Friday, May 24, 1996, 10 a.m.

Address to convocation by Dr. Clyde Kirby Wells


May I at the outset express my sincere gratitude to the Senate, and the university community as a whole, for conferring on me the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, and thereby doing me the great honor of placing me on a list of distinguished persons upon whom Memorial has conferred such degrees in the past. I can claim no right to such honor and can present no justification for it. I should however be frank enough to acknowledge that Memorial University itself has had a very significant role in developing and nurturing whatever characteristics the Senate relied upon to justify its decision.

That acknowledgment of the role of the institution in the development of people in this province would not be complete unless it also acknowledged that the institution's accomplishment was achieved only through the personal dedication and efforts of some very special people who have served on the faculty and administration of this university during the several decades of its existence. Those graduates who are of my generation, in identifying the two or three individuals whose dedicated efforts impacted their lives, would almost certainly have Mose Morgan in common. He epitomized all that is special about Memorial's great contribution to the people of this province.

It is not however my purpose today to burden you with yet another commentary on the institution that has occupied the greater part of your attention for the last three or more years. On the other hand, I would prefer not to burden you with a commentary that had neither interest to you today nor value to you in the future. Like most politicians I expect I have in the past delivered my share of speeches that would fall into one or other of those two categories. Now that I am out of politics I feel I should follow the good example of the chancellor and avoid making such speeches.

Unlike the chancellor I have also determined to avoid making speeches about public policy matters that are currently at issue in the province. There is however one matter that has not received any significant level of public debate but I believe is critical to whether we achieve a successful future or have to accept mediocrity or worse still failure. Indeed, it is probably the dominant factor in determining the extent to which we are able to respond to, and achieve substantial benefit from, the many opportunities that lie ahead for all of us. At the same time it is also the dominant factor in determining whether or not we will discharge our many responsibilities to society in a manner that results in both acceptability to others and personal gratification. The element that makes that kind of difference is attitude. The attitude with which we, as individuals, groups of individuals, organizations or for that matter the people of the whole province, approach opportunities or responsibilities will play a major role in producing success, mediocrity or failure.

I would caution you that these comments should not be accorded the credibility of a scholarly treatise. They are not the product of extensive research or indeed any deep thought. Rather, the comments are the results of reflections on developments in the province and the nation in the past eight or nine years during which I was directly involved in public life. Hopefully the observations will be presented with a reasonable level of judgement and objectivity.

I do not mean to convey the impression that attitude is the only really significant factor, it is not. A good attitude with no opportunity is not likely to produce much of lasting value. The best of attitudes about our individual and collective roles in harvesting, processing and marketing fish can do nothing to restore the once abundant northern cod or produce the wealth and benefits that in the past were derived from that resource. But, given that we will be faced with opportunities and responsibilities, the extent to which we are able to achieve maximum benefit or make maximum contribution will depend largely on the attitude with which we respond to the opportunity or the responsibility.

We should also bear in mind that attitude can enhance opportunity even when it may appear limited or can diminish responsibility even though it may appear excessively burdensome. History is replete with examples:

Winston Churchill was able not only to benefit from his own attitude but was able to inculcate that same attitude in the British people, and indeed in the people of all of the allied countries, to great effect during the last war. His speech to the House of Commons, on becoming prime minister in May 1940, demonstrates this.

"We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask what is our policy? I will say: it is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against the monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask what is our aim? I answer in one word victory -- victory at all cost, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival."

The quite different attitude of Neville Chamberlain could never have produced the results that Winston Churchill's attitude did.

The attitude of Mahatma Ghandi, with a quite different approach, produced an equally effective result. Ghandi's approach was: I won't hate you, but I won't obey you when you are wrong. Do what you like. I will match my capacity to suffer against your capacity to inflict the suffering -- my soul-force against your physical force. I will wear you down by good will. The immense military might of Britain could not withstand the effectiveness of a response to opportunity directed by that kind of attitude.

On a more individual basis the example of Victor Campbell and the five other men with him who were stranded in the Antarctic at the onset of the winter of 1912 with only tents, two weeks supply of food and one change of clothes demonstrates that attitude can indeed make the difference in overcoming apparently insurmountable difficulty. The attitude of their leader, Victor Campbell, and his inspiration to the others enabled them not only to survive by excavating an ice cave for shelter, trapping seals and penguin for food and fuel but to survive with a degree of physical and mental health sufficient, after seven months living in the ice cave, to walk 230 miles to the expedition's base camp over what may well be the toughest terrain in the world.

Clearly, the attitude of an individual can be transmitted to a group and become the force that enables that group to achieve. In special circumstances an attitude can be adopted by a nation of millions or hundreds of millions and the seemingly impossible is achieved.

We Canadians are among the most fortunate people in the world never to have had to cope with a war on our soil, famine or recurring natural disasters. At the same time we have been blessed with immense natural resources and virtually unlimited access to education and technology. Those opportunities coupled with the attitudes present in the decades immediately following the last war enabled us to develop a most productive, but at the same time a caring society. We used our productivity and resources to develop social welfare programs that are the envy of most countries of the world. So dedicated were we to the approach that it even found expression in the 1982 amendment to the Constitution. Section 36 expresses the commitment of the provincial and federal governments to promoting equal opportunities for the well-being of all Canadians, to furthering economic development to reduce disparity in opportunities, and to providing essential public services of reasonable quality to all Canadians, and expresses the commitment to ensure, through equalization payments, that provincial governments have sufficient revenues to provide reasonably comparable levels of public services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.

Unfortunately, one of the disadvantages that flows out of that kind of achievement, and governmental commitment, is an unhealthy attitudinal change. Many people, frequently with the encouragement of politicians looking for votes, take the position that governments, federal and provincial, are simply obligated to provide whatever is expected in the way of health, municipal, education, transportation or other public services they view as necessary to meet their expectations. Those who hold that attitude seldom equate it with asking their fellow citizens to provide such services at the expense of those fellow citizens. That, of course, is the real nature of such expectations.

When the minister of finance brought down the provincial budget last week very few, if any, of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador stopped to reflect on the fact that we are asking our fellow Canadians to simply contribute to us $950 million in the coming year so that we can maintain an acceptable level of public services in the province with a tax burden that is reasonably comparable to the rest of the country. Our attitude, at best, is to take it for granted, at worst to expect it as a matter of right. It is noteworthy that in this regard we are no different than the people of the other six equalization-receiving provinces.

Over time responding to these individual and collective expectations resulted in persistent government deficits and growing debt. When the recession hit in the early 1990s, the economy slowed, jobs were lost and government revenues fell. This coincided with political and constitutional uncertainty. Apprehension about our future as individuals, as groups, as a province and even as a nation grew. Attitudes changed.

We have become somewhat self-centred, not only individually but collectively, and even as provinces. We tend to promote our individual or group interest without much regard for the impact on the province or the country as a whole. Our attitudes changed and hardened. The attitude that has developed amongst the separatists of Quebec in the last 10 years focuses solely on what they consider to be the best interest of the province and people of Quebec without any regard for the rest of the nation. Attitudes in Ontario and Alberta have hardened and become more self-focused than ever they were before.

In these difficult economic, financial and political times governments can no longer meet the expectations that are the products of the more self-focused attitudes of individuals and groups. At no time will the governments of this country be able to meet the expectations of the separatists of Quebec because the citizens of Canada simply will not tolerate the denial of the principle of equality of citizens and equality of provinces inherent in the separatists' position.

Where then do solutions to these problems lie?

Clearly, attitudes must change. For individuals that means returning to an attitude that recognized our primary responsibility to provide for ourselves so long as it is reasonably possible to do so through our own initiative and effort. There will always be those who with the best of attitudes and the greatest of initiative and effort will still not be able to fully look after themselves and the responsibility of society as a whole to care for them must remain.

Collective attitudes, expressed through groups, organizations and communities, must also change. That will require a responsible and enlightened approach of the leadership of groups, organizations and communities. In a sense that is more difficult to achieve because such leaders feel the constant pressure of their constituency to promote the best interest of that group, organization or community without regard to the impact on society or the province as a whole.

The political and constitutional problems of the country will likely find resolution only when attitudes have changed to a degree sufficient to reflect the willingness of the people concerned to subordinate the interest of their province, territory or region to the interest of the nation as a whole. This is most likely to be achieved by developing a constitutional and governmental structure that is based on principle rather than preference, priority or privileged position.

As with most major issues it is far easier to identify the problem than the solution. It is not a problem that government can easily handle alone. All institutions and sectors of society that impact public opinion have a particular responsibility. The leadership of all of the sectors of society, the media, the universities, and other educational institutions have both a right and a responsibility to contribute to the development of attitudes that are not only less self-focused but are also more consistent with the economic, social and political realities of our time.

I have every confidence that when our attention is focused on the issue collectively we will respond, as they did in wartime Britain, because failure is unthinkable.

Perhaps the people of my generation are passing on to you far greater challenges, in this and other areas of life, than those who preceded my generation passed on to us. On behalf of the chancellor, the president and myself I apologize. I would note however that our willingness to pass on such responsibility probably also reflects our good judgement about the abilities, the initiative and the attitudes of the people to whom we are passing the burden and our confidence that you will do better than we did.

Thank you and good fortune to all of you, to your province and to your nation.