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Orations - Convocation 2008

Oration honouring John Ennis

Now and again the most accomplished men of letters make use of common expressions, perhaps as a kind of signature, or perhaps as a bit of linguistic slumming. John Ennis is among these exceptional men, and offers no exception here. He’ll pause in the midst of pointing out his conviction on some matter – these moments are not scarce – with the startling query, “ya folla?”

It recalls that great movie, The Sting, and its archetypal Irish gangster, Doyle Lonnigan, who gets caught in the intricate scam that the title alludes to. What an ironic association. John Ennis is too sharp to be caught in any scam – not that you worry too much about that sort of thing in the land of higher education – and, far from being a thug like Lonnigan, he’s the original good guy, a good colleague, a good friend, a devoted family man, and a tireless worker in the affairs of his church and of Waterford, and its Institute of Technology (W.I.T.).

In addition, he’s selfless and relentless in his promotion of the arts on both sides of the Atlantic, and takes a special interest in the art and music and poetry of young people.

In the last six years, no one has benefited more from his energy and generosity than Grenfell College. When John first came to the March Hare and Stephanie McKenzie cooked him a salmon dinner, none of us could have known what he was cooking up for us. Probably the ideas were only then fermenting, but, as time would make abundantly clear, that was one salmon that yielded his life for a worthy cause.

Out of that evening came the notion of the first of three collaborative anthologies, the first two dealing with the poetry of Ireland and Newfoundland and Labrador, and the third, with the poetry of Ireland and Canada, each work getting longer and the last weighing about the same as that salmon.

The book launches that John arranged amply demonstrate the level of interest in Newfoundland affairs that he was able to generate among the Irish. There were five launches for the first of these works with state cabinet ministers present at three of them.

John has also been heavily involved in other joint projects with Grenfell and Newfoundland, including his establishing at WIT the Centre for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, and bringing over Newfoundland writers annually to Waterford’s Literary Festival. He played a key role in making possible the 2007 March Hare trip to Ireland, which included the participation of Premier Williams. Over the years he has worked closely with our late principal, Dr. John Ashton, and their work has led to an even greater level of collaboration between the students and faculty of our two institutions and countries.

John Ennis has always kept an ear to the ground when it comes to Grenfell’s interests. Working with John Ashton yet again, he played a key part in arranging for the North American launch of An Leabhar Mor, the Great Book of Gaelic, at Grenfell. This significant event was of the utmost importance to John Ashton who, even when he was under treatment, never failed to ask about its progress.

This is not to say that John Ennis’s only interest in life has been to promote our college. Raised on a farm in the Irish Midlands and educated in Cork, he has made a considerable contribution to the arts and to education in his own country. While he is a poet who has claimed the prestigious Patrick Kavanagh Award, an editor of poetry and a respected scholar, he is also a very able administrator and has been Head of Humanities at WIT since 1980.

However, it is in his poetry that he makes his most valuable contribution. In these few lines from “Magpies in the Bramleys,” you will get a glimpse of his work and hear the importance to him of the literal fields he grew up surrounded by:

We’ve grown too obsessed by far with fields and gardens
what year our two crab apples octobered in profusion
what year our lone beautiful wych elm tree blew down ….

This poem shows that, in a sense, he has never left those fields. And the day is not far off when he will return to them and his long tenure at WIT will come to an end. We can only be grateful for his making us at Grenfell a major benefactor of that very productive period of his life. I present, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, for the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, John Ennis.

Dr. Randall Maggs
University Orator

Oration honouring Robert Richard Blakely

It may be regrettable but it is nonetheless true that, when one thinks of the navy, one thinks of Winston Churchill’s pithy little comment: that naval tradition consists merely of “rum, sodomy, prayers and the lash.” Those may have been naval essentials at one time but the senior service’s reputation was not built on that slander but on the valour and effectiveness of its ships and sailors. Such qualities were neatly summarized by the great legal commentator of the 18th century, Sir William Blackstone, when he said that “The royal navy of England has ever been its greatest defence and ornament; it is its ancient and natural strength; the floating bulwark of the island.”

Our greater island can echo at least some of those sentiments for we have also had a long attachment to the navy both British and Canadian and, for the most part, it has been a favourable connection. From 1729 until 1841 all our governors were naval persons. Working with the governor and holding surrogate courts were the naval officers under his command. Capt. David Buchan is an interesting representative of this group for it was he who led the ill-fated expedition to make contact with the Beothuk in 1810 and who, in 1819, brought the dying Demasduit back to Exploits. This concern for our native people must however be contrasted with his treatment of two poor Irish fishermen whom he had flogged and evicted from their houses in 1820.

As more intense extremes of the naval governor we might set Governor Palliser and Sir John Berry. Palliser arrived in 1764 and, it is alleged, wanted to expel the inhabitants of Newfoundland and restore the ship fishery. A century earlier Berry, had argued against the very regulations Palliser was attempting to enforce and sided with the inhabitants by making the strongest argument for their rights and their value to the Newfoundland fishery. So while some of them were rough, for the most part the naval governors were wise and considerate of local conditions and concerned with the proper dispensation of justice.

Now Chancellor, if you know that Bob Blakely began life in Edmonton and was recently Commander of Canada’s Naval Reserve, you might ask what connection a man from that most landlocked of provinces could have with the maritime world of Newfoundland. We know that, despite the dreams of Ralph Klein, you, as Chief of Defence Staff, would not have approved anything more than the rum for Klein’s attempt to establish an Alberta navy.

But a closer look at the development of Blakely’s career will show that he does have the essential connections even if the linkage is curious. Starting out in life as a plumber and pipefitter, he developed a concern for the plight of the tradesperson so he went to law school at the University of Alberta and entered practice as a labour lawyer in 1977. Currently director of Canadian Affairs for the Building Construction and Trades Department of the AFL-CIO in Ottawa, he has been closely involved in negotiations on wages, benefits and working conditions on major projects across Canada, including many of the most significant ones in Newfoundland, among them Voisey’s Bay and White Rose.

Now there is a start on his connections with Sir John Berry – concern for the downtrodden, among them the Newfoundlanders. But it goes further than this. Improbable as it sounds, Edmonton has a Naval Reserve with which Bob Blakely has been involved since 1969 becoming its Commanding Officer in 1993. In July 2004 he was promoted to Commodore and appointed as Commander of Canada’s Naval Reserve.

For his contribution to labour relations and to the Naval Reserve, Chancellor I present to you for the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, this latter-day representative of the Navy’s service to Newfoundland and Labrador, Robert Richard Blakely.

Shane O’Dea
Public Orator

Oration honouring Clyde Rose

Please allow your humble aide-de-camp to present her field report in the form of a story. Once upon a time, a long time ago in Avalon, a daring cohort of cultural adventurers decided to carry out a raid on our rich literary and artistic resources. By establishing a unique and autonomous publishing company, Breakwater Books, these valiant young men launched forth those resources into the deep and turbulent waters of post-Confederation Newfoundland.

These comrades-in-arms were not the Masterless Men of the past. Although their strategy was devised in a local hostelry of some repute, theirs was no ill-considered or untimely invasion. In fact, they were all popular, respected, tenured English professors in this unique and autonomous institution: the director and actor, Richard Buehler; the writer and musician, Patrick Byrne; the poet and painter, Tom Dawe; the playwright and poet, Al Pittman and the primus inter pares, the unacknowledged legislator of them all, Clyde Rose, who is now standing before you, all present and correct, in the full uniform of his alma mater, awaiting your command.

Clyde, and the men he led, would be the first to relish the irony that he is to receive a doctor of laws degree (honoris causa) for his remarkable contribution to our society. Because in those early days undertaking the risky and, as was thought by many, the foolhardy task of announcing to the world that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians should tell their own stories in their own diverse and diverting voices, he had to write his own laws and live or die by them. Voluntarily, Clyde left the secure encampment of his tenured position at this major Canadian university to commit himself body, heart and soul to the cause of promoting the literary culture of Newfoundland and Labrador.

To take on the bastions of the cultural and political establishment of the 1970s took all of Clyde’s tenacity and charm, required costly personal sacrifices and, yes, occasionally demanded the use of guerrilla tactics to defeat the enemies of bureaucratic indifference, inadequate financing and weak supply-lines of distribution. There are legendary stories of Clyde’s engagements against entrenched and prejudiced positions as he fought to advance his company, recruit and protect new writers and forge powerful alliances in the rest of Canada and overseas. Clyde was, indeed, his own lawmaker, the master and commander of Breakwater Books. Today we acknowledge his victory in holding fast to his dream that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians can lay claim to their own culture and identity.

All his life, Clyde has been a passionate patriot, but not a parochial one. There are many rooms in Clyde’s unique publishing company. In over 600 books, Breakwater has recorded our memoirs, history and folklore, our landscapes of land, sea and time in the words and images of writers and artists who have made their lives here. Our school children now accept as natural that they should read about their province and now people in the rest of North America, Europe, Australia and Japan, also read our stories, narrated in all our distinct voices.

The stories about Clyde are legion. His skill in scouting out new manuscripts, his audacity in setting up camp in the offices of premiers and presidents until he got his way. I must warn you, Dr. Campbell, Clyde once held his own Convocation ceremonies at the Mamateek Inn in Corner Brook when he, as president of his company, was not invited by the president of this company to the convocation marking the opening of the Sir Wilfred Grenfell College. Afterwards, President Mose Morgan conceded that Clyde’s counter-convocation was much more fun than his, perhaps because there was much more to drink.

Today though, Clyde is safely back at General Headquarters (GHQ) at ease, I hope, with this next analogy. Unlike Shakespeare’s Prospero, that other magician of dark and light who valued books above his dukedom, and with his daughter used the magic of language to create our brave, new world, Clyde’s charms are not overthrown. He has enriched this bare island with the enchanting arts and has contributed without parallel to our university and our province.

So, Mr. Chancellor, I ask you, our new Commander-in-Chief, to give Clyde Rose our highest decoration and to confer on this veteran of the culture wars, the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, in recognition of his unwavering vision in reversing the tide of cultural appropriation and in restoring pride and confidence in our cultural industries.

Dr. Annette Staveley
University Orator