Campbellton Rotary Club

Rotarians and friends of Rotarians, what a special night, what a special event and Campbellton, what a special place.  And eight-five years of doing good things for others, whether it was here or somewhere else in the world.

Rotarians, you have so much to be proud of.  Coming home to Campbellton is a walk through streets of memories, a community where in the 50’s you were allowed to be a child. My dad was a Rotarian.  I remember him walking out of the United Church manse every Monday to the weekly Rotary lunch.  When you are 7 or 8, you didn’t really pay much attention to these sorts of events, what was more important were those hockey games on Friday night at the Memorial Gardens.

Over time, I understood why Dad felt so comfortable at Rotary. I think it was something about the common good, on both your front door step and the doorsteps in other countries. These are the words of your founder in an interview in 1945.  Paul Harris said, “Despite the conflicts and the hunger and hardships facing may countries today, I am incurable optimist in thinking about this old world of ours, my hope for the future is that Rotarians will continue to be ambassadors of goodwill to all races, to persons of all religious faiths and to members of all political parties, that Rotarians will continue to be the purveyors of tolerance, forbearance, helpfulness and that through our world-wide  Rotary fellowship we shall ultimately achieve our goal of international understanding, goodwill and peace”.

That Rotarians, was 55 years ago, and those words still resonate today.  What is it about Rotary which acts as a motivator?  I believe it is about connecting and I mean connecting at all levels.

Normally in speeches like this I speak about my dad. Rev. JE Munson loved this town. He taught me many things about public service. But it was my mother who simply taught me.

This hasn’t been an easy year. She passed away in May. Dora Munson was almost 97.  And tonight I personally want to thank Campbelltonians who knew Mom and sent condolence messages. Time is fleeting. But when you get messages like this, you realize just

How important time has been. Christine Gregoire from Tide Head sent this note about my mothers work with church youth “Dora was a great leader and such a thoughtful person. She laid a firm foundation for me to go on and do another 50 years of teaching youth, such satisfying work”.

When you hear those kind of words, you know instinctively why it is so important to come home.

To be here to be in this place.

It puts our lives into perspective when you think of the Rotarian movement celebrating its 85th anniversary.  I was with my mother in Ottawa as she slowly and with great grace left this world.

Now it`s hardly earth shattering for a 64 year old man to find himself without parents but I found the experience to be transformational.

Mum had a long life and it was a life that touched many people, particularly in New Brunswick.  Whether she was teaching in a one room school house or later in Campbellton working with other women in the church.

When my mother was teaching children how to read, books and stories were a form of entertainment. There was no television, no radio, certainly no Xbox or computer.  In fact Mum was a teenager before electricity even made it to her corner of New Brunswick.  So it goes without saying that the world of imagination was entered through story telling.  Through the spoken and written word.  And that Rotarians has been my life, first as a reporter for more than 30 years, followed by being Director of communications for the Prime Minister and now as a Senator.

Since becoming a Senator, I have decided to work on behalf of children. But my devotion to children started long before my Senate appointment. It started during my years as a broadcast journalist.  People who remember me from television have asked me which stories I remember the most as a journalist. They are the stories that are the toughest to walk away from. They are stories about children.

I am sure if there is anybody who understands this, are you Rotarians, working on every humanitarian issue possible when it’s eradicating polio to supplying clean water in a small African village.  I have covered some of the big stories, the massacre in Tiananmen Square, the first Gulf war and the assassination of Indera Gandhi but what has really stayed with me are my stories about the orphanages in Cambodia , about Canadians including those in Northern New Brunswick adopting Chinese babies or about gas sniffing kids in Davis Inlet.  I was looking for some way to go beyond being a story teller and actually doing something that would matter.

One story helped me to do that and it was closer to home. I found out about a community centre for kids in Whitney Pier, many of you know it’s a pretty rough area near Sydney.  It was a simple concept.  This community centre offered a breakfast program, an exercise room, a library and more than that – a place for kids, for teenagers to hang out. Times were hard and because of lack of funds, this community was going to close. That was the story I told as a journalist.

But the story didn’t end there. After listening to my two minute story on CTV News, an entrepreneur in Toronto decided to do something. Maybe he was originally from Cape Breton, I will never know.  He donated 50,000 dollars toward keeping the centre open.  His donation was matched by the Nova Scotia government and the centre’s doors remained open to the youth in the area.  I learned then how the stories I covered could have an impact beyond informing Canadians of the who, what, where, and when.  Like Rotarians, I could help make change for the greater good. The stories I told perhaps could make a difference.

Now around the age when a lot of men have mid-life crises, I had a career change.

This happened when a man I used to report on, a remarkable man, was looking for a new Director of Communications.  He also happened to be the Prime Minister.  This man’s name is Jean Chrétien, and let me tell you, the two years I worked with him were an exciting ride.

For me, it was a real eye-opener.  Instead of reporting on the news, I was part of making the news.  I quickly got a much better understanding of how politics and government work.  After my appointment as Director of Communications at the Prime Minister’s Office, my reporter friends asked me how it felt on the “dark side”.  I told them, “I am enlightened.”

Working with Jean Chrétien was a real adventure.  I often wondered why at 6’1” he was the little guy from Shawinigan and what that made me coming from the North Shore of New Brunswick.

I was asked to come on board to help with communications and the media.  There were some memorable moments.

Once he told a crowd in Boston about how Canada exported more than just wood and fish.  He said that we also exported “cutting hedge technology”.  People probably left the speech scratching their heads wondering about those Canadians and their high-tech landscaping equipment.

Another time he addressed the UN in New York and talked about the “genital divide” instead of the “digital divide”.

I told my friends in the media that it was proof that Canada’s Prime Minister had, well, the necessary equipment….  Yes.  That communications job was certainly never boring…  And as a New Brunswicker, I am very proud that I got him to agree with me and state on the record that “there’s no shore like the north shore and that’s for sure”.

Now today I will make another small confession.  When Prime Minister Chrétien was leaving office and appointed me as a Senator, I was a little uncomfortable.

More than a few times in my career I had made cracks about the Senate, about the old guys collecting a sweet salary for doing nothing, about this institution that put people in power who weren’t even elected.  But I’ll try anything so I said yes.  And then I thought, “This might just be my opportunity to do good.”

So I was a bit cynical when I signed on.  But let me tell you, as was the case when I joined the PMO, entering the Senate has brought with it many moments of enlightenment.  For one thing, I met extraordinary people.  Other Senators like Joyce Fairbairn, Landon Pearson, Roméo Dallaire, Frank Mahovlich, Wilbert Keon, and more recently, Jacques Demers.

As soon as I was appointed, I decided that I would focus on kids.

I started with Special Olympics Canada, a national grassroots organization that provides sports training and competitive opportunities to more than 32,000 athletes with intellectual disabilities.

This is extremely important for me for a very personal reason.  My wife Ginette and I lost our first son, Timothy, in 1969.  He was 9 months old.  He was a Down Syndrome child.  Ginette and I got through that time together.

And I promised myself that if I ever could do more in my life, I would do it for Timmy.

I’m also supporting the work of Youth and Child Friendly Ottawa with its anti-bullying campaigns and I work with SOS Children’s Villages, an organization that helps orphans around the world.

And a chance encounter with a lonely man picketing on Parliament Hill made me devote myself to helping children with autism and their families.  It’s clear that kids with autism, whose numbers are growing at a terrible rate, are falling through the cracks of Canada’s social safety net.  I want to change that.

I started with what is called an “enquiry” in the Senate.  I stood up in the Red Chamber and called the attention of my colleagues (Honourable Senators all …. Well, most of them), to the issue of autism.  My speech included statistics about autism and asked the Senate to look at this issue more closely.

Well they did.  The Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology spent several months listening to witnesses from across Canada and drafted a report called Pay Now or Pay Later:  Autism Families in Crisis.  The report made recommendations that we submitted to the Minister of Health.

Along the way, we attracted a great deal of media attention to the issue of autism and raised awareness among politicians and the general public about autism and how it affects families.

Now I don’t want to get political, but I can say that I am disappointed with what the government has done with those recommendations.  And I intend to keep on pressing forward with politicians of every stripe to ensure that autism is given the attention it deserves.  This is not a political issue.  It’s a human issue.

I have also introduced a Private Members Bill to have April 2 declared World Autism Awareness Day.

That bill is now in the House of Commons, I hope it will go quickly to committee and become a law.

I am also working to help an organization called QuickStart get secure and stable funding to continue their work with children with autism through the Ottawa Children’s Treatment Centre.

So you see, I have found a way that, as a Senator, I can make a difference.

Just last winter, after the Haiti earthquake, I encouraged the National Capital Commission to devote the first weekend of Winterlude to relief for Haiti.  (Skating Campbellton)

All money dropped into donation boxes that weekend went to the Red Cross for Haiti.  I also collected pledges and skated 100 kilometres over that first weekend and collected $12,000.

Now I recognize that the Senate has some public relations problems.  But that doesn’t stop individual senators from working hard on behalf of Canadians.  They, like me, perhaps share a philosophy.  A philosophy I learned from my mother and father.  A philosophy that says that it’s a good day when you have done something good for someone else.

As a parliamentarian, I have to sit on committees and pass laws, but the most special moments are when I actually work with people in the field.

I know I make some Senators angry when I say that a bad road trip is better than a good day in the Senate.

As a former member of the Senate committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology I went to Cuba to find out more about that country’s health care system.  I made sure that we visited a school for autistic people, where the care and devotion of staff was truly impressive.  We also visited several health clinics around the country.
In one centre, I saw a room filled with older people.  They were sitting at desks and listening to a teacher and taking notes.  “What’s going on in there?” I asked our guide.

“They are grandparents,” she explained. “They are taking a Master’s Degree in Child Psychology so they can be better grandparents.” I was so impressed by that.  Here’s a country that is almost bankrupt, with infrastructure that is crumbling, but everyone in this society is involved in the raising of the next generation.  I think we can learn from that here in Canada.

I know that in my family, the influence of my mother and father as grandparents was profound.  And in May, at my mother’s memorial service my son Claude-Mathieu sang a song he had written for her.  A beautiful song that meant so much to me.  Its words were about love, but beyond that, hearing my son sing at my mother’s memorial service brought it home that as parents Ginette and I had succeeded.  We have a son who “gets it” – who understands that family and the relationships we have within our families – are the most important relationships we can have.

It was my mother and father who instilled in me the need to believe in family, in community, in contributing to the common good, and making a difference in the lives of others.  They shaped my life and their values, which I grew to share, have been my guideposts.

My life has been about communicating, about telling stories and about trying to make a difference.  So if I have one message, it’s to remember how important your family is:  your children, your spouse, your brothers and sisters.  Remember your father and mother, you grandparents and your neighbours.  And as Rotarians, you take it another step, remembering and helping your brothers and sisters around the world.

When we rush through our professional lives, whether we are trying to sell a product, a unique insight, or, in my case, a story, we need to remember that all that effort and energy deserves to be devoted to something much more important:  our family, our neighbours, and our community.  The key is to give back to society.

Tonight it has been a privilege to reconnect with my community, my home town, a town which through its people taught me many things about life. Simple things like Allan and Bill Miller on golf course etiquette, Al Anslow in the newspaper business, Buddy Hellyer in a hockey rink, Joyce Maisey, Jean Gregoire and Mary Whyset in our home at 5 Patterson Street, Mrs Nadeau across the street, my teachers, especially one supply teacher who dared us  to dream of lands so far away and then later live that dream in China.

The list goes on and on… The Gorhams, the Manns, the McCraes the Hendersons…. I really don’t know where to stop.  I think there was a common denominator in all of this. It’s a Rotarian philosophy, neighbours who instinctively shared their experiences and to put it simply, shared their love.

In closing, not so long ago I was stopped on the street and a woman looked at me . She said “I am not sure who you are.  Is it politics or is it the press”.  I smugly answered, “Well madam it is both.”` And then her answer and then only then, did I realize how fleeting life can be.  She said “Didn’t you use to be Jim Munson.”

For the first time in my life, I didn’t know quite what to say.

Folks I am Jim Munson, and Rotarians I want to thank you for what you do and thank you for tonight.