Address by Minister Baird to Third Annual John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award Ceremony

October 31, 2013 - Vancouver, British Columbia

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Distinguished recipients, honoured guests, ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs.

Thank you for coming here today. This is an important event because it is about recognizing someone who has gone above and beyond in championing values that we in Canada hold dear.

You, the audience, are an embodiment of these values. Amongst us are representatives of different denominations and religions. I hear there’s even a couple of Leafs fans.

But we’re here together peacefully as Canadians, sharing the belief that everyone should have the freedom to pursue their own beliefs.

Sometimes, talking about human rights and freedom like this can sound clichéd—and yes, maybe the terms are too often thrown around as abstract buzzwords.

But for too many people around the world, these concepts are all too real. And standing up for them requires brave actions as well as words.

That’s why it is a privilege to present the John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award today.

This award recognizes those who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in defending human rights and freedoms at home and around the world, especially under difficult circumstances.

As those of you who know about Canadian modern history will know—and, dare I say, as a few of you may remember—Diefenbaker was Canada’s 13th prime minister.

Known by many as “Dief the Chief” he had a strong instinct for the underdog. During his six years in office, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker tirelessly championed human rights in Canada and around the world. 

His commitment and determination to secure equal human rights for all led to the adoption of the Canadian Bill of Rights in 1960.

That would be a landmark legacy in human rights for any prime minister, but it wasn’t his only one.

Diefenbaker’s government also granted the vote to members of First Nations without the loss of their treaty status; and appointed the first woman to Cabinet, to name a few.

Although we can argue about different approaches, it’s fair to say that the principles he upheld have remained a key part of Canada’s foreign policy since his time in office.

I certainly know that Canada’s 22nd prime minister, Stephen Harper, is absolutely committed to protecting and promoting human rights at home and abroad.

That was clear this February when he appointed Andrew Bennett as Canada’s first ever ambassador for religious freedom.

The creation of the Office of Religious Freedom, located within Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, was a response to the increasing targeting of religious communities in different parts of the world.

This trend is marked not only by increasing social hostilities but also by increasing government restrictions on religious communities.

In fact, one recent study by Pew Research [Center] estimated that as much as 75 percent of the world's population lives in countries with high restrictions on religion. That’s a shocking figure.

Human rights, freedom, democracy and the rule of law are core Canadian values that this government is proud to uphold and celebrate.

As, honorary Canadian Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma once said: “Please use your freedom to promote ours.”

It is our duty to defend the rights of the afflicted and give voice to the voiceless, and we honour those who do so despite great risk to themselves and their families.

The recipient of today’s award has displayed extraordinary courage and commitment to the cause of religious freedom and human rights.

I’m delighted to announce that this year’s John Diefenbaker Defender of Human Rights and Freedom Award is awarded to His Eminence Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong for his unwavering commitment to human rights, democracy and religious freedom. 

In the face of pressure, Cardinal Zen has remained steadfast in his defence of human dignity.

His actions, including calling for the release of detained political activists and demanding that the truth be told about what took place in Tiananmen Square in 1989 have earned him international acclaim.

Canada stands with defenders of human rights—people who courageously seek to promote and protect fundamental freedoms around the world.

In China, Christians who worship outside government-approved boundaries are driven underground and their leaders can be arrested and detained.

Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners face enormous challenges.

Canada’s Ambassador to China recently had the opportunity to visit Tibet and raise concerns directly with officials.

And our government has consistently called for an end to the prosecution and persecution of people for the practice of their religions or beliefs.

At the United Nations, we have also called on China to implement measures to address the gender imbalance in its population—given the harm that occurs when many women and girls are missing.

And we called for safeguards that ensure policies related to the family are based on consent. 

We have frank and respectful discussions with other governments— including the Government of China—but we do not shy away from issues because some may find them discomforting.

That’s more than true for Cardinal Zen.

He has defended the universality of human rights and fundamental freedoms both in Hong Kong and in mainland China.

He has been vigilant and outspoken against violations of religious freedom in mainland China, and he has criticized the unilateral ordinations of Catholic bishops by government officials.

In Hong Kong, Cardinal Zen has been—and remains—a tireless advocate of respect for human rights, a promoter of good governance and a beacon for Hong Kong’s democratic development and march towards universal suffrage.

Such exemplary engagement has earned him a reputation as “the new conscience of Hong Kong.”

He represents the best traits of humanity and the Government of Canada and the Canadian people are proud to stand with him.

Please join me in congratulating this year’s recipient, His Eminence Cardinal Joseph Zen.