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Address to convocation

John C. Perlin


I am honoured to be amongst you today and I would like to thank the Senate of Memorial University for the distinction it has bestowed on me. However never in my wildest dreams during the 22 years when this building was my second home did I think that one day I too might descend those formidable stairs as a part of an Academic Procession. And manage to do so without falling flat on my face. It ranks alongside the sense of panic one has in anticipation of one’s introduction, for his degree, by the Public Orator.

Although neither I, nor my siblings, graduated from Memorial I am not the first member of my family to have attained the unique distinction of being an Honorary Graduate of this university. Both my mother, Vera Crosbie Perlin, and my father, Albert Perlin held Honorary Doctorates awarded to them for their services to our Province.

In their day Memorial was often advised by Premier Smallwood of the names of those whom he wanted to honour by having them made the recipients of honorary degrees. For many of those so honoured there was often a price tag attached. So much so, that it became a well known fact if you were to accept the invitation there would be a price to pay! There did seem to have been some truth to this particular piece of Memorial folk lore, as I found out when asked by a former president to make a donation in memory of my parents because they had both been honorary graduates.

So, in December, when I received a call from Dr. Meisen asking me to have lunch with him I wondered what his invitation might cost me. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it wasn’t money that he wanted but to tell me, personally, of the Senate’s offer of today’s honorary degree. The only price tag attached to it, but perhaps an even more formidable one, was that I would be expected to address this afternoon’s Convocation! I was grateful to Dr. Meisen for that vital piece of monetary information. Particularly so, because Memorial is presently embarked upon a major fund raising campaign!

In Dr. Meisen’s letter one of the things he cited was my life long contribution to this Province through my numerous volunteer activities. It is, therefore, on the topic of volunteerism that I want to talk to you this afternoon. In doing so I am reminded of the advice that former Lieutenant Governor Dr. Edward Roberts gave to his successor in that office, Dr Crosbie, which was “keep your speeches short because nobody listens to them anyway.” Despite being aware of that valuable advice I would like to add my own congratulations to all of you who are graduating today. And I would also like to take just a few minutes to talk to you about giving something back to the communities where you will soon be living. You can do this by volunteering some of your time to help those groups and organizations who are committed to improving the quality of life for their fellow citizens.

I realize that many of you are burdened with student loans and that you have spent many years to reach this point of receiving your degrees today. This is one of the most important days of your lives, but it can also be a frightening one, because you now have to find jobs either here in Newfoundland and Labrador, or elsewhere, and on top of all that you have to listen to this “geriatric” spouting at you about giving some of your valuable “spare” time away! However I would like you to look back at your own lives to date.

Think about the things that we all take for granted that might not have been available if there hadn’t been volunteers to make them happen. If you come from small rural communities and you were involved in a youth group think about the leaders who made it possible for you to play hockey and soccer, be a Girl Guide, a Boy Scout, or a 4H Club Member. Think about the volunteer fire departments who sprang into action whenever a fire occurred. How about the people who offer themselves for the unpaid jobs of town councillors, an increasingly difficult job due to out migration, and the closure of the cod fishery that has resulted in lower local tax revenues for them to do their jobs. Think about the service clubs, and church groups that do everything from raising money to supporting community activities, to feeding and clothing those in need.

These services, and many more, are also needed in larger communities where there are charities, non-governmental organizations, not-for-profit groups, and individuals all working tirelessly, volunteering their time and talent to support a myriad of community, cultural, and environmental activities. For the most part we don’t even think about them but simply take them for granted. However these things don’t just happen. They need all kinds of people to help them whether it is fundraising, sitting on boards, playing an instrument, acting in a community theatre group, working in soup kitchens, or donating to food banks, the list is endless, and if we didn’t have all of these voluntary organizations Newfoundland and Labrador would be a very sorry place in which to live.

Take a good look at Memorial and think about the services that you’ve received during your time here provided by students who found the time to volunteer for them. Many of these activities could not exist without those very crucial student volunteers. My own experience tells me that today we have a very graying body of volunteers. Many of the Boards I sit on, or chair today, have very few people under the age of 40 on them and if that situation cannot be changed many worthwhile community groups will simply disappear because of the lack of capable volunteers to run them.

You might be interested in some of the information compiled by Statistics Canada for the year 2004. 187,000 people in this province were volunteers. An amazing 42 per cent of our fellow citizens aged 15 or older participated, many of whom gave 188 hours of their time that year. Despite the fact that fewer men than women participated the average male hours donated were 219 compared to 165 for women, a very interesting aspect of these statistics, given that there are more women volunteers than men. In all in 2004 there was an amazing total of 35.1 million hours contributed by Newfoundlanders and Labradorians during that year.

The worst aspect of volunteering is the thankless task of being asked to join a fund raising committee. Frankly, I hate doing it, but when the chips are down, you grit your teeth, and get on with it. But volunteerism isn’t just about fund raising. You may have all kinds of skills that will be helpful to many organizations. So don’t be turned off, even if like me, you don’t like raising money.

The importance of the voluntary sector to our Province has most recently been recognized by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador which this year established a Minister and Secretariat Responsible for the Volunteer and Non-profit Sector. Now the skeptics may say that when, and if, government becomes involved in the voluntary sector it may well be the kiss of death. But hopefully if they put the right face on this new initiative it can provide the shot in the arm that many of our community groups need by providing them with both the moral and tangible support they often need to continue their work.

This new Secretariat is charged with the responsibility to, and I quote “Formalize a policy and program framework to strengthen and support the community based sector and to enhance the development of social economy enterprises, especially in rural regions, as a means of improving services, and providing additional employment.” It also intends to devise a program to recognize and celebrate the work of community volunteers. More importantly, however, and with the assistance of organizations in the voluntary sector, it wants to develop initiatives to strengthen the relationship between government and the voluntary sectors, to improve the grants process, and identify opportunities for cooperation and collaboration.

One way it will do this is to increase its funding to the Community Services Council, a province-wide non governmental organization with its own excellent web site - Envision.ca. The government also wants to work with voluntary agencies on measures to enhance employment stability for organizational staff - presumably this means with money. The provision of operational stability is the most daunting task for virtually every organization that I have ever been associated with and it is the number one thing that most donors don’t want to support financially. If that kind of support can come from government it will require good governance on the part of the recipient organizations. It would allow them to concentrate on serving their constituency while also making it possible for their volunteers to work in an atmosphere of stability.

Those of you who have earned your degrees in Social Work today will be, in many cases, on the front lines of assisting people who often are in desperate need of help. It is very likely that the experience you gain from your jobs will present you with opportunities to offer your services to some of the voluntary agencies that are dedicated to assisting our less fortunate citizens. Remember anyone can be a volunteer and by committing some of your time to help others will, I assure you, give you great personal satisfaction.

It is, my hope, through this opportunity to speak to you this afternoon, that you will think seriously about what I have said in these remarks and that when an opportunity presents itself you too will become volunteers and realize that there is much pleasure to be derived from having done so. It has been a great privilege for me to be present with you at your convocation and I am truly honoured to have received my degree with all of you today.

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