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Dr. Michael Harris address to convocation

I seem to have picked up a degree and lost my voice just at the time when I most needed it but this is Newfoundland and I’ve been through some tough stories, and we’re going to get through this one way or the other tonight.

First of all I have been where your parents are sitting tonight with sweaty palms, leaning forward in my seat to see my two daughters, Emily and Payton, walk across the stage like this and get their degrees. So I’d like you to give yourselves a hug. You’ve done a great thing and I know what that costs a family in terms of time and effort, and sacrifice, and support and everything that I’ve ever done that’s been valuable has been based on an alliance of some kind or another, and tonight we have a classic example of that. We have the parents who deserved that pat on the back, I want to congratulate you tonight. The professors of this university as well; the university is the gold standard of values in professions and disciplines, thank God it isn’t left to the marketplace.

I can tell you in the world of journalism, professional schools of journalism -- which I hope one day this place will have -- have made an invaluable contribution. Professors in universities also do another thing that I think doesn’t get noticed enough. A lot of people out there don’t really know in detail any of the stories that I have been so luckily honoured for tonight. The university is our cultural memory and the things that happened have a home here and become part of the continuity and things get transferred from one generation to the next even if you didn’t live though them, and for that I’m very grateful.

And then of course there is you, the graduates of tonight. I was watching from this angle it’s like watching an NFL game from the sidelines, you get perspectives you wouldn’t see, and I saw the future streaming past me like a river of hope, I saw your smiles when you got your degrees. And I want to tell you that the alliance between yourselves, your parents, and the professors who have been your mentors is a model for what will happen later. I can tell you as a person who’s been along a few rocky roads that it’s almost never the case that you do something by yourself. And one of the things that I wanted to talk to you about tonight was this notion that somehow individuals can’t make a difference anymore. Nothing could be further from the truth, which isn’t to say that the beginnings are not sometimes rocky.

When I got back to Newfoundland in 1977, I drove across the island from Port-aux-Basques, I went to the CBC, they were waiting for me and they put a stool out in front of a camera, and Ken Meeker who was a producer of 30-odd years there said, “Sit on that stool and do a promo so that people who watch Here and Now will have a reason to watch it, tell them why they should.” So I spouted some senseless dribble into the camera for about a minute and a half and then Ken put his hands over his face and put his head down and said, “That’s enough. That is the worst promo I have ever seen in 30 years. We’ll see you tomorrow at 9 o’clock.” So I went back to my hotel room and I thought to myself, “If that’s the worst one he’s ever seen I guess there’s nowhere to go but up from here,” and I went back to work and I’ve popped up on television a few times since.

The purpose of talking to you about what an individual can do is not in how easy it’s going to be. We are living in tough times and there are many reasons to feel if not despairing then at least cynical, but I don’t feel those things looking at you tonight. Some people would tell you the sky is falling. I don’t think it’s falling, and even if it were falling with what you’ve achieved for yourselves tonight you can chart a new course to the stars around the falling sky.

I believe in people. It has driven my work, and I think that when it comes to this whole notion of alliances there’s no better example than when I came to Newfoundland, [and] started the Sunday Express. The first partner in that alliance was Harry Steele. Harry Steele gave me a couple of million dollars and said, “I want you to begin a paper.” He wanted me to write the prospectus, hire all the people, get the presses, do the whole thing, and an important part of that alliance was the financial backing. It was necessary to do that, to have a partner who would believe in you while you got this thing up and running.

But the critical ingredient of that newspaper was people exactly like you because I had to go out and staff a weekly newspaper with recent graduates who had no experience -- very little -- who were young and very brilliant but hadn’t yet been given a chance. And people like Philip Lee, who’s in this audience tonight somewhere, was one of my best soldiers in some of the toughest logging we had to do on Mount Cashel. Linda Strowbridge, who was a graduate of this university; Russell Wangersky, who’s stuff you probably read from time to time in the Evening Telegram; John Gushue at the Telegram as well; all of these people were part of the big alliance that made things possible at that paper, and the key ingredient was the talent of the young reporters that I had.

In fact, as much as anything there should be a stream of people up here if this award is about the Sunday Express and some of the big things that were done, then those people that I’ve mentioned should be standing beside me tonight, and I’m very happy that a few of them are in this building, as well.

Now, given the fact that you’ve had voices of angels from singers and you’ve had a thespian who sounds like a Shakespearian actor and now you get a hacksaw voice, I don’t want to stand in the way of a good party but I do want to say something personal to all of you about my feelings about this place. It seems ironic I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words that have been published, eight books, I‘ve made movies, I’ve had movies made out of my books, and here I am tonight with no voice and in a way that’s life. And especially, life here in Newfoundland where it’s tough, but people are so wonderfully resilient.

There is the element of this speech which has to go to the things that I believe. I don’t believe, for example, that moralizing is the wrong thing to do. A person who won’t moralize with you about basic values doesn’t have any. One of the things that I believe in passionately is demonstrated by some of the people on this stage tonight. The most important thing of all is engagement. It’s easy for people to become lost in their own personal lives organizing their own personal successes but that’s killing us as a society. We have to learn how to re-engage with each other, love each other enough to care about what happens to the next person, and part of that is service.

One of the models, to me one of the great citizens of the country, is John Crosbie. I’ve known him for a long time. He was delighted when I decided to write the story of his family. His exact words were to the effect, “It wasn’t enough to hatchet me Harris, you had to come back for the whole God damn family.” So with John’s hearty endorsement, that project got done. But here is a man who had served political parties in this country at a high level for a long time and you would have to have covered public life to see the sacrifice that people in public life make. And he’s a Newfoundlander.

And Rick Hillier, a person who everyone in this place knows what he has done but to me the value of a Rick Hillier is not just in what he’s done but it’s the way in which he’s done it, and by that I mean in the peculiar Newfoundland way. We are people who believe that justice is truth in action. We don’t stand for people trying to tell us justice is something based on falsehoods or special interests or somebody else’s idea of what’s at stake besides the person who got caught in the gears of the system. Rick Hillier knows how to call a ball and a strike, and a spade a spade and that to me is a peculiar Newfoundland trait.

Now, when I was a kid I lived in Toronto and my grandfather was William Tilley and I was a hockey player and my grandfather was just my grandfather, but I didn’t know that he was a shipwright and a master carpenter from Princeton in Bonavista Bay. In 1931, our family had to move from Newfoundland because of the depression and William Tilley went to Ontario to get work. The woman who was to be my grandmother also went to Toronto to work as a domestic, and William Tilley worked on Smythe’s Valley which is Maple Leaf Gardens built in the 1930s and he was one of the carpenters who built that place. But in the middle of the project he fell from the beam and broke his back, so he spent the rest of the 30s with nine children including my mother, living I guess on the good graces of the Salvation Army and welfare cheques and the rest, and he knitted me a hockey net and I was the only kid at that time who had an actual net to put over posts and make a net that we could shoot at, and I thought it was cool. I didn’t quite know how he knew how to do that, but he did.

Every spring my grandfather would say let’s go to the Credit River and we’ll go smelting and he would make these nets and we would go there and catch the smelts. And his comment to me always was the same one, he said, “You know they’re good but they’re not capelin.” All his life, he wanted to come back here to Newfoundland, and he never did make that. I want to tell you one little personal detail about how he died. He was in a hospital surrounded by his family. I was pretty young, I was there, too, in his room, and my five aunts were there. And they were beside themselves trying to give him comfort. We kept asking him, “What would you like? Is there anything we can do?” Everyone knew the end was close. And he said, “Yes there is one thing I would like.” And they said, “What is that?” And he said, “I’d like some partridgeberry jam.” They went out, scoured Toronto, couldn’t find any, came back with some substitute which he instantly detected as a fraud, and said, “This is not partridgeberry jam,” and that was the last thing he said.

Now he always wanted to come back here and one of the reasons this means so much to me is finally, William Tilley made it back to Newfoundland tonight because you brought me here and I could never tell you what that means to me. So the last thing that I’m going to say to you is bon voyage. I watched your faces. I have no fear of the future.

Thank you very much.