Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you, members of the committee.
To start, I have to admit that I'm a bit nervous, for several reasons. It is a special day for me not only because I have an opportunity to present my private member's bill to this committee, but also it's the first time in my life that I am appearing before a parliamentary committee. It is therefore a historical milestone in my life as well.
Mr. Chair and members of the committee, I introduced Bill C-266, an act to establish Pope John Paul II Day, to be celebrated on April 2 in Canada. This is not meant to be a statutory holiday and is not meant to be a legal holiday, but a non-juridical day. Therefore, this is an act to have a day to remember the accomplishments of the late pope.
Establishing the day will allow all Canadians the opportunity to reflect on and celebrate a man who took a strong stand on human rights and opened a dialogue with other faiths to promote freedom of religion and speech across the globe. These are values that we as Canadians share. I bring this before you not only as an opportunity to celebrate a man who did so much for millions of Christian followers around the world, but to celebrate a man who did much more to uphold values that we as Canadians cherish so deeply, values of justice, liberty, and democracy.
Pope John Paul II was the third-longest reigning pope in history. In his time as pope he took a strong stand for human rights, democracy, and religious freedom, and visited more than 129 countries to carry his message around the world.
I have a difficulty, especially, when people try to label me for bringing this act to Parliament. This is not a new idea. For those members of the committee who may not know, a similar bill was already introduced in Parliament in the previous session by the member of Parliament at that time for Brampton West, Andrew Kania. There was a two-hour debate, the election was called, and Parliament was dissolved before the bill went to committee.
Also, it was introduced twice, debated, and voted on at the Ontario provincial legislature. It was Frank Klees, MPP for Newmarket—Aurora, who introduced a bill to establish John Paul II Day in Ontario.
I would like to quote a few people who spoke to Frank Klees' bill, because as I said, it's very easy at this point to label me. First of all, I am a Roman Catholic. Second, I was born, raised, and educated in Poland; therefore, like the late pope, I come from Poland. It is therefore easy to label me, saying that the main reason I am introducing the bill is due to my faith and my country of origin.
I will read part of Frank Klees's speech at the provincial legislature, and I quote:
Since presenting this bill for first reading on April 2, 2007, which was the second anniversary of Pope John Paul’s death, the public response to it has been, quite literally, overwhelming. My office received 5,000 signatures on petitions in support of this bill in one day alone, and I know that other members have also received literally thousands of signatures on petitions of support for its passage by this House. Of interest is the fact that many petitions came from non-Catholics, and I believe that this in itself is evidence that people of all faiths recognize the impact of Pope John Paul and that his influence surpassed denominational borders.
Some of the most interesting responses have come when people find out that I, as the sponsor of this bill, am not Roman Catholic—or Polish, for that matter. In fact, I’m a German-born Protestant who studied theology in a Baptist seminary. But like many others, I have been touched and influenced over the years by the life and example of a man who, while carrying out his responsibilities as spiritual leader of millions around the world, never tired of advocating for social justice and human rights at every opportunity. And he had a way of making what he said transcend the ecclesiastical trappings and ceremony that all too often can get in the way of the message.
The second person that spoke was Cheri DiNovo from the provincial NDP. She said:
It’s my honour to speak at such an auspicious occasion....
It’s fascinating that it is so rare that we acknowledge spiritual giants. It’s so rare that we set aside the time, we set aside the place, we set aside a law to acknowledge a day—and that’s all we are asking for here: a day, simply a day to remember this incredible man.
I think I'm finished quoting people from that debate. I would like to point out, listening to colleagues in the House during the two hour-long debates...and I would like to stress that this bill is not a religious bill. It's not meant for Catholics. It's not meant for Poles. It's meant for all Canadians because the late Pope John Paul II embraced everybody—those that believe, those that don't believe.
His role, especially in changing the face of Europe over the course of his 26-year papacy, was just incredible. Wherever he went, wherever he spoke, he advocated for social justice, democratic rights, and human dignity.
As Canadians we are very proud of the fact that so many people immigrate here to find a better life for their families, where they are free to worship as they choose. The respect, admiration, and acknowledgement for the ways that all religions have shaped our world, and even given back to Canadian society, are characteristics that Pope John Paul II shared with all Canadians and with this government. Human rights are very important and define the characteristics of Canada's foreign policy, and our country's identity. Our country and this government have been a strong voice for the protection of human rights and the promotion of democratic values on the world stage.
In Mississauga, I attend many citizenship ceremonies, as many as I can, whenever I have time. I attend citizenship ceremonies because it's really a special moment for people that come from around the world to find, in many cases, a refuge and a better life here in this great country. The rights and freedoms that we enjoy here have no protections in many of the countries they come from, where democracy seems unattainable. Similar to them, I myself left behind....
As members of this committee may know, I grew up in Communist Poland. I was part of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s. I stood, striking, in 1981, when the government decided to introduce martial law and bring in the army and police. We were standing there striking, facing tanks, facing riot police. We had no weapons. But thanks to the strength and encouragement not only people in Poland but people who followed in other countries, including the soviet republics, had the encouragement not to be afraid anymore.
We all have to remember that wherever we have a regime that bases its existence on terror, on fear, at the moment that people lose their fear, that regime can't exist anymore. This is what happened.
For those who may not understand how big a change happened at the end of the last century in Europe, it's incredible. When I was growing up, many people did not believe that the change would ever happen in our lifetime. The Soviet Union seemed extremely strong, and the division between the west and the east in the Cold War and the arms race that was taking place were just incredible.
I don't know whether all of you honourable committee members understand that to live in or under an oppressive regime.... I don't think it can be explained or understood by people who take what we have in this great country for granted. I would wish that our young Canadians have an opportunity, at least once in their lifetimes, to go to other countries just in order to understand how great this country that we live in is.
I don't know, Mr. Chair, how much time I have. I think I probably am over 10 minutes. Therefore, just in closing, I would like to ask all the members of the committee, as I did the House, for support in declaring April 2 Pope John Paul II Day in Canada, to honour this great man and everything he stood for.
Thank you very much.