OTTAWA — The irrepressible Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Nobel Peace Prize winner who famously survived a Taliban bullet in 2012, delivered an enduring message of hope, perseverance and inspiration Wednesday — and did it as an honorary Canadian citizen.
Yousafzai used her newfound membership in the Canadian family and towering presence on Parliament Hill to apply a little friendly pressure, calling on the country to go beyond honorifics and take a global lead in ensuring more girls can go to school.
“I know where I stand,” Yousafzai said during a moving speech to a joint session of Parliament that was punctuated frequently by thunderous standing ovations.
“If you stand with me, I ask you to seize every opportunity for girls’ education over the next year.”
The 19-year-old called on Canada to make girls’ education the centrepiece of its work as host of the G7 next year something that would bring full circle the process of how the Pakistani activist became Canada’s sixth honorary citizen.
The accolade was originally to be conferred by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, whose inner circle thought honouring Yousafzai would be a logical offshoot of their government’s focus on women and girls’ health when Canada last led the G7.
“Malala is an international symbol of perseverance for not only girls and women but for all of us, she embodies what it means to be Canadian,” Harper said in a statement Wednesday.
“Malala’s incredible story and tireless work to give millions of girls a voice will leave a lasting impression for generations.”
She was to have personally received the honour on Oct. 22, 2014, but on that day a gunman rampaged through the very building where Yousafzai stood Wednesday before an audience of dignitaries, MPs, cabinet ministers and diplomats.
“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, her parents beaming from their front row seats.
“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.”
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 her speech, which even included 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 defenceless children and families — and I hope your neighbours will follow your example.”
She urged the federal government to put its upcoming presidency of the G7 to good use, and also to use its influence to help fill the global education funding gap, noting some 130 million girls are without access to education.
“The world needs leadership based on serving humanity — not based on how many weapons you have,” she said. “Canada can take that lead.”
Equal parts humour and humility, Yousafzai appeared at times even younger than her now-famous activist countenance as she related how much excitement there was at home over the prospect of meeting Trudeau in person.
They say: ‘He’s the second-youngest prime minister in Canadian history! He does yoga! He has tattoos!’ she grinned.
“While it may be true that he is young for a head of government, I would like to tell the children of Canada: you do not have to be as old as Prime Minister Trudeau to be a leader. I used to think I had to wait to be an adult to lead. But I’ve learned that even a child’s voice can be heard around the world.”
She added, to the “young women of Canada” in particular: “Step forward and raise your voices. The next time I visit, I hope I see more of you filling these seats in Parliament.”
Trudeau said later he was inspired by her words.
“She challenged us as Canadians to think about how we can continue to strive for justice, for equality for opportunities for girls and women around the world,” he said. “I certainly look forward to renewing our efforts to have a positive impact in the world.”
Canada’s other five honorary citizens are the Dalai Lama, the Aga Khan, Nelson Mandela, Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.