Notes for remarks by


Minister of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation

at the Opening of Follow the North Star Exhibit
at the St. Catharines Museum, Lock 3 Complex,
Sunday, October 20, 1996

Thank you Virginia.

It is indeed a pleasure for me to be here with you today and to officiate at the opening of the new permanent exhibit, Follow the North Star.

The period of our history which this exhibit documents was a very exciting time for Canada, and for North America. The story of the Underground Railway is one of the biggest and best "Good News" stories that this country has ever had. It is very important to all of us that we remember the Underground Railway and the Freedom Trail.

None of us who are present today was alive at the time of the events portrayed in "Follow the North Star." Nevertheless, we still can take pride in the heroic stories of the people who lived in the Niagara region and passed through here a century and a half ago.

The courageous actions of the "conductors" on the Underground Railway are timeless stories that continue to inspire all who hear them. Each of us would like to think that if we had the opportunity, and the challenge, we would rise to the occasion and would be a Harriet Tubman, or at least one of her assistants. This exhibit adds realism to the images that our imaginations paint of those events and that time. The exhibit helps us to understand the realities and perils that these courageous people faced.

It is often true that we, in Canada, do not celebrate our history enough. As a result, there are many people who just do not know that there is much in our past of which we should be very proud.

Ontario's first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe passed anti-slavery laws in the 1790s, and the British Empire banned slavery forty years later. This timetable of liberation is well in advance of our neighbour to the south, and even though these things happened a long time ago, I believe that these are events we can point to with pride.

It was this firm stand for freedom which sent a clear message that Canada would be happy to receive the "passengers" of the Underground Railway.

The Underground Railway is a story that is quite well known outside Canada. Americans who are familiar with their own history appreciate the role which Canada played in protecting people whose only crime was that they wanted to live their lives in freedom.

In 1967 Martin Luther King Jr. was the Massey Lecturer for the CBC. He recognized the era which is documented in this exhibit as a proud moment of Canada's history, and paid the country a very great compliment. He said "Canada is not merely a neighbour of negroes. Deep in our history of struggle for freedom, Canada was the North Star."

This kind of recognition should make all Canadians very proud of those who have gone before us.

I also think it's wonderful that this exhibit is in such a prominent location. The Lock 3 site is the second most popular tourist destination in the Niagara Region - second only to the Falls themselves.

This is important because Follow the North Star is an exhibit which should be seen and appreciated by everyone. The story it tells has deep significance, not only for the black community, but for all of us. The story of the Underground Railway is a story that everyone should know.

As well as the tourists who will visit this exhibit and learn about our history, I am particularly happy to note that thousands of students will pass through here as part of their school programmes. It is wonderful to know that a generation of young people will grow up with a better understanding of these events as a result of this exhibit.

I like to imagine what Harriet Tubman would think if she were able to visit here today. Or what would be the reaction of the other "conductors" and "passengers" of the Underground Railway. I think they would be happy to see us appreciating and commemorating their achievements.

I hope they would also be pleased by the sort of society in which their descendants find themselves. We are all aware that our society is not perfect, that we still have progress to make in many areas. But it does give us great hope for the future when we can understand the past and see what real progress we have made.

If our brave predecessors could visit us today, I think that they would be pleased to know that the present generations have kept faith with their ideals. I'm sure that they would be pleased to see that their stories and their legacies have not been forgotten.

I believe that Harriet Tubman and her contemporaries would be happy to see that Follow the North Star presents their story in a way that is relevant and meaningful to people in the Twentieth century.

I extend my most sincere congratulations to all who have been associated with making this important exhibit a reality. I am pleased that my Ministry, the Ministry of Citizenship, Culture and Recreation, has been able to play a role.

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