Sure, we have rights, but what about duties?
Barack Obama in Europe and Omar Khadr in Guantánamo have lately dominated the news in Canada, making me think about our Charter of Rights and Freedoms because of Obama's triumph over discrimination and Khadr's loss of basic rights. The Charter's adoption in 1982 altered the balance of power between Parliament and the Supreme Court. Did it work?
The Charter is a document to be proud of and we must defend it, yet it talks about rights and freedoms, but it doesn't address the need for duties and responsibilities.
The Charter applies not only to all people born in Canada, but also to whoever sets foot in this country. It is, therefore, a Charter that defines Canada but not Canadians. Unfortunately, while the rights of its citizens define a nation, it is the duties that define the citizens.
Now we are all excited because the Americans have a new John F. Kennedy called Barack Obama. I'm excited too. But we should remember that JFK's most celebrated quote was: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." This notion of national duty is not included in our Charter and I believe this is the time to complement this document with initiatives that make it clear to all what Canadian citizenship is all about.
We know where exacerbated nationalism will lead. Nonetheless, in a time when globalization is pushing economies, cultures and needs together, it's time to define our identity as Canadians, our duties as Canadians toward Canada.
Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney tried that, and their initiatives were aimed mainly at Quebec, focusing on the need to bring together the "solitudes" of the two founding cultures. But in Canada, the "solitudes" are not two, but four. Along with the anglophone and francophone communities, there are the aboriginals and also the so-called ethnics.
We're all happy to "celebrate our differences," but those differences are lately causing us to grow apart.
We have treaties signed with aboriginals that we rarely respect. We have natives living on reserves in conditions worse than those in Third-World countries, despite Ottawa's annual expenditure of more than $12 billion.
We had Canadian Omar Khadr in Afghanistan fighting against principles that Canadian soldiers are now dying for, and we have Canadians permanently living in the Middle East asking us to bail them out in case of problems. We have more than 250,000 Canadian citizens permanently living in Hong Kong, hoping that nothing happens to the former British colony. We also have Canadian citizens in the Italian Parliament in Rome elected by Canadian residents in Canada, and we have Canadians raising money for terrorist organizations that have nothing to do with our country.
All of us enjoy the protection of the Charter whenever we need it and wherever we are, but now we also need a new set of rules establishing, for example, a direct relationship between citizenship and permanent residence, or addressing activities of criminal or terrorist nature when Canadian citizenship is clearly used as a cover.
From John A. Macdonald on, our leaders have done a good job defining a geographic area called Canada, but were not very successful with the definition of Canadian citizenship. They were too busy protecting the rights of the "distinct societies" or "celebrating the differences," believing that the geographic boundaries were enough protection for their rights.
For more than a century it was Canada that protected its citizens. Now, with globalization crushing geographic boundaries, it is Canada that is in need of its citizens.
Angelo Persichilli is the political editor of Corriere Canadese. His column will appear every Sunday.