st century in Canada. This is how we want to be remembered…as men and women who were the purveyors of ideas in their time, who cared enough about the human experience to want to improve it in some small way by bringing the most salient issues of our era before the populace for discussion, contemplation and eventually to set the course for the future.
God bless our country, our Queen, and God bless the Empire Club of Canada… may we never forget the importance of its role in nation building and contributing to a better life for all of our citizens.