Foreign Voices in the House
Abdulmalik Merchant: From all those you have heard and met during your lifetime, what would you say to his followers about their own Imam?
J. Patrick Boyer: All around the world there are individuals holding office….But being an office holder does not make someone a leader. The Aga Khan is a leader. To have the opportunity to follow him and advance the vital causes he identifies, as Ismaili Muslims do, is a rare opportunity.”
I was privileged to meet J. Patrick Boyer at the launching of his book “Foreign Voices in the House: A Century of Addresses to Canada’s Parliament by World Leaders” at the wonderful café and photo gallery of my friend Jean-Marc Carisse. Boyer is author of 23 books on Canadian history law, politics and governance, and his Foreign Voices in the House is unique because it is the first such book published that provides a complete record of high level oratory delivered by world leaders to Canadians at their own doorstep. The first speech was delivered one hundred years ago in 1917! I later interviewed Boyer and published the complete interview on Barakah, a website dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan for his Diamond Jubilee.
In the following condensed version of the interview, Boyer gives his insightful and thought provoking analysis of the Aga Khan’s 2014 address to the Canadian Parliament and makes the readers aware of the Aga Khan’s sole right, as hereditary Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, to provide authoritative guidance on matters of faith and to interpret the Qur’an. Boyer’s astute awareness of the Ismaili Imam’s role is drawn from articles of the Preamble of the Ismaili Constitution, which was ordained on December 13, 1986, on the anniversary of the Aga Khan’s 50th birthday.
Foreign Voices in the House (Dundurn, 2017. 600 pages, photographs. ISBN 9781459736856 Can$35.00), is available at Perfect Books located on 258 Elgin Street, Ottawa, phone (613) 231-6468. Other sources for obtaining the book are Amazon and Chapters-Indigo. A Kindle edition is available for C$9.99.
Exclusive Interview: J. Patrick Boyer on His Highness the Aga Khan
“[The Aga Khan’s] accomplishments stand apart from whether others accord him “official recognition” or not, and will endure with or without a Nobel Peace Prize….Sir Edmund Hillary treasured above all others an enormous decorative star, very bright and very colourful, hammered from tin and presented by the Kathmandu Taxi Drivers Association. I think the Aga Khan would likewise treasure something from people who have their feet on the ground, their hearts in harmony with others, and wanting to honour courageous action.”
Abdulmalik Merchant: This book is uniquely Canadian because you are a Canadian and the book has also been printed and bound in Canada. You must be truly proud of it.
J. Patrick Boyer: You’re right. I am proud, for my country, having created this unique book.
During my years as a member of Canada’s House of Commons, a dozen world leaders delivered major addresses. Pérez de Cuéllar of the United Nations, Prime Minister Nakasone of Japan, President Reagan of the U.S., President Mitterrand of France, Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands, Chancellor Kohl of Germany, Prime Minister Thatcher of the U.K., President Herzog of Israel, King Hussein of Jordan, Nelson Mandela of South Africa, President Salinas of Mexico, and President Yeltsin of Russia. That was an imposing, impressive parade of players on the international scene.
Each was at the height of his or her power, advancing major policies for the world, seeking Canadian support for sharing their vision. Their messages also offered snapshots of history in the making. Indeed, the influence they had on political Ottawa made their speeches intrinsic to Canada’s evolution in world affairs. This is clear when you read what they said over an entire century in a dynamic world context.
So rather than see them fade away, I decided to gather and publish all such speeches in a single collective work. That, too, makes Foreign Voices in the House “uniquely Canadian.” All addresses by world leaders to Canadian parliamentarians over the last century are now available in one book for the first time.
Merchant: When did the idea first occur to you to gather the speeches and publish them in a book form?
Boyer: The idea came when I was witnessing, at close range, U.S. President Ronald Reagan deliver a masterful performance. So there is an exact answer to your question – April 6, 1987….That’s a long stretch to be working on a book, isn’t it? But the explanation is that the further back I went, the more speeches I kept finding! And meanwhile, coming forward in time, fifteen more leaders – including His Highness the Aga Khan in 2014 – arrived in Ottawa to speak from Canada’s most prestigious podium. So the list kept growing, at both ends.
Yet even though the project kept expanding, I decided 2017 was an ideal year to publish Foreign Voices. It’s a full century since René Viviani of France in 1917 became the first foreign leader to speak in our House of Commons. And in 2017 Canadians reflected on 150 years of Confederation and what has taken to make us the people we are. And as you already realize, Abdulmalik, Foreign Voices in the House documents that journey the way nothing else can.
“Given the state of world affairs today, [the Aga Khan’s]….address is one of the most important of all speeches delivered to the audience of Canadian parliamentarians over the last hundred years.”
Merchant: You have been writing since 1975 on a wide range of subjects – election issues, justice, democracy and leadership, among many other themes. What particular challenges did Foreign Voices present to you – gathering the speeches, or the search for material for your insightful introductory remarks before each speech?
Boyer: The first challenge was finding all the speeches foreign leaders had delivered. After I asked researchers in the Parliamentary Library about this, they became as curious as I was. Their existing list at the time seemed scant, so they looked for more, and found quite a few.
Next, not all were printed in parliamentary records. For example, the 1964 address by United Nations Secretary-General Thant, was one I had to obtain through other sources. Other times the speech didn’t get printed in the parliamentary proceedings for weeks, or months. Even after the Library researchers thought all had been found – and posted on Parliament’s official website that Winston Churchill’s 1941 speech was the first – I still found earlier ones. For instance, not only did France’s René Viviani speak in 1917, but so did Britain’s Arthur Balfour
Another challenge was tracking down photographs of each world leader in Canada’s parliament. Readers are astonished to see such legendary figures as Franklin Roosevelt, Sukarno, Nehru, Liaquat Ali Khan, Charles de Gaulle, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek in Canada’s House of Commons…..Tracing all those photographs proved harder than one might think.
Writing the biographies of each leader which accompany his or her speech, to which you refer, was utterly enjoyable….My short biographies help readers who might not know the fascinating stories of these human individuals delivering their urgent messages.
Merchant: In your introduction to the volume, you note two important contexts involving any speech that is delivered: the Occasion and the Audience. Would you elaborate on these two core elements for the speech that the Aga Khan delivered, and how important it was for him to address the Canadian Parliament?
Boyer: Yes, putting a speech in context is essential to understanding it. This requires seeing the crises and events of transcending significance at the time the leader spoke…..
When the Aga Khan addressed Canadian parliamentarians, the world was awakening to new challenges relating to the Muslim world, the Ummah, in its many complexities. It is, frankly, quite sad how little a great many people actually know about Islam and its accomplishments over many centuries, leaving them more open to fear and misunderstandings. He addressed our House of Commons, moreover, in a special category of “world leader.” On three occasions, secretaries-general of the United Nations (Thant, Perez de Cuellar, and Kofi Annan) presented a global frame of reference for Canada’s international relations and transnational conditions. They did not speak for another country but rather the comity of all nations. It is in their company that the Aga Khan delivered his message, and why I group all four, in Foreign Voices, in a section called “Transnational Leaders.”
Given the state of world affairs today, his rational, specific, historically based, and ultimately inspiration address is one of the most important of all speeches delivered to the audience of Canadian parliamentarians over the last hundred years.
Merchant: What duties do Parliamentarians have to convey his message to their citizens?
Boyer: It’s in the interest of all Canadians to understand the constructive work of The Aga Khan foundations and Ismaili Muslims, both in our country and around the world. This extends from training nurses, building schools, establishing universities, and relocating refugees to the work of the Centre for Global Pluralism in Ottawa which honours and advances pluralistic outlooks, and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto which promotes cultural awareness of Islam’s rich heritage over many centuries. It’s vital for Canadians to see how this dovetails with the pluralism of Canada’s society.
The Aga Khan said on February 27, 2014 that he believed Canada “uniquely able to articulate and exemplify three critical underpinnings of a quality civil society,” noting that these are “commitment to pluralism, to meritocracy, and to a cosmopolitan ethic.” That point, and many others from his remarkable address, deserve wide dissemination by parliamentarians.
That’s why, as a former parliamentarian, I included the Aga Khan’s speech in Foreign Voices, to spread his message about people with different values living in greater harmony.
Merchant: Is this being done, considering that the Ismaili Imam touched on so many issues that are relevant and important for Canadians – civil society, pluralism, democracy, and Canada’s involvement in the world?
Boyer: The extent to which parliamentarians are spreading his message is impossible to measure. I do what I can, because as you note Malik, his speech addresses so many issues so freshly and constructively. The Aga Khan spirit reflects what I call “optimistic realism.” By publishing his full speech, to repeat, I’m trying to ensure that readers of Foreign Voices in the House will get the full extent of his teachings.
Merchant: Remarkably there are 64 speeches in your volume including some 8 by British Prime Ministers between 1917 and 2011; 10 by US Presidents between 1943 and 2016, and dozens by world leaders from every continent. Besides all the leaders who delivered the speeches, who else would you have liked to have seen deliver a speech at the Parliament?
Boyer: I would have found it inspirational to hear Mahatma Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr.
But you know, Brian MacArthur said in his 1995 Penguin Book of Historic Speeches that addresses by “contemporary leaders” – among whom he mentioned Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela – “transcend national boundaries and inspire mankind.” Those seven all spoke in Canada’s House of Commons. Their speeches are in Foreign Voices in the House, along with their photographs and biographies.
So my point would be that, with the many speeches already on record in Foreign Voices, there’s more than enough to inform, inspire, and fuel introspection.
“[The Ismaili Constitution] is a step forward in what the Aga Khan, in his speech to our Parliament, envisages as creating “a cosmopolitan ethic” for our cosmopolitan society. The Constitution seeks allegiance, within this universal brotherhood, through loyalty and obedience to the Imam.”
Merchant: As you know the Aga Khan has been honoured with titles and awards as well as honorary degrees from renowned institutions around the world. In a recent piece in the Huffington Post, a writer stated that the Ismaili Imam is one of the most deserving individuals of the Nobel Peace Prize. Would you agree with that statement? If that does not happen during his lifetime, would you think the impact of his contribution to humanity is diminished in any manner?
Boyer: Without question the Aga Khan is deserving of respectful honour and due recognition for his leadership in fashioning a better world. However, his accomplishments stand apart from whether others accord him “official recognition” or not, and will endure with or without a Nobel Peace Prize.
Sir Edmund Hillary was showered with high honours after climbing Mount Everest with Sherpa Tenzing in 1953. Thirty years later when visiting Toronto he told me the one presentation he treasured above all others was an enormous decorative star, very bright and very colourful, hammered from tin and presented by the Kathmandu Taxi Drivers Association.
I think the Aga Khan would likewise treasure something from people who have their feet on the ground, their hearts in harmony with others, and wanting to honour courageous action.
Sir Edmund continued with exciting adventures, but slowly found his values changing. Increasingly important to him were human relationships. He became involved in assistance programs in Nepal – building schools and hospitals, bridges and water pipelines. “To help others improve their way of life became a prime target,” he said. “Getting involved with people and their problems” was “very satisfying.”
This same theme is in the Aga Khan’s speech. “The Canadian spirit resonates with a cherished principle in Shia Ismaili culture,” he explained. “The importance of contributing one’s individual energies, on a voluntary basis, to improving the lives of others…a matter of enlightened self-fulfillment.”
I believe such men act because of their values, not because they value recognition.
Merchant: I found your references to the Aga Khan’s ecclesiastical role very pertinent as you have based it on the Preamble of the current Ismaili Constitution that was ordained in 1986, on the anniversary of his 50th birthday (he was born December 13, 1936). Would you elaborate on that based on your reading of the Preamble.
Boyer: The role of religious codes and institutions is highly problematic in a world where millions have been slaughtered for their beliefs and millions more shackled with guilt and punishment by those whose pretense is to interpret divine intent in judging others.
However, in this domain, the Ismaili Constitution stands apart. Its Preamble seeks to establish by proclamation the legitimacy of a divine lineage and the ultimate status of rules governing spiritual and temporal matters for all Ismaili Muslims.
To me, as a non-believer in any particular organized religion, the importance of this Constitution lies in providing an institutional and structural world-wide framework so that followers can contribute to harmonious development – both throughout the Muslim Ummah and within the societies of countries where they are citizens. This integrated identity is hugely important for world harmony and predictability, especially for adherents of a religious faith lacking any specific territorial grounding but existing, instead, across global boundaries.
For the universe of Ismaili Muslims, as well as for those sharing the planet with them, this Constitution is a positive advance in global society. It is a step forward in what the Aga Khan, in his speech to our Parliament, envisages as creating “a cosmopolitan ethic” for our cosmopolitan society. The Constitution seeks allegiance, within this universal brotherhood, through loyalty and obedience to the Imam. The overarching goal is to secure the peace and unity of followers, as well as their religious and social welfare. It also seeks fruitful collaboration between different peoples, optimal use of resources, and a pathway for Ismaili Muslims to make contributions that improve quality of life in the Ummah as well as in the societies where they live.
Only by understanding full picture can the true role of the Aga Khan be grasped for its ecclesiastical and secular importance.
Merchant: What are key points from the Aga Khan’s speech that you would want the readers to reflect on?
Boyer: That “pluralism” is to embrace others without having to give up one’s own identity. That lofty principles, if they are to have any meaning, cannot exist in some abstract sphere but must take meaning in real peoples’ daily lives – in homes, schools, factories, offices, and on playing fields and buses. If they have no meaning in places so small they cannot be seen on any map of the world, they have no meaning anywhere.
Merchant: From all those you have heard and met during your lifetime, what would you say to his followers about their own Imam?
Boyer: I would point out that all around the world there are individuals holding office in governments, religious organizations, business corporations, educational institutions, sports organizations, and so forth. But being an office holder does not make someone a leader. The Aga Khan is a leader. To have the opportunity to follow him and advance the vital causes he identifies, as Ismaili Muslims do, is a rare opportunity.
I myself am delighted to have made your acquaintance through the official launch in Ottawa of my book Foreign Voices. I salute your dedicated contributions as editor and publisher of the digital magazines Simerg and Barakah. Through them, I am also happy to connect with your readers. Thank you for this opportunity.!”
Date posted: December 18, 2017.
Patrick Boyer has been a printer, lawyer, Member of Parliament, parliamentary secretary for Foreign Affairs, parliamentary secretary for National Defence, and chairman of three parliamentary committees dealing with equality rights, the status of disabled persons, and election law reform.
He is the author of some 24 books, hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles, and as a broadcast journalist had his own TV shows. He has also taught at four universities, and worked on democratic development projects in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and Iraq. He chaired an international committee of parliamentarians on the global spread of democracy. He is founder of the Corinne Boyer Fund for Ovarian Cancer Research and Treatment, today’s Ovarian Cancer Canada.
In public affairs, Patrick has a track record of commitment to nuclear disarmament, democratic renewal, women’s health issues, the cultural heritage of Canadians, and individuals with mental and physical disabilities. His website is: http://www.patrickboyer.ca.
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