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‘I Speak as a Citizen of Canada’: WLM King, 1947

Speech delivered by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King at the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa on January 3, 1947. The occasion was the reception of Canadian citizenship under the new Canadian Citizenship Act.

William Lyon Mackenzie King“Chief Justice, ladies and gentlemen, I speak as a citizen of Canada. On behalf of all Canadians, I congratulate the new citizens, who have just received their certificates, on having become citizens of Canada. I welcome you into the full enjoyment of the rights of Canadian citizenship. Some of us who have received certificates tonight have enjoyed those rights all their lives, others only for a time. In homes throughout or land, thousands of our fellow citizens have been listening with pride to tonight’s ceremony. I know that all would wish to join in these words of greeting and congratulation.

Citizenship is the highest honour a nation can confer upon an individual who has not been born into this heritage. Without citizenship much else is meaningless. There is no country in the world of which its citizens have greater reason to be proud than Canada. There are older countries, there are larger countries, but no country holds today a higher place in the esteem of other nations. To be a citizen of Canada is to hold a passport which will be honoured everywhere.

Tonight’s ceremony symbolizes in a very real way the character of Canadian nationhood. Those of our number who have received certificates of citizenship come from communities widely scattered throughout Canada. Over the years, these widely scattered communities have been welded into a single country. We here, like the people of Canada, generally, are of many different origins.  In the past, divergent racial origins have repeatedly been a source of division. Moreover, newcomers, while severing ties with their original homeland, have often felt no binding claim to the land of their adoption. Today we have established  a new conception of Canadian citizenship. The new conception of citizenship is designed to bridge the gaps created by geography and by racial decent. As a people, Canadians will be bound more closely together, by the statutory recognition accorded our Canadian citizenship in this new year. Our unity and our strength will be increased by the deeper significance now given to our common citizenship.

The Canada of today has been described as a supreme act of faith. The Canada we know was hewn out of the wilderness, often in defiance of nature. In extent, our country is immense; its chief areas of settlement are divided, one from another, by long distances and by rugged terrain. Many of you who today have become citizens are well aware of this; some of you are from British Columbia and the Prairies, some are from the central provinces, some from the Maritimes.

To all of us, the most of Canada is still unknown. The vision and courage of men and women have transformed our country – almost within living memory – from small and virtually unknown regions of forest and farm into one of the great industrial nations of the world.

But far more than material growth has arisen from the vision and courage of our people; they have also sought continuously to defend and to extend the frontiers of freedom. More than once in the name of Canada, the sons and daughters of Canada have valiantly served; and thousands have died to save the world’s freedom. In world affairs, our country has an outstanding record of responsibility and integrity.

Our nationhood is not based on the superiority of a single race, or of a single language. Canada was founded on the faith that two of the proudest races in the world, despite barriers of tongue and creed, could work together in mutual tolerance and mutual respect, to develop a common nationality.

Into our equal partnership of English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians we have admitted thousands who are born of other racial stocks, and who speak other tongues. They, one and all, have sought a homeland where nationhood means not domination and slavery, but equality and freedom.

Without the ideal of equality among men, without the vision of human brotherhood, the Canadian nation could never have come into being. The unity of Canada is vital to the continued existence of Canada. But the unity of Canada belongs not to Canada alone – it belongs to mankind. Only by extending throughout the world the ideals of mutual tolerance, of racial co-operation and of quality among men, which form the basis of Canada’s nationhood, can nationality come to serve humanity. Only as nationality serves humanity can mankind hope to substitute co-operation for conflict in the relations between the nations of the world. Making nationality the servant, and not the master in world affairs, Canada today is giving to mankind its greatest hope for the future.

Let me, before I conclude, say just a word or two about the duties and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship; for citizenship is not any chance observance or more obligation of the moment, it is part of the very structure of our nation. On the degree to which our citizens intelligently use their opportunities, will depend our country’s future – and perhaps, in larger measure than we suppose, the possible future of other lands.

A little over twenty-one years ago, I visited the town in which i was born and in which I had spent most of my boyhood days; I had gone there to attend an Old Boys reunion. The theme of my address on that occasion was the opportunities and responsibilities implied in being a citizen of Canada. Last night I read over what I had said at that time. I then sought to define citizenship in terms of public service; that is what citizenship, as something vital, really means – public service in one form or another, in one sphere of activity or another.

To make graphic the impression I’d wish to leave I recalled how, when very young, some of us had found pleasure in throwing pebbles into a pond, and how fascinating it was to watch the ripples of water radiating in ever expanding circles to the pond’s circumference. In this way I sought to bring home the opportunities of citizenship in terms of service to the public. I pointed out the opportunity for service first of all to the local municipality – the town or the city, and to the county in which one lives  – then, thinking of expanding areas, to one’s province, and then to Canada as a whole. I sought, as well, to bring home the truth that as the circumference of the circle of opportunity expands for the citizen, so do his duties and responsibilities. It is in the interest taken by individuals in the expanding circles of citizenship that holds human society together.

In the address I made at that time, I went a step further. I pointed out that citizenship in Canada was not confined to the bounds of the Dominion, extensive as they are. I said that we enjoyed a larger citizenship still, namely our citizenship within the British Commonwealth of Nations. It was the summer of 1925 when I was speaking. That was seven years after the first great war. I went on to say that an even wider citizenship was then coming into being. This I described as a kind of world citizenship, which was bringing with it for us duties and responsibilities, not only to our own country and to the countries of the British Commonwealth, but to other countries as well. In other words, as we are now able to visualize it, Canadian citizenship is not a citizenship which relates itself  merely to the immediate community in which we live. As Canadians we have a national citizenship, a Commonwealth citizenship and a world citizenship. Each carries with it a certain responsibility, a responsibility which it is our duty to recognize and our privilege to assert.”

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