11/10/2014 11:00 EST | Updated 01/10/2015 05:59 EST

Adrienne Clarkson on why Canada's multiculturalism works

The Ottawa shooting in late October that left Cpl. Nathan Cirillo dead shook this nation to its core.

Two days later, a mosque in Cold Lake, Alta., was defaced. But within hours, residents of Cold Lake were helping restore the mosque. 

What does this chain of events – from national tragedy to an act of local decency – tell us about ourselves?

Adrienne Clarkson, a former Governor-General and long-time CBC television host, has a theory that may explain why the townspeople did what they did.

It wasn’t a matter of tolerance, or of kindness. It was a matter of identity – an identity defined by our relationships with others.

“Individuals are not independent of each other. We have individual rights, but we also have duties to others,” she said in Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship, the 2014 CBC Massey Lecture, which is also available as a book.

“And in belonging to ourselves and to society, we have the greatest possibility to live full lives, connected to all human beings.”

Clarkson argues that our core sense of who we are depends on our belonging to a group, a collective, a country – and this sense is heightened in times of national crisis.

Being inclusive

She rejects the notion, however, that belonging means excluding others.

Clarkson's assertion was put to the test after she delivered her first Massey Lecture in Montreal, when an audience member pointed out that excluding others is precisely how many political leaders define the identity of the group they profess to represent.

The audience member pointed to some extreme opinions expressed during the Quebec Charter debate, and how right-wing leaders in Europe score political points by openly vilifying Muslims and immigrants.

“It’s basically racist,” was Clarkson’s answer. “And in France, I’m afraid, you still do hear things that I heard in Canada in the ‘40s as a child, about Jews and so on.

“I think that fear and ignorance and bigotry and so on should be always met head-on.”

This principle of confronting ignorance and bigotry compels Clarkson to take on some formidable figures in her lectures.

“Margaret Thatcher famously said, ‘There is no such thing as society.’ I have always begged to disagree with this statement since I first heard it from her, a politician whom I interviewed and personally found unappealing.”

For Clarkson, the symbiosis of individual and society isn’t simply an attractive ideal - it’s a fact. Individuals make up a broader collective the way that musical notes make up a symphony.

As the child of immigrants from Hong Kong who lost everything in the Second World War, Clarkson knows firsthand what it’s like to live in an age defined by the greatest mass migrations of people in history.

“I have made belonging the interest of my life. I was, and am, a child of diaspora. I am someone who, for a while, did not belong anywhere. And I will always be someone who understands the everlasting anguish of not belonging.”

Only in Canada

Much to her astonishment, the Canada she arrived in during the 1940s, while overwhelmingly white in complexion, took her and her family in.

She continues to be astonished by this country’s ethos of acceptance. She recalls reading some weekly tabloids in Toronto featuring stories about the dating lives of younger people.

“What was most wonderful and remarkable about these particular match-ups was that the couple was not only frequently same-sex, but also often black and white, brown and black or yellow and white. Yet no comment about race or ethnicity was ever made by either party in any description of the evening. This could happen in no other country but Canada.”

Yet she’s not a flag-waver, either.

She points to growing income disparity in Canada, citing the figure that the top 100 CEOs make over 170 times the annual income of the average person, and bemoans how First Nations people have been treated unfairly throughout our history.

Clarkson insists that new Canadians must share in carrying the weight of the country’s past, warts and all.

“They must accept everything,” she asserts, which means not only our past transgressions as a country but our present responsibilities to other Canadians.

She recalls that while she was Governor General, she gave out Bravery Awards. One recipient was a fellow in Saskatchewan who rescued a man he didn’t know from a fiery tanker truck crash.

Clarkson remembers speaking to the man who broke the window of the flaming truck to get the driver out.

“I asked him what was going through his mind when he did this. He answered, ‘I looked down at that guy, and I thought, that guy is me.'”

It’s precisely this way of thinking about oneself and others -- whether helping a stranger on a Saskatchewan highway or restoring a mosque in Cold Lake, Alta. -- that illustrates Clarkson`s belief in the power of belonging.

“We are most fully human, most truly ourselves, most authentically individual, when we commit to the community. It is in the mirror of our community – the street, the neighbourhood, the town, the country – that we find our best selves.”

The five-part radio series Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship will be broadcast on CBC Radio's Ideas starting Nov. 10 at 9 p.m. ET (9:30 p.m. NT)​.