Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson

Speech on the Occasion of the Sod-turning Ceremony for The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat Foundation

Ottawa, Monday, June 6, 2005


Your Highness, you are aware that John Ralston Saul and I have paid two visits to Kabul, Afghanistan to visit the Canadian troops deployed there. On our first visit, in December of 2003, we found a city that was practically flattened, and a people that seemed to be in disbelief that they were no longer in the midst of total war. One year later, we returned and immediately sensed that there was new hope. There were more people going about their business in the streets, a wider selection of food in the markets, and increased availability of practical goods like bicycle tires and oil cans. It was encouraging to see these ground-level indications that the people of Kabul were beginning to rebuild.

But there was another development that seized our attention. On that first occasion, we were taken to Babur's Gardens, that splendid hillside site that overlooks the city. Babur, the mighty Moghul king, had insisted that there was only one place on earth that he wanted to be buried: the gorgeous city of Kabul. Accordingly, his remains were returned from India and a magnificent tomb was built. The grandeur of Afghanistan and its important place in history are embodied in Babur's Gardens. The Aga Khan Foundation invited us to look at it and to hear of the plans for its restoration, and the vision was impressive.

In 2004, then, we were eager to return to the Gardens. And in only a year, the Foundation had transformed a dusty ruin surrounded by broken walls into a beautiful terraced garden with reconstructed adobe enclosures and the first of a series of fountains. It was astonishing. Nothing could more eloquently express the mission of your Foundation to improve the material lot of the world's most devastated regions and peoples, yes, but also to respect spiritual and aesthetic considerations. Babur's Gardens serve as a point of hope and illumination for everyone who cares about Afghanistan, and they are a remarkable symbol of everything that your Foundation does.

Today you are in Canada to begin a new chapter for your Foundation and for its place in the texture of Canadian life. Sussex Drive is Ottawa's and Canada's ceremonial avenue. Along it will soon rise a building which will stand for the way in which the world can work when we are at our best. Today we make a symbolic start on the construction of a most meaningful place.

Its crystal dome will be a vision of clarity, beauty and openness. Its very architecture will suggest an understanding of how the world can develop. I'm told that it will be possible to look straight through the building from the atrium on the west side to the garden courtyard on the east. This transparency points us towards true insight, to an ability to bypass apparent oppositions intellect versus faith, spirit versus matter, West versus East to see instead what unites us and what strengthens us.

When we first met in the early seventies, Your Highness, you spoke of the plight of your people in east Africa, where tyranny was looming over them. You negotiated the entry of thousands of Ismailis into Canada by personally committing yourself to their successful establishment as immigrants and then as citizens of our country. As Canadians, we are proud to have opened our doors to a persecuted people. We are also grateful for the way in which this community has enriched and strengthened Canadian life, and aware of what you did to make it possible.

No one here needs to be told of the beneficial presence of the Ismaili community, both here in Canada and in its remarkable work in education and development throughout the world. The leadership of Your Highness the Aga Khan has been essential to all these achievements. How simply you said it in an address last month: "Imams are required to improving the quality of life for the people who refer to them. This ethical premise is the foundation of the Aga Khan Development Network, which has long been serving the developing world without regard to ethnicity, gender or race." Your commitment has been clear and unqualified throughout your life, and in the work of your Foundation here and around the globe.

This leadership will assume a physical form here in Canada. This building will be an intellectual centre for the development network that you have founded and nurtured. I'm reminded of the old Latin proverb that progress comes from "spurring a willing horse". It means finding an event that was waiting to happen, or a group or even a nation that was ready to act, and jumpstarting them with a jolt of material and intellectual force. This place represents such an infusion of energy, and I am sure that it will move development efforts forward.

As Governor General, I am proud that what Canada is what it will be, what it seeks to do in the world is so highly respected by the spiritual head of the Ismaili community. This building proves the depth of that regard. With your perspective and experience, you have seen that, among the nations of the world, we have created a unique model for human society. Our celebrated diversity, our inclusive views of citizenship, and our peaceable ways of inhabiting our vast territory make us deeply conscious of the larger world.

We are honoured that our capital has been chosen for this significant new opening, as well as for an exciting shared venture, The Global Centre for Pluralism. Another of our major cities will be the site for The Aga Khan Museum, while two of the six planned or existing Ismaili centres in the world will be here in Canada. It is said that chance makes our parents but choice makes our friends. It is marvellous that we have chosen each other as friends. We will bring different kinds of knowing to each other, different ways to see and to feel, and from all this something rich and beautiful will arise.

I am also delighted that, during this visit, Canada will confer upon His Highness the Aga Khan its highest formal civilian tribute, in recognition of his life of generosity, of thoughtful stewardship, and of benevolent spiritual direction. We will invest him as an honorary Companion of the Order of Canada. This evening, he will join a very tiny group of international figures to whom our country pays its highest respects.

May I again say how pleased I am to be part of this important event in the life of the Ismaili community and also of this city and this country. Please be assured that you are welcome here. Know that when you speak, Canada and the world will listen. All of us here for this groundbreaking occasion would like to hear from you now.