OTTAWA – Malala Yousafzai, the irrepressible Pakistani education activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner who famously survived a Taliban bullet in 2012, has become an honorary Canadian citizen.
Yousafzai received the honour Wednesday during a long-awaited and anticipated ceremony on Parliament Hill alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, before an audience of dignitaries, MPs, cabinet ministers and diplomats.
Trudeau presented her with a framed certificate of citizenship, making her only the sixth person to receive the honour and the youngest ever. He also presented her with the flag from atop the tower.
Speaking to a joint session of Parliament, the 19-year-old Yousafzai – known to all and sundry these days simply as “Malala” – acknowledged the fact that her initial trip to Canada in 2014 was essentially cancelled by a gunman’s rampage through the very building where she now stood.
“The man who attacked Parliament Hill called himself a Muslim – but he did not share my faith. He did not share the faith of one and a half billion Muslims, living in peace around the world. He did not share our Islam – a religion of learning, compassion and mercy,” she said, after taking the podium to a sustained and thunderous ovation.
“I am a Muslim and I believe that when you pick up a gun in the name of Islam and kill innocent people, you are not a Muslim anymore.”
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The gunman “shared the hatred” of the man who attacked the Quebec City mosque in January, who killed civilians and a police officer in London three weeks ago, who killed 132 school children at Pakistan’s Army Public School in Peshawar, she said.
“The same hatred as the man who shot me.”
Malala sang Canada’s praises throughout an inspiring and touching speech that even appeared to contain a subtle jab at the shifting political landscape in the United States.
“‘Welcome to Canada’ is more than a headline or a hashtag,” she said.
“It is the spirit of humanity that every single one of us would yearn for, if our family was in crisis. I pray that you continue to open your homes and your hearts to the world’s most defenseless children and families – and I hope your neighbours will follow your example.”
Today’s pomp and pageantry comes more than two years after an initial plan to honour Yousafzai was interrupted by a gunman who took the life of a Canadian soldier and stormed Parliament Hill before dying in a hail of gunfire.
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Yousafzai surprised a group of students at an Ottawa high school earlier today where she was introduced to cheers by Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau.
The day Yousafzai was originally to be honoured, Oct. 22, 2014, marked a moment replete with irony for Rona Ambrose, a former status of women minister who is currently serving as the Conservative party’s interim leader.
“This irony didn’t escape me: the fact that this kind of Islamic extremism, (which) takes the shape of anti-girl, anti-women rights in every possible way … also arrived that day,” Ambrose said in an interview.
The groundwork to make the now 19-year-old an honorary citizen began several months after she was shot in the fall of 2012.
The honour was part of a political initiative tied into the Conservatives’ foreign aid focus on maternal, newborn and child health, said Rachel Curran, Harper’s former director of policy.
“It was just really a sense that this young woman is doing really important work, it’s going to be increasingly important, we want to highlight it in Canada and highlight it internationally as well,” Curran said in an interview.
“‘How can we bestow one of our greatest honours on her?’ We landed on that because it was the most significant thing we could do to draw attention to her work.”
The other five honorary citizens are the Dalai Lama, the Aga Khan, Nelson Mandela, Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
What binds them all together is that they are leaders who have played iconic roles in world history, said Chris Alexander, the former Conservative immigration minister who oversaw the technical process behind getting Yousafzai citizenship.
“Malala is both a symbol of the setbacks and the daunting barriers that girls can face,” he said.
“But also of the ability of strong people to overcome them.”