Address to convocation

by Dr. Roméo LeBlanc

Memorial University, St. John's


(June 5, 1997, Gazette)

May I express my deep appreciation for the honor bestowed upon me. My gratitude is all the greater because this university is also an emblem of Newfoundland and Labrador. And ever since I first came to this province and began meeting its people, it has meant for me almost a second home.

Comme Acadien, je suis fier de ma patrie; mais si l'on pouvait avoir deux identités, je choisirais celle-là et Terre-Neuve. Some weeks ago, I spoke at Beaumont-Hamel in France, where hundreds of Newfoundlanders fought and died in the First World War. Indeed, the name of this very university honors those who gave their lives for freedom. And I said then, as I say now, how fortunate was Canada when Newfoundland completed our country, and its sons and daughters enriched our nation with their resources of land, of sea, and of spirit.

That being said, ladies and gentlemen, we can't all be from Newfoundland; and when I speak here, I feel somewhat intimidated. It is bad enough to compete with ordinary Newfoundland eloquence. It is worse when I find some of your All-Star team on the same stage, watching me.

I suppose that the wit and the warmth of Newfoundlanders grew from your special history. In isolated communities, people depended on one another not only for survival and commerce, but for entertainment. But even in the most isolated communities, there was one vital element which they all shared: the classroom. In fact, how did civilization and culture actually spread? Historians may write about grand projects of settlement or the building of mines, mills and factories. But let us also remember the fundamental influence of that relative handful of individuals who spread knowledge and health.

You, who will be teachers, and you, who will be doctors, bear a special responsibility. You are expected not only to face young people day after day, not only to impart knowledge, but also to give them motivation and awaken their curiosity. It is no small challenge, and you will probably learn as much as you teach. I am proud that the list of graduating doctors includes several from New Brunswick. You, like the educators, are starting a new voyage. But the Cabot anniversary reminds us that the trip is not always predictable.

Giovanni Caboto knew the world was round. So he made his plans and set his course for Asia. He intended to find silks and spices and jewels, and return with a suntan. Instead he found the rain, the drizzle, and the fog of Newfoundland.

Some decades later, Jacques Cartier and Martin Frobisher came over. They filled their ships with precious stones. But back in Europe, they learned that it was all fool's gold.

In other words, this country began with visionary voyages that went off course. And forecasting your particular journey is a risky business. In fact, I can't tell you exactly where you are going, or your province, or your country. But I can tell you how to get there. And if that sounds strange, bear with me a moment. In the centuries after Cabot, many theories about Canada went adrift. At the first French, the British and even the Americans saw this land simply as part of their own manifest destiny.

Sometimes the inhabitants here -- the First Nations and those who joined them -- figured in the wars of empire. At other times, we were simply forgotten in the snow. But all the while in this huge territory, ordinary life was moving on. People learned to cope with a killing climate. They found that survival required both self-reliance and teamwork.

Pioneering was not only an individual but also a community effort: first by localities, then by colonies, and finally by a country. To quote the historian W. O. Morton: "the government of Canada [was] always the chief pioneer in a land of pioneers." Today, Canada controls half a continent. Only a few countries approach our size; and most of them grew by wars and bloodshed. But our nation grew less by conquest than by compromise, co-operation, and muddling through. And when the French and English pioneers finally learned to accommodate one another, they also learned the generosity to welcome other cultures and other races from around the world.

In some countries, when strangers fetch up on the coast, people are inclined to go down to the shore with guns. Here, whether it is stranded fishermen or refugees wearing strange clothes, people meet them with food and help. We see that same generosity in those who fought the Saguenay and Red River floods. We see it in the work of volunteers. More than half the adult population of Canada gives some form of service. We see that generosity in peacekeeping. This country not only invented peacekeeping, but also holds the record for the number of missions. And we see it in our social safety net and all the other mechanisms of sharing. Alone among nations, Canada has adopted this strange word, "equalization," and even written into the constitution the long-standing practice that different regions should have comparable services.

Over time, Canadians have developed a character that compares well with that of any other nation. No one predicted the exact course of our country, with all its challenges, compromises and triumphs. Many early theories were wrong. But our attitudes were right, especially as they matured: openness, tolerance, and compassion. Gradually our attitudes brought us forward, because often the heart is a better navigator than the mind.

Newfoundland was no more predictable than the rest of the country in the past, nor will it be in the future. But the intelligence, the spirit, and the ever-increasing education in this province will make their mark.

The rest of the country rejoices as names like Hibernia and Voisey's Bay enter the news. And I do predict that if Newfoundland becomes a "have" province, the same warmth and generosity that have marked your history will only grow. Earlier I said that I did not know exactly where you as graduates were going. Yet I said that I knew the way to get there. And so do you.

Soon the teachers among you will be telling your students that the main thing in life is to work hard and be good to one another. And the doctors will spread that lesson by example. You have chosen professions that embody hope and help. That already demonstrates your character; and almost always in the long run, character is destiny.

We built this country in many ways, but especially by helping one another; and I hope that is how you will build your life. If you do, your voyage will end well, because no matter where you go, you end up with yourself. In that sense, you may not always control the voyage, but you can shape the destination. So I expect that, in the words of the sea-faring song, you will cut a fine figure.

You have Newfoundland and all its heritage behind you. You are the best educated generation in this province's history. And you belong to the best of countries.

Today, the world is opening up before you. May you make the most of it, and of yourselves. Bon voyage.