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Oration honouring Michael Terry Harris

Michael Terry Harris

Newfoundland, the Rock, is a strange place. Its history has been a history of fishing, mining, logging, cucumbers, and oil; but the fish have swum into other nations’ nets, the mines are now minor, the loggers have logged off, our one cucumber was the single most expensive vegetable in the universe, and only the oil – the oil which, as the Good Book tells us, maketh man a cheerful countenance – happily remains. Yet for all its oddities, not least the weather, people are always eager to come here: St. Brendan the Navigator, the Vikings, John Cabot, Gaspar Corte-Real, the ancestors of our present Lieutenant Governor (the man who stands before you can tell you all about them), Queen Elizabeth II, the Prince of Wales, and, of course, Muammar Gaddafi, whom everyone thought was coming to be interviewed for the presidency of the university. That he did not arrive is a pity. We might have been the only university in Canada to have a president living in a tent.

The problem with rocks, however, is that if you lift them up you can never be quite sure what you will find underneath, and Michael Terry Harris, whom you see here before you, has been a rock-lifter extraordinaire. He lifted one rock, and out came the iniquities in the case of Donald Marshall. He lifted another, and uncovered the sordid story of Mount Cashel – a story, alas, which seems to have no ending. He lifted a third, and there, warmly nestled amid an uncounted number of our very own tax dollars, were the cucumbers of Mount Pearl. And he lifted yet a fourth, and out crept the unpleasant truth about Canada’s prisons.
These murky revelations were not always received with unmitigated delight by those in authority. The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador has not always been amused when the seamier side of its administration has been uncovered. When Michael Harris examined the curious discrepancy between the costs and the returns of the Sprung Greenhouse project in the pages of The Sunday Express, the government withdrew its advertising, and the paper, eventually, was forced to close in 1990. Nor was the Department of Fisheries and Oceans overjoyed when Michael Harris uncovered the truth behind the catastrophe of the cod stocks. Nor was the Roman Catholic church entirely happy with the revelations about Mount Cashel. But Michael Harris continued his work unafraid, and continues it still both in print and in the call-in show, Michael Harris Live, which you can hear from one to three p.m., Monday to Thursday, on CFRA. You’ll also get to hear some great recipes.

So what is the history of this red-robed whistle-blower who stands before you? I shall tell you. He was born in Newfoundland, graduated from York University in Toronto, and was a Woodrow Wilson Scholar at University College, Dublin, in Ireland. He was the publisher of The Sunday Express (whose uncompromising investigative journalism had a profound impact on local politics), he was Executive Director of News and Current Affairs for the Newfoundland Broadcasting Corporation, he was a Queen’s Park correspondent for The National Post, and is a columnist for the Ottawa Sun. He divides his time now between Ottawa and Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, and, apart from his other responsibilities, currently holds the visiting Irving Chair in Journalism at St. Thomas University in New Brunswick.

His writing has, of course, already been recognised internationally. His books have received various awards – two of them were named Book of the Year — and his work has sparked four royal commissions of inquiry in Canada and has led to two documentaries. He has also won the Radio and TV News Director’s Award and the Center for Investigative Journalism Award. His most recent book, however, is very different from the others I have mentioned. It concerns a little girl called Emily, it tells of the animals she talks to, and it involves magic and stardust and trees. It is called A Forest for Christmas, and the question at the heart of the story is whether the owner of a new factory (who wants to chop down all the trees) will be able to do so, or whether little Emily will be able to save the Friendly Forest just in time for Christmas. You will have to read the book to see what happens, but one of the things that comes out so clearly in this lovely story is Emily’s great courage. I can say the same for Michael Harris. His own courage in revealing what many would have preferred remain hidden, his penetration into some of the darkest corners of political, legal, and religious life, and his continuing dedication to the light of truth, all alike do him the greatest credit and can only arouse our admiration. It is therefore my pleasure and privilege, Mr. Chancellor, to present to you for the degree of doctor of laws honoris causa, this author, journalist, radio personality, and lifter of many rocks, Michael Terry Harris.

Dr. David Bell
University orator