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A sampling of the words of wisdom relayed by the 2014 honorary degree recipients, from coast to coast

Honoris causa.

Illustration by Berto Martinez.

“My fellow graduates – oh, I do like the sound of that!” began Rick Mercer, after accepting an honorary degree – his eighth – from Western University this past June. As he told the assembled gathering of academics, graduates and guests, he doesn’t hold a single earned degree. But which curmudgeon would deny this much-loved Canadian satirist yet another doctorate, not to mention the fun of the rant that follows it?

Most of the time, the recipient of an honorary degree is a very accomplished person. The speech he or she offers is often the centrepiece of the ceremony, with words that are meant to inspire new graduates on the cusp of the next stage of their lives.

For his part, Mr. Mercer did not disappoint. “Wherever possible,” he advised, “surround yourself with the very best people.” And, “if you wake up one day and realize that you’re the smartest person in the room, it’s time to find another room.”

A speech that is wise, witty and heartfelt is remarkably difficult to pull off, as only those who have sat through years of convocations can attest. Here are a few excerpts from some of this year’s memorable ones from across the country.

“For the first time since the Enlightenment, science literacy has taken a giant step backward.”

Robert J. Sawyer

Renowned Canadian science fiction writer, speaking at University of Winnipeg:

Let me venture some guesses about what things will be like a decade from now, in what will doubtless be the very hot summer of the year 2024.

Ten years hence, most of you will be in your 30s, meaning your lives will be just a quarter – or even less! – over. You will be well into the first of likely several careers you will succeed at in your long, healthy, prosperous lives.

Those of you graduating with business degrees will be tackling a whole new definition of economics, the field once known as “the dismal science” because it was the science of scarcity. But in an information economy, in an age of ubiquitous 3D printing and with almost boundless alternative sources of energy, economics will become the science of abundance, the art of non-zero-sum games, of win-win scenarios, of cooperation and
mutual success. If corporations are people too, then you – their future leaders – will make them people with hearts and compassion, altruistic rather than merely capitalistic – in other words, people just like yourselves.

And those of you graduating with bachelor’s or master’s degrees in science, you face a tough challenge: for the first time since the Enlightenment, science literacy has taken a giant step backward. Science deniers not only lurk at the crepuscular fringes, as they always have, but they now win public office, and the masses heed the ramblings of Playboy Playmates and corporate shills instead of the overwhelming consensus of doctors and scientists. You, new science graduates, will be the bulwark of rational civilization, the front guard in the war on ignorance, the shapers of tomorrow – and the saviours of our world.

“What does it mean to be human and alive?”

Wade Davis

Canadian anthropologist, UBC professor and National Geographic explorer-in-residence, speaking at Trent University and York University:
There is no hierarchy of progress in the history of culture, no Social Darwinian ladder to success. … The brilliance of scientific research, the revelations of modern genetics, has affirmed in an astonishing way the essential connectedness of humanity.

The other peoples of the world are not failed attempts to be us, failed attempts to be modern. They are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question. What does it mean to be human and alive? When asked that question they respond in 7,000 different voices, and these collectively comprise our human repertoire for dealing with all the challenges that will confront us as a species even as we continue this never-ending journey.

What this means for you is very simple. There are tens of thousands of teachers out there in every corner of the world that you did not even know you had.

“She didn’t have the luxury of choice that most of us have today.”

Geddy Lee

Lead singer from iconic Canadian rock band Rush, speaking at Nipissing University:

Imagine! A high school dropout and rock musician, no less, receiving such an honour. My mother’s journey is the story that brought me where I am today. She is a Holocaust survivor from Poland. She and my late father decided to move to Canada, coming [here] with $10 … She didn’t have the luxury of choice that most of us have today. With that journey in mind I accept this profound honour.

(Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson was also awarded an honorary doctorate. They spoke via video link when their plane couldn’t land in North Bay due to fog.)

“I planted roses wherever I went.”

Jean Teillet

Aboriginal rights lawyer and Métis-Canadian, speaking at the University of Guelph:

It was the early 1990s and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was new, aboriginal rights as constitutional rights gave new breath into that field of law, and the constitutional rounds were going on. It was an exciting time to be back at university and in law school.

I made a choice to invest some of my energy into the institution – the university and the law school. This decision was influenced by my uncle Roger who was a navigator in the air force in World War II, shot down over France and interred in a camp for the remainder of the war. He made a gesture, what I think is perhaps the most romantic gesture I have ever heard of. Before he went overseas he went to a florist and arranged for a single red rose to be delivered every Friday to his wife Jeanne. So a single red rose arrived each week, even after she knew he had been shot down and was missing in action for years. It was a symbol of his love and his faith that he would return. [He did.]

So I take that image for what I do. I think of it as planting roses wherever I go. Not personal ones, not with my name on them, but roses gifted to the institution I am working with. Because I am, at heart, an artist, my roses often come in the form of symbols. At my alma mater, in first year I created a logo for the Native Law Students Association, which is still in use 20 years later. In second year, I created a replica Wampum Belt that now hangs in the law school. In third year, I created the Abori-ginal Moot, which is now a national institution with some 15 law schools participating every year. The Aboriginal Moot has just recently celebrated its 20th anniversary.

I don’t know if there is some judgment on your life at the end, but I think that if asked how I spent my life, I will be content to say “I planted roses wherever I went.”

“Your vote is your way of expressing your commitment to the broader task of a democracy.”

Kim Campbell

Former Prime Minister of Canada, speaking at Simon Fraser University:

Your diploma is a very important symbol of your achievements. It is also a membership card in a very special club – the convocation of a great university, Simon Fraser University. I believe all of us who have the opportunity to have that membership have an obligation to preserve and protect the values that made our achievements possible: the freedom to search for knowledge, the freedom to gather and speak, the respect for all of us in our unique and special characteristics. It is the obligation of democratic citizenship. … Not only does your vote count, it is your way of expressing your commitment to the broader task of a democracy.

I hope you will embrace that obligation [of membership in a convocation], so that generations of Canadians will be able to explore the fullness of their promise, to find what they can do, to push the boundaries of knowledge forward and to contribute not just to the democracy in Canada but for all of those people who can only dream of what we have here.

“Today women have an important role to play in the knowledge society.”

Rita Colwell

Distinguished professor of public health, University of Maryland College Park and Johns Hopkins University, speaking at York University:

To the women graduating today, I would like to provide a special message. Today women have an important role to play in the “knowledge society.” Countries of the world thriving economically, like Brazil, are those with greater participation of women in science and technology and greater numbers of women in the workforce. It is important that your educational and professional aspirations be fulfilled. Seek opportunities that allow you to make choices and decisions about your own lives. Canada and the United States are leading knowledge-based economies of the world and a knowledge society must include women to an equal extent to maintain leadership among nations.

“Three months ago, on the international day of pink, over 11 million students wore pink.”

Rick Mercer

Canadian comedian and television personality, speaking at Western University:

Always remember – the solutions to any problem whether personal or professional, they can come from anywhere. … One problem we face as a society is bullying, cyberbullying, social media bullying. This is a real problem now. We are all aware of the problem, it is on the national radar. … But long before it was on the national radar, it just existed and nothing was being done.

About five or six years ago in the Annapolis Valley, a young man moved there with his family on the very first day of high school. … He was in a new province, he didn’t know a soul. He wanted to make a good impression. He wore his best pink shirt on his first day.

That didn’t go over very well. He got teased, he got harassed. You know what? Big deal. It’s high school and those things happen.

But a group of people continued to harass him. And it went online and it was never-ending, and it got worse and worse. Then eventually he was physically assaulted. It was so bad that someone called the police. … No teacher saw anything and no other students were stepping up. Then they had a situation where the police were in the principal’s office with this young man, the parents, and they said you know what? Nothing can be done. Maybe you shouldn’t have worn that pink shirt to school. Don’t do that again.

Well, that night two kids took it upon themselves to go to Walmart and buy every single piece of pink clothing they could find. They went to school the next day. They distributed the pink clothing – first to the football team. And when the bullies went into the lunchroom the next day and looked around like the cock of the walk, they looked up and they were surrounded by an entire school wearing pink. Message sent.

Well, a couple of days later, the media get wind of it. They called up one of these young men and said are you the person who went to Walmart to buy the pink clothes?

He said yeah.

She said why would you do that?

And he didn’t have an answer so he made one up. … He said oh didn’t you know? It’s the, uh, international day of pink, it’s a day when students stand up against bullying and violence of schools.
So she wrote it down – oh, international day of pink. And then she filed the story and the story went viral.

Three months ago, on the international day of pink, over 11 million students in North America wore pink. Barack Obama wore a pink shirt to the White House on that day.

That, my friends, is leadership. What is more important, it is leadership that comes directly from your generation. And it’s your generation that my generation and older generations are going to look to, to fix the problems that we’ve made. And I know that you can do it, and I believe it’s going to be a beautiful sight.

“If you don’t understand the rules, scope or context it won’t count for anything.”

Richard Johnston

Retired Ontario politician and university administrator, speaking at Trent University:

Let me conclude with one last political story. It centres around my maiden speech in the legislature. I wanted it to be significant and memorable, so I waited for weeks until a private member’s bill about equal pay for work of equal value was being introduced by a colleague. I worked hard on the speech.

When debate day came I was third to speak for the NDP, and when the speaker recognized the member for Scarborough West and I rose in my seat, all members of the house broke into applause. When it subsided Speaker Stokes said, “You have one minute.”

“But, but Mr. Speaker, I have worked for  weeks on this. It’s my maiden speech,” I protested.

“You have 45 seconds,” he replied.

I stared at my notes, concocted a short précis and sat down.

We won the vote.

So, I learned two things from that incident. First, you can plan and plan until you have an impeccable presentation but if you don’t understand the rules, scope or context it won’t count for anything. Second, sometimes shorter is better.

“You are changing Canada, you are making a difference.”

David Johnston

Governor General of Canada, speaking at University of King’s College:

I would like to leave you today with the same message I have delivered to countless young people all across Canada. There are those who would say that you are the leaders of tomorrow. But that is simply not the case. You are already leaders today. You are changing Canada, you are making a difference.

Whether you plan to study further or enter the workforce, whether you stay in Halifax or move to other provinces or countries, I know that you will take all that you learned here with you.

Use your talents, use your passion, use your knowledge, use your kindness, use your creativity, use everything that you have at your disposal to do good in this world. Because when you do – when we all do – we build a fairer, smarter, more caring society.

“Today, like a launch, is not the purpose of what’s happening.”

Chris Hadfield

Canadian astronaut, speaking at University of Waterloo:

Often it all comes together to one day, like today. In my case, it’s come together to launch, but sort of what’s happening today is like a launch. Today didn’t happen by accident. … Today as a launch is very much a manifestation of the result of years of work, of an initial decision, of years of self-discipline, of improving yourself, of learning things you didn’t know. And then finally the day arrives, you put on the special clothes and you launch your spaceship. And where that takes you, where it lets you look in the future, of course, is the real purpose of it all.

Today, like a launch, is not the purpose of what’s happening. Today is the door opening, or the result of you having opened doors to all the things that are coming. And just as when the engines shut off after eight minutes of a rugged ride, the things that you can now see and the perspectives you now have, the ability to appreciate something in a different way because of a new perspective, is the real purpose of that long, fraught process that either got you above the atmosphere or brought you to be seated in those chairs today.

And like in any venture, of course, the next thing you ask is, where next?

Peggy Berkowitz
Peggy Berkowitz is the editor of University Affairs.
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