Oration | Address to Convocation
A global storyteller for a quarter of a century, Gwynne Dyer's unique background as a reserve naval officer (under Canadian, American, and UK flags), filmmaker, and lauded academic, renders him a respected voice on a range of issues. His biweekly international affairs column is published in over 30 countries worldwide, including the Washington Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Jerusalem Post, the Vancouver Sun, the Japan Times and the Johannesburg Times.
Born in St. John's, Dr. Dyer has a BA in History from Memorial; an MA in Military History from Rice University in Texas; and a PhD in Military and Middle Eastern History from the University of London. He held academic appointments at the Canadian Forces College, the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, and Oxford University before devoting himself entirely to journalism in 1973.
In addition to his internationally-syndicated column, Dr. Dyer has worked as a lecturer in military history and a senior lecturer in war studies. He is a founding member of the board of the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security.
His history in writing and producing documentary-style radio, film, and television broadcasts began in 1985 with the seven-part TV series War (one episode of which nominated for an Academy Award). The accompanying book won Dyer the 1986 Columbia University School of Journalism award.
Other Dyer documentaries include the National Film Board/CBC series The Defence of Canada, which won a Gemini in 1987; The Human Race (1994), an inquiry into the roots, nature and future of human politics; and Protection Force, a three-part examination of United Nations and peacekeeping actions in the former Yugoslavia that first aired in 1995 and was nominated for a Gemini.
Memorial's 1984 Alumnus of the Year, Dr. Dyer was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree at the 3 p.m. session of convocation on June 1.
Oration honouring Gwynne Dyer
Dr. David Bell, University Orator
War and the Newfoundland weather have much in common. Both of them, like the poor, are always with us. Both of them can dominate our lives and our conversation. Both of them are to be endured rather than enjoyed. War is all around us. Indeed, just last year we witnessed it here at Memorial when the children of light went forth against the children of darkness in apocalyptic conflict. I refer, of course, to MUNFA and the administration. Their tongues were as sharp swords, their words a flaming fire - or, at least, hot air - and both sides, each convinced of its own righteousness, attempted to beat the other to death with reams of memoranda.
But war is well known to the gentleman who stands before you here today. Did he not produce a television series on the very subject in 1983? He did. And was it not hard-hitting, unsentimental, and controversial? It was. But controversy is the spice of life. The film was shown in 45 countries. It won an ACTRA Award. It won the Public Jury's Grand Prize at the International Film Festival in Nyon, Switzerland. It was nominated for an Academy Award. Further films followed: In Defence of Canada, Harder Than It Looks, and, in 1995, Protection Force, a look at the role of the United Nations in what used to be Yugoslavia. And then there are the radio programs on everything from Catholicism to Communism and the innumerable articles in innumerable newspapers. Gwynne Dyer, Mr Vice-Chancellor, is a busy man.
He was born here in St John's and he began his education here at Memorial. It was a time of his life when he sought to combine an absolute maximum of play with an absolute minimum of work, and I am told by those who know him well that he achieved this goal with great success. Indeed, I am reliably informed by sources I shall not name that on one occasion Gwynne Dyer had been celebrating - what he had been celebrating is irrelevant - but he had been celebrating on the very morning of one of his final examinations. Not dissuaded by this, and clearly of the opinion that any examination would do, he appeared for the test in a subject for which he had not studied and a course for which he had not registered. This did not deter him. In due course, he was contacted by the Registrar who informed him, first, of his error, and then, that he had gained a grade of more than 90 per cent. There's glory for you!
Now according to Thomas Appleton, good Americans, when they die, go to Paris. Good Canadians, when they study, go to London. And so did Gwynne Dyer. He went, in fact, to the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London where he gained his PhD in 1973. He served in the naval reserves of Canada, the United States, and Great Britain - internationalism with a vengeance - and taught both at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in England. It is said, though I am not sure I believe it, that at the latter august establishment, he even relinquished his leather jacket.
And so he stands before you here today, a talented and adventurous journalist and writer, bonneted in black, statuesque in scarlet. Looking at him now, in fact, I am reminded of an episode in the Second World War when the Channel Islands were occupied by the Germans and a force of commandos went raiding on the island of Sark. The island was ruled by the Dame of Sark, a formidable lady, and in the early 1940s the Dame was taking her night's rest when a Royal Marine commando, large, armed to the teeth, and with blackened face, burst in through the French windows of her bedroom. The old Dame sat up in bed and happily recognized an Allied intruder. "Thank God," she said, "a decent-sized man at last!"
Well, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, here you have another decent-sized man, with many years of experience behind him, many years of admirable journalism to his credit, and, we trust, many more years to come. In 1898, during the Spanish-American war for the possession of Cuba, there used to be a macabre toast drunk on board one of the warships: "To the officers, may they be killed, wounded, or promoted!" Gwynne Dyer, happily, has not been killed, though here and there he has diced with death, and we would not wish him wounded. We are left, therefore, with only the third alternative. We can promote him. And promote him we shall, by awarding to this distinguished producer, author, historian, correspondent, journalist, and political commentator the highest award our university may bestow. I therefore present to you, Mr.Vice-Chancellor, for the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa, Gwynne Dyer.
Address to convocation
by Dr. Gwynne Dyer
First of all congratulations to the graduating class and I hope that all of you who want to be here in Newfoundland and Labrador in 10 years time have that choice. And things are looking better than they used to. But I am conscious that if all the people born here who had wanted to live out their lives here over the last century had had that choice there would be closer to two million of us, than half a million. Now our principle export, for a very long time, has been our people. So that is, in a way, my topic for this afternoon.
How could this place become a place where all of its residents who want to be here, can be here; and have fulfilling lives and decent careers and make productive contributions, here. Tall order, and frankly when I was an undergraduate here I didn't ask myself that question because I assumed it was an impossibility. I assumed that Newfoundland was a peripheral place, brutally: an unimportant place. Important to me but unimportant to the world. And of course if you wanted to do interesting things you had to leave, and even if you wanted a job in very many cases you had to leave, and probably half of my high school graduating class was gone within five years. Things got a bit better in the '70s and '80s, but the '90s weren't great. So, the question is "how could it be a different place, A place that had those resources and that possibility?"
As I said, when I was a kid, I didn't think it could be. I just assumed things were as they were because of some inevitable nature of the way the world worked, the way even perhaps that Newfoundlanders were. And then two developments ... or ... developments not exactly. Two bits of information made me begin to wonder about the inevitability of all that. And, I guess the first would be the process that's gradually been stealing over us the past 15 or 20 years known as globalization. Without going in to the details the fundamental importance of globalization is that it destroys the idea of the centre and the periphery. All of the changes that have happened in the world economically, and above all in communications technology, mean that that old idea that there is one central, big place where things get done and all the peripheral places can only contribute to the more important things going on at the centre in the big masses of people. All that old centre and periphery stuff is being made redundant by the new technologies, the new organization of the world. So that kind of geographical argument for the marginality of Newfoundland, if it ever held water, holds less each year. And the other thing that happened to me was that I discovered Iceland; about 1,100 years after some other people discovered Iceland - true, but nevertheless I got there in the end, and realized that we had this lost twin in the middle of the Atlantic. Another North Atlantic island, climate: damn near as bad, and fewer resources really. I mean, they have cod fish, but they don't actually have minerals. They haven't got much in the way of hydro power. And they don't really have much in the way of trees.
And yet, they don't lose people. Icelanders who want jobs have them, can live their lives there. And indeed there is something else going on that really got my attention, that is: Iceland used to be poorer than Newfoundland. When I was born, Iceland was poorer than Newfoundland, and Newfoundland was a colony and Iceland was a colony. We'd been independent, but we were a colony in 1943. And in that year Iceland took its independence from Denmark - desperately poor place. And five years later in the referendum of '48 we chose to ally ourselves with Canada. (At that point we were still more profitable than Iceland). And 50 years later, not only are they not losing people, but they are far more prosperous than we are. And they still have their cod fish. Which makes you wonder a bit, doesn't it.
Well here's what I wonder, I wonder what happened here? And so I talked to Icelanders about it. Actually, I talked to a former president of Iceland and I said "do you think we made a mistake in '48? Should we, perhaps, have gone out on our own?"And she said "am I off the record?" And I said "yes." And, poor fool, she believed me. You are never off the record with a journalist if you say something interesting. She said "yesof course you should've." So I took that and I went to a number of other Icelanders. And now I'm talking to Icelanders who knew Newfoundland a lot better than she did. People who've worked here over long periods of time; knew the island, knew the province better than he did. And I asked them the same question: do you think we made a mistake in '48? And it was interesting and rather humbling what they said. They said (I'm, sort of summarizing what a number of people said), they said: "well if you'd been Icelanders, your right choice in '48 would have been independence. But you're not. You wouldn't have made it. The reasons being, first of all you were not an educated population; and secondly, you were hopelessly divided by class, and almost by tribe. So we made it, though we had a tough time, but you wouldn't have." I thought about that; and I'm afraid they're right, in the sense that the Newfoundland of that time was a place that was desperately, badly educated. And that it was a place that was deeply divided, by class you might say, but also (because) it was a colonial society.
When I first came to Memorial, having grown up on Queen's Road in St. John's, not exactly the cream of society but nevertheless a townie. The townies and the baymen of this university were like those pictures you sometimes see of two galaxies colliding, you know, astronomically. And they passed through each other without any of the stars hitting. Two societies united in mutual contempt. It got better. I think the Icelanders were right about '48. I think we probably made the best choice available to us. But things have changed in Newfoundland, to a considerable extent thanks to this university. This is now a far better educated society. Not as well educated as it should be. We still do not place sufficient value, or indeed commit sufficient resources to education, but it is infinitely better than it was 50 years ago or 25 years ago. And to a very considerable extent, again thanks to this university, that terrible colonial divide between the town and the bay has been enormously eroded. I'm not saying its all gone, but the old attitudes are gone, and to a very large extent the real division of wealth and of skills, or the disparity of wealth and skills, is gone or going.
So I suppose if you could take this population, transfer it back to 1948, yes maybe we made the wrong decision; we would have done better on our own. Maybe we'd even have our codfish too. But I don't want to go back to '48, and I don't want to leave Canada. This is not a separatist speech. It is about what we can do now in a world where centre and periphery are no longer the defining characteristics they used to be geographically. When we have the abilities that we lacked back then, what could we do within the Canadian context to make this a different sort of place? And, I think it is fundamentally at this point in time a question of self-confidence. Of believing (I hate to bean inspirational speaker because its not my trade) but of believing that it is possible to do things here. It is in reality possible to do almost anything here, now. But you also have to believe that that is possible. Now what would be a project, on which we could focus, that might let us begin to develop those attitudes, resources, skills. Let me offer you one, mind you I don't live here, so I don't have to live with the consequences of it, you'll have to consider this but, let me offer you one. I think that the most crippling thing about our present environment is our dependence. This was once a ferociously self-sufficient culture. After 50 years ... it is not. In its head it is no longer that. We have echoes of it but we no longer live like that. And, I think, a very useful thing to consider, if not even eventually to do (though I'm not against doing it), is to start thinking now about how we might get off the federal tit. How in five years, or 10, perhaps in concert with the other Atlantic provinces because to a greater or lesser extent they have the same problems. Even proud Nova Scotia, once the third power in the Canadian federation, has the same problems, psychologically as well as materially. What if we had a 10-year project to get off equalization payments; to take charge of our own futures, and make our own decisions as much as possible, within the Canadian federation of course. I think its do-able. The politics is moving our way. Both in the sense that in Canada at large this whole system of handouts from the rich to the poor is coming in to question now that there's only two rich provinces and eight recipients. And, in the sense that our own resources, are growing, are the resources with which we might replace those equalized payments could a political not legal bargain be made. About half the conventional oil pumped in Canada, for example, will probably be coming from the Atlantic region in 10 years time.
So as a project to focus the mind, if not even necessarily the one (project) that you finally do, it seems to me very worthwhile to start thinking about how we could become fiscally responsible, politically responsible for our own futures, as we used to be. Because you see, we can, actually, do. Excuse me for being like this but I just think it needs to be said, we can actually do whatever we set our minds to. Thank you very much.
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