Pakistani activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai made a clear pitch to the Canadian government to lead on global education and women’s rights when she spoke to Members of Parliament and Senators in a special joint session of Parliament on April 12.
MPs from several parties called it inspiring. “To hear a speech like this gives me courage to continue moving forward in what I’m trying to accomplish here, in my role in Parliament,” said Liberal MP Dan Ruimy (Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge, B.C.).
“For somebody who’s gone through what she’s gone through, and to have that vision, I think it speaks volumes as to the life experience she’s gained. I think it speaks to the direction that we’ve been trying to go into…with gender parity and things of that nature,” Mr. Ruimy added.
Her asks did not go unheard by the hundreds of MPs, Senators, policymakers, and journalists who gathered at 12 p.m. in the House of Commons to hear the 19-year-old speak.
“She’s asking us to focus on girls’ education, and we will,” said International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau (Compton-Stanstead, Que.), speaking in the foyer of the House after Ms. Yousafzai’s speech. “Women and girls will be at the heart of the new policy and we strongly believe in education,” she added, speaking about the government’s international assistance policy review, the results of which are expected to be released before the summer. The minister said it’s currently in the “writing phase,” and would not comment on whether the policy will include an increase in funding.
Ms. Yousafzai was in town to finally receive her honorary Canadian citizenship, which was bestowed upon her in 2014 after MPs and Senators voted in favour of giving the honour in recognition for her bravery. The original citizenship ceremony was delayed due to the Oct. 22, 2014 shooting on Parliament Hill.
In her remarks, which lasted just under an hour, Ms. Yousafzai made three precise asks: for Canada to make girls’ education a central part of its 2018 G7 presidency; to prioritize that all boys and girls, including refugees, have access to a full 12 years of education; and to leverage the influence Canada has to fill the global funding gap for education.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) introduced Ms. Yousafzai, who, at the age of 15, was targeted and shot in the head by the Taliban on her way to school in an attempt to silence her advocacy for girls’ right to attend school. She survived the attack, continues to be a global champion for the rights of women and girls, as well as for universal education. In 2014, she became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
“If Canada leads, I know the world will follow,” she said, adding that she doesn’t want future generations to be disappointed to look back and see that Canada, and the world, didn’t stand up for education and refugees.
“I know that politicians cannot keep every promise they make,” she said, but added that the commitment to education is one they must honour, because if all girls were able to go to school, low- and middle-income countries could add $92-billion per year to their economies.
“The answer is girls,” she said.
Opposition critics also picked up on Ms. Yousafzai’s direct asks, saying it reinforces the growing call for Canada to step up when it comes to international assistance.
The 2017 federal budget did not include any increase to foreign aid, and in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development preliminary figures released yesterday, Canada’s official development assistance as a percentage of gross national income ratio had fallen to 0.26 per cent in 2016. The average is 0.32 per cent, and the target for OECD countries is 0.7 per cent.
“Of course it’s very inspiring…I think she had very clear messages, and very interesting messages. To some extent she challenged us,” said NDP MP Hélène Laverdière (Laurier-Sainte Marie, Que.), her party’s foreign affairs critic.
“I think we should be up to this challenge. Up to this challenge also includes investing money in girls’ education…beyond words, we need actual money and that starts with increasing our international assistance money, which is very, very low,” said Ms. Laverdière.
“I think it is certainly something that this government needs to continue to push for—further education—particularly of women and girls,” said Conservative MP Rachael Harder (Lethbridge, Alta.), her party’s critic for youth, who added that she found Ms. Yousafzai to be “simply remarkable.”
“I, myself, started my schooling in a small, rural town in Pakistan. I know that if I hadn’t come to Canada, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I probably wouldn’t have even gotten the education that I got. It’s great to see advocates of such calibre, of such courage, that stand up and fight discrimination; they fight ignorance,” Liberal MP Iqra Khalid (Mississauga-Erin Mills, Ont.) told The Hill Times.
She said she thinks her government has been “working hard” on international development, and that she’s looking forward to the outcome of the foreign aid review.
Ms. Yousafzai began her remarks acknowledging her unsuccessful first attempt to come to Canada in 2014 to receive her honorary citizenship shortly after Parliament unanimously supported her getting the honour. Then-prime minister Stephen Harper and then-immigration minister Chris Alexander were to present her with it in downtown Toronto, but the ceremony was cancelled because of the attack on the Hill.
“This is my first trip to Canada, but not my first attempt,” she said, noting that although the gunman responsible for the shooting, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, called himself a Muslim, “he did not share my faith.”
Her comments about acts of terror that are carried out by Muslims who do not reflect all Muslims resonated with many MPs, including Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef (Peterborough-Kawartha, Ont.) who could be heard saying “Yes” during the speech, and wiping away tears.
“I have been raised in Pakistan. And someone from that origin fighting for the right of girls’ education and women’s education all across the world, I think it’s a great thing to be proud of. So many people, young girls, see her as a role model. She is an inspiration to many girls around the world,” Liberal MP Salma Zahid (Scarborough Centre, Ont.) told The Hill Times. “It’s a very proud moment for me and all of my fellow colleagues, to have her address,” she said.
Ms. Yousafzai also spoke fondly of Canada’s commitment to welcoming refugees, saying it has been noticed worldwide. She pointed out that one of them, Farah Mohamed—who was present on the floor of the commons for her speech—is the CEO of the Malala Fund, an advocacy group Ms. Yousafzai started, which pushes for resources and policy changes to ensure that girls worldwide receive 12 years of education.
MPs filtered in to the House for Ms. Yousafzai’s remarks adorned in pink for the anti-bullying awareness day, Day of Pink, following their respective caucus meetings. Many Parliamentarians took the chance to chat with guests including Assembly of First Nations national chief Perry Bellegarde, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Beverley McLachlin, and Ms. Yousafzai’s father Ziauddin and mother Toor Pekai Yousafzai.
The viewing galleries were also filled with people, many of which appeared visibly moved throughout her remarks.
“For me, it was a humbling experience to be able to listen to her speak, and speak well. There was a lot of tears in the audience and I think I had a few in my eyes too,” said Mr. Ruimy.
Following her speech, Senate Speaker George Furey and House Speaker Geoff Regan also spoke.
“You may still be a student, Malala, but you have become a teacher,” said Mr. Regan following her speech. “We all aspire to be Malala,” he added.
Upon her arrival, Ms. Yousafzai was welcomed in the rotunda of the House of Commons by Mr. Trudeau; Sen. Furey; Mr. Regan; chief corporate services officer of the Senate Nicole Proulx; acting clerk of the House of Commons Marc Bosc; usher of the black rod Greg Peters; and deputy sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons Patrick McDonell.
Before entering her formal citizenship ceremony inside the Library of Parliament, Ms. Yousafzai was greeted by Government Representative in the Senate Peter Harder; interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose (Sturgeon River-Parkland, Alta.); Senate Liberal leader Joseph Day; Senate Conservative leader Larry Smith; facilitator of the independents in the Senate Elaine McCoy; Ms. Laverdière; Green Party leader Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C.); and parliamentary chief of the Bloc Québécois Xavier Barsalou-Duval (Pierre-Boucher-Verchéres, Que.).
On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Ambrose both met privately with Ms. Yousafzai. According to an advisory from Mr. Trudeau’s office, in their meeting the pair were set to discuss “girls’ empowerment through education and how they can actively contribute to the sustainable development of their communities and countries.”
To allow for her special address, the House pushed back its scheduled meeting time to 3 p.m., with Question Period starting at 3:15 p.m.
Ms. Yousafzai is one of just six people to have received honorary Canadian citizenship, the others being Raoul Wallenberg, Nelson Mandela, the 14th Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the Aga Khan.
She is also the seventh-ever foreign dignitary who is not a head of state or government to address a joint session of the House and Senate, and is the second woman in that category to ever do so, the first being Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, the wife of the then-leader of Republic of China, in 1943.