Friday, May 26, 1996, 3 p.m.

Address to convocation by Dr. William A. O'Neil


First of all I would like to thank you for the great honor you have conferred upon me today in presenting me with an honorary doctor of laws degree. It is an award which I shall cherish on a personal level but I know that it is also intended as a tribute to the work of the International Maritime Organization, where, for the past six-and-a-half years, I have been its first Canadian secretary-general.

While Newfoundland has historically had a close association with seafaring many of you may not be really oriented to the sea and may be unaware of the fact that IMO is the single United Nations specialized agency dealing with safety of life at sea and the prevention of pollution from ships. We are the only UN agency with its headquarters in the United Kingdom and conduct our operations from London. Because we are a highly specialized technical organization we focus on the issues of improving safety and dealing with pollution with a minimum of political interference.

The task is a ceaseless one but, in its some 37 years of existence, IMO has established international standards for shipping which have contributed to marked increases in safety and to a dramatic reduction in pollution of the seas from ships.

While this degree is awarded to me personally I take it also as an endorsement by the university of the achievements of IMO to the benefit of all mankind. The oceans are our last resource and must be treated with care and respect, otherwise the vast area which forms the majority of the earth's surface will become a cesspool unfit to provide life-giving substances which we so badly need as the world population continues to increase dramatically.

Amongst you are those who have earned bachelor's degrees in science, physical education, music, pharmacy, and social work, as well as maritime studies, and of course some of you will be receiving master's degrees in social work, pharmacy and physical education. I would like to extend my heartiest congratulations to all of you for the hard work you have put into furthering your education over the years culminating in this award ceremony today.

Keep in mind that a degree is not simply a piece of paper and it is much more than a key to a promising career. It is a proof of excellence which you alone have gained and which can never be taken away from you. You have proved that goals, which from time to time seemed remote, can in fact be achieved. And you now possess a basic building block upon which you and only you can build your future. Your friends, families and colleagues are proud of you and look forward with anticipation to your future triumphs.

While the degrees granted today cover many professions, I would hope that because of my background in shipping and maritime matters you will forgive me if I express special congratulations to those who have gained degrees in maritime studies -- and who are the first-ever students at this university to do so.

Memorial University's decision to offer a degree program designed specifically for ships' officers showed great foresight and an awareness of the fact that what shipping most needs today -- and will need even more in the future -- is skill, ability, and the sort of excellence you have all demonstrated in earning your degrees.

It was only a few decades ago that a young person wishing to go to sea as a career would learn much of what was required by starting at the bottom and by doing each individual job itself. The sea was considered to be the best classroom, because that was where the problems were and the most effective lessons could be learned from the old tried and proven methods.

Today things have changed. The ability to fix a ship's position on a starless night or a sunless day is no longer as essential as it once was, because we now have electronic positioning systems that enable us to find out where we are by pushing buttons and looking at a screen. Many of the tasks that once had to be done by means of painstaking calculations and slide rules can now be handled better -- and quicker -- by a computer.

During the last few decades the world has also shrunk. Once, every voyage was an adventure, a ship would disappear over the horizon and be on its own, at least as far as the owners ashore were concerned. It was difficult enough to find out where the captain was, let alone tell him what he should be doing.

In fact, if we look at the early seagoing explorers:

Today that independence is all but gone. Satellite communications provide instant access to the captain, so that the owner knows exactly where the ship is and directs its schedule. But just because shipping is changing does not mean that professional skills are no longer important, only that the skills required are altering.

Just what will be needed in 10 or 20 years' time is difficult to predict but I am sure that the stress on excellence will continue to be a main priority. The master of the ship of the future will have to be a good manager as well as a good shiphandler. He -- or she -- will have to know about the latest safety and environmental regulations. He or she will have to be thoroughly familiar with contemporary management techniques. While being in total command of the ship, the captain of the future may also be involved in running the company -- through regular meetings with other senior company personnel, who may be scattered all round the world but will all be linked by satellite television.

The traditional skills, in fact, are already being replaced by new ones and that process is going to continue indefinitely. The new skills can very often be best acquired ashore rather than at sea, because they are skills that are present in other industries as well. The use of simulators, the exposure to techniques of similar industries, the use of retraining and updating programs must all be welcomed as positive moves to improve shipping.

What the shipping world will be like when today's graduates reach retirement age is impossible to guess, but I am sure that, as time passes, some of you in the audience will be shaking your heads nostalgically and telling those coming into the profession that seafaring isn't what it used to be when you were young.

I hope that not all of you will be yearning for the good old days, because I believe that the best years for the shipping world and especially for mariners lie in the future, not the past. The great achievement of Memorial University and its Marine Institute was to see that change was coming and to prepare for it. You are, I am sure, fully aware of that fact and grateful that you are its first beneficiaries. But I believe that the rest of the shipping community will benefit just as much from what you have learned here, for the shipping industry of the future will be extremely demanding.

It will require most of the qualities that have traditionally been an essential part of a successful seafaring career, but it will also demand other abilities -- management skills, an appreciation of business, an awareness of the environment, a belief in people and an understanding of their needs.

That last point is perhaps the most important of all, because one thing that I am certain of is that whatever technical marvels come to shipping, and indeed to any of your chosen professions, during the course of your careers people will always remain the greatest resource. In the rush to embrace technology at times we have lost sight of that fact. There has been a tendency to blame accidents on human error without trying to find out why people make mistakes.

This is something that IMO is working very hard on at the present time because we know that if we really do want shipping safety to improve we can only make substantial progress by gaining the support of the men and women who work in the industry itself. We know that mechanization and computerization have their limits. The human factor will always be the key and that means we must make sure that our industry is one which people will be keen to enter -- and where they will want to stay. Memorial University has set a fine example through establishing its course in maritime studies.

I am pleased and delighted to have been able to be with you to share the excitement and achievement of all those who successfully graduated today. You who have received your bachelor or master's degrees will now be moving into the workplace where change rather than stability is the rule of the day. You possess the professional skills necessary to deal with your specific area of specialization and it is now up to you to adapt those skills to the requirements of the 21st century which is on our doorsteps.

In conclusion, I would repeat that I am especially grateful for my own award. It is an honor which I shall always remember with particular pleasure and I would again like to thank you, Mr. President, and your colleagues, for having awarded me this degree.

Thank you very much.