Glendon College Convocation Address (2017)

Chancellor Sorbara, President and Vice-Chancellor Shoukri, Principal Ipperciel, Former President Marsden, Members of the Platform Party, Graduating Class of 2017, family and friends.

I am deeply touched to be presented with an Honourary Doctorate of Laws here at my own alma mater and I extend my grateful thanks to my nominators.  It is such a pleasure to be here on this beautiful campus where my husband and I graduated together in 1968, almost fifty years ago.  Much has changed as additional facilities have been added but so much remains the same, at least on the surface.  Glendon Hall retains its gracious presence and the remarkable rose garden has been beautifully preserved.  In my imagination I can picture former classmates going to and fro at Hilliard and Wood residences, lining up for formal dinner outside the dining hall and rushing from class to class with heavy bags of books and notebooks.  My legs ache as I remember the long climb up the hill from the Field House and the parking lot.  But enough of my nostalgic thoughts about the “way we were.”  We’re here today to celebrate the accomplishments of this generation and to send these graduates out into a world which holds both promise and challenge.

The one thing that is certain in life is “change.”  And changes in social, political, legal, educational and family life seem to be happening at an increasingly fast pace every year.  Technology has resulted in massive changes to the labour market; jobs that were considered secure and lifelong disappear with disconcerting speed, requiring workers to retrain or get left behind. The liberal education you have received here at Glendon was designed to prepare you for those changes in life and work and to foster in you a love of lifelong learning.  A broad general education, coupled with specialized courses in a wide variety of academic disciplines, encourages flexibility of thought, analytical skills, language proficiencies, and an acceptance of diversity.  The first Principal of Glendon, Escott Reid, installed in 1966, articulated a dream of a fully bilingual and inclusive College that would reflect the complex composition of Canada; as a former diplomat and public servant, he envisioned an education that would prepare students to live a full life of service to their country and their communities.  Students were constantly counselled to be mindful of their entire being; the symbol used was the metal sculpture, “The Whole Man,” –now, of course, the more politically correct,”Whole Person’– which symbolized that our lives and our learning must encompass all aspects of our being.  Although our class, as the last cohort of York Arts and Science students to complete our full studies at Glendon, was too late to enjoy the full benefits of Mr. Reid’s visionary concept, including bilingual tongues I must confess, we did absorb many elements of the dream, with large numbers of us dedicating our lives to public service in one form or another.

As students at Glendon, we were encouraged to be active and engaged in all aspects of college life and the broader community.  Even when our activities, in the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War protests, the  student movement or the emerging feminist movement  led to embarrassment or dismay on the part of faculty or the administration, our right to be involved was never the issue.  Respectful debate was fostered and issues explored from all points of view.  Even though some of us were too young to vote, we felt entitled to explore all our options and decide how we might have voted had we been able to do so.  The intended and unintended consequences of proposed policies were part of the discussion.  I remember in 1968 the forum called “Quebec Year 8” in which a variety of Quebec and Federalist politicians and historians, like Pierre Trudeau and Renee Levesque, debated the revolutionary changes in Quebec that had resulted from the election of 1960.  Some like Levesque ardently favoured the independence of Quebec while others, led by Pierre Trudeau, advocated for Quebec to be accommodated within confederation.   That tension has played itself out in our country ever since and continues to be a lively issue in Quebec today.

A  key learning that I absorbed at Glendon is that the personal is political, that every single choice we make in life is crucial and that our choices not only form our own being but have real impact on the future of our society and our relationships.  As existential beings we are forced to take responsibility for our actions and our communications.  We are enabled to make new choices when previous ones are found to be inadequate, without absolving ourselves from the consequences of those former choices, however unintended the consequences might be. Now there are many who find such an existential imperative frightening and challenging.  But I think it is empowering, giving meaning to an otherwise potentially arid existence.  What seems to be unclear to many in our world today is that when we opt out of making choices in politics, social justice or the legal system, we are shirking our responsibility to be actively involved in creating our own lived reality.

How often do we hear people say, “I don’t want to get involved” or “No one cares what I think” or “I’m only one person, I can’t change the world” or, worst of all, “I had no choice.” We always have choices, even though the options may all be difficult to even contemplate.  When I was counselling abused women and children it was often a challenge to persuade them to choose between a range of unpalatable options with a goal of keeping as safe as possible.  People seem increasingly unwilling to take a position on controversial issues or even to discuss the options that present themselves.  Statistics are clear that engagement in the democratic process in Canada, at any level of government, is less with each successive election or referendum.  But those who don’t participate feel empowered to criticize and undermine the governments that are elected.  Even those engaged in party politics often seem more focussed on getting elected or re-elected than in serving the public good.   Law enforcement agencies observe a growing reluctance on the part of citizens to assist as witnesses in police and court proceedings, preferring instead to rely on draconian laws which undermine the key principles of the rule of law and flout the essential independence of the police, prosecutors and the judiciary.  Participation in jury duty is avoided at all costs.  Collective action on the part of advocacy groups or unions is hard to motivate and maintain.  People object to paying their taxes but are constantly criticizing the services funded by those taxes when there are insufficient resources to go around.  People rush to crowd fund specific emotionally charged causes benefitting single recipients while ignoring the appeals of reputable registered charities dedicated to the widespread relief of serious medical or social ills affecting large numbers of the population.  And all  agencies and Non-Governmental Organizations struggle to attract and retain sufficient volunteers to fulfill their missions.

What does not seem to be recognized is the reality that the choice not to get involved, not to engage, is, itself, a choice, one that undermines the very basis of democratic society.  Indeed, some days I think the choice not to act may be more detrimental than any of the options available could be.  Think of the recent British referendum on Brexit.  Statistics show that young people were grossly under-represented among those who worked on either the pro or the con campaigns and among those who voted on the issue, even though their future prosperity was most at stake.  And yet, when the outcome of the referendum was known, large numbers suddenly became vocal and active in support of staying in the European Union even though the decision was already made in the absence of their votes on either side.  Similarly, in the recent American election, it is clear that many Democrats took a win for their party for granted or, because of personal distaste for Hilary Clinton, didn’t vote; their non-votes were likely sufficient to permit the Republican victory.

I am reminded of Victor Frankl’s “The Meaning of Life” in which he described his hideous experience of inhumanity as a prisoner, first in the Jewish ghetto, and then in four different death camps.  The prisoners had no control over the cruel treatment meted out to them by their Nazi captors.  Frankl noted that the response of many was to become apathetic, to retreat into their own victimization, often victimizing others in their despair.  Frankl observed that it is not “what” happens to you in life but how you respond to those circumstances that defines your humanity.  Even in the face of unspeakable horror, those who chose to respond according to their human values were most likely to live, and sometimes to die, with both dignity and purpose.

As you graduate, I urge you to make the choice to exercise the hard-won rights and responsibilities you enjoy as citizens, to always be active participants in the decisions which inevitably affect our democracy and our personal lives.  As we know from the last half century, we cannot predict with any accuracy how we will be affected by evolving circumstances and so we must equip ourselves to accept and welcome positive changes while working hard to prevent harmful ones.  Listen to competing views and carefully consider the possible outcomes and the effects of your choices on others.  Don’t hold back because someone else might choose differently but take responsibility for your own decisions.   Your viewpoints will not always prevail and your choices may result in unexpected outcomes, but you will not have to live with the regret of having remained silent and passive when faced with challenges.  Embrace a sense of personal agency so that you steer your destiny rather than being tossed and turned by fate.    

Fortunately your education here at Glendon has provided you with the tools and skills to adapt with confidence in our evolving world. I have every expectation that each of you will make positive contributions to your communities, your country and the world.  My warmest congratulations and best wishes to you as you move beyond this success to the next stage of your lives.

Merci and thank you.