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Address to convocation, Dr. Stephen Lewis

Thank you Mr. Chancellor and Honourable Minister, Mr. President, your Worship, Members of the Board of Regions here assembled and the faculty and senate, members of the graduating class, and all of the parents, and friends, and relatives, and associates, who are positively levitating with excitement at this extraordinary assemblage.

I'm delighted to be here, and I feel it both a privilege and an honour to have the Honorary Degree conferred on me by this university. There is a wonderful process in the country of Nigeria, which is, that when you begin your introductions, you simply say all protocols observed – and then you need not read off the narrative of every single distinguished guest on the platform. But I have decided to be entirely respectful this morning, even though that is not normally consistent with my behaviour.

I want to begin, if I may, with a disclaimer and a confessional. The disclaimer is to thank George Gunther enormously for his very, very, kind introduction and to say that it was nice of him to recollect that I was active in, and leader of, the New Democratic Party in the '60s and '70s. But I think all of you should know that my life in politics was an exercise in almost transcendental futility. And I don't want to pretend otherwise today.

The second confessional is that it was lovely to have him to make reference to my abysmal career in the University of Toronto. I actually attended four post secondary institutions of celebrated higher learning here in Canada, over an infinite, not to say unendurable number of years, and managed never, but ever to acquire a degree. I have therefore spent my entire adult life shamelessly lusting after honorary degrees, in order to achieve through the back door what was so lamentably denied me through the front.

I always find it slightly ambiguous to know what to say on occasions like these. So I want to speak to you, if I may, in intensely personal terms and say that this is an extraordinary moment in your lives, at this extraordinary academic institution where the life of the mind has been given full fervour. I have always thought, if you will forgive me, that a part of that life of the mind, a part of the experience and professional discipline and knowledge that you have acquired over the years, might be devoted to the quest for social justice – to find a way to repair the human condition in this world which is often so frail and tarnished.

I was sitting on the platform as you walked across the stage, and I was thinking to myself, "all these students who are graduating in nursing." I'm in awe of nursing. I spent several years of the last decade in Africa watching people die. There was many a day I was in the adult wards of the hospitals, 70 or 80 men or women on the ward. Every single one of them would have been in intensive care in a hospital in this province. But in those wards, on an overnight shift, there would be one nurse. They performed a service and a response so valiantly, so compassionately that it was almost supernatural. And they did testing, and they did treatment, and they provided the drugs, and they counselled people whose psyches were frail, and they followed them into the community to see that they had adhered to the medical regimens. The nurses in so many countries on the African continent hold the societies together. I love nurses. I just can't get over the contribution they make.

And then I see the students walking across the platform who are graduating in various aspects of the environment and the new degree in resource management, and I think what a remarkable field that is: How that speaks entirely to the future and in a province like this, and others we know in Canada, resource management is central to the life of the society.

So too, is the reality that this world is facing probably the greatest single challenge it has had in recent, in fact in historical memory, and that's the challenge of climate change and global warming. Whether it's the rising sea levels or the melting polar caps, or the inundation of coastal regions, the shifting of agricultural patterns – the consequences of climate change will be increasingly felt over the next several years. It won't happen in my lifetime, I'm inching comfortably into my dotage. But I have to say that it will happen in your lifetime.

I actually believe that there will be some kind of apocalyptic moment between 2030 and 2050, which is now probably irreversible because we have been so irresponsible in the discharge of carbon into the atmosphere. And those are things with which you will deal. If I can be honest with myself, if I had my life to do over again, I must admit I would have focused on environmental studies. I have always wanted to be David Suzuki when I grow up. And, I have to say to you as I have said to the nurses: I celebrate the environmental ethos, which so obviously suffuses this institution.

And then I look at the vast array of students coming through arts and science, and the broad range of humanities and I think to myself on an almost daily basis, there are intense human rights issues emerging through the world with which it's possible to spend a moment of life in association. You won't know this and there is no reason why you should, but today at this very moment in time, there is a private members bill being debated in the Parliament of Uganda, on the criminalization of homosexuality, on the criminalization of gay people. And within that bill, until yesterday, there was a clause, which mandates capital punishment for evidence of homosexuality. There are also clauses within that bill that say that everyone who has suspicion that someone may be gay, must report it to the authorities, or be themselves subjected to incarceration for 3-5 years. They expect parents to rat on their children, they expect physicians to rat on their patients, they expect teachers to rat on their students. It's extraordinary, and as a result of the offensive violation of human rights, which the bill portends in every respect, there has been a tremendous use of the social media around the world to put pressure on the government in the hope that things will change. These are intense human rights issues, which are so often new and so often profound.

I saw the students who walked across the stage with degrees in Business Administration and I'm reminded in a similar vein to Uganda, that just a few weeks ago Coca Cola sponsored a concert in Jamaica with a reggae artist who spewed hatred towards gay people. Coca Cola is now in full retreat about the mistake in subsidizing and sponsoring such activity and such behaviour. But when I see Julie Pitcher obviously honoured on this platform and know that she discusses corporate social responsibility in her classes, and when I think that corporate social responsibility should have much greater depth of meaning in this world around issues of human rights, then I honour all of those students as well.

And then, I noticed the students in Visual Arts, Fine Arts, and Theatre Arts and I thought about last night at the dinner which the President held for a number of us who were associated with the convocation today. We had a most extraordinary performance; I wish everyone in this audience could have been there. Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador, and 10 young men and women were using the words of one of your memorable poets, Al Pittman, and conveying them with such artistic freedom and gifts, talents! I thought to myself, how these Theatre Arts and Music arts and drama and song are indispensible to improving the human condition.

I was remembering as I was sitting on the platform, that after the genocide in Rwanda, I visited a little mental health clinic in the Kigali General Hospital where a group of adolescent kids were being helped through the trauma of their experience by a small Italian non-governmental organization. They didn't know how to reach the children who had seen things that no young person should ever witness in his or her life. And they were using art therapy. I remember rifling through the art books and being astounded at the methodical repetitiveness of the content. Because at the top of every page, there was the drawing of a man with a machete in his head and blood dripping down the page, page after page, after page. And I thought to myself, as I stood there and looked at those young kids, "How are they going to deal with this in life? How do you pull your emotional fabric together again?" And then I know, on that continent as so many others, that drama is often used as a therapeutic vehicle for people who are struggling with nightmares, and hallucinatory moments. And so is every kind of visual art and music and all of these realms of the Fine Arts should never be in anyway depreciated.

And finally if I can say to you, that in my experience over the last 20 years of this incredible privileged opportunity to work in the international arena, the issue which seems to me to be the single most important issue on the planet, is the issue of gender equality. You cannot continue to marginalize 50% of the world's population and expect ever to approximate social justice or equity.

It is staggering what is happening to so many of the women in this world – whether it is international sexual trafficking or female genital mutilation, or honour killings, or child brides, or the absence of inheritance rights, or the absence of property rights, or the absence of economic autonomy, or political representation, or the incredible paucity and non-enforcement of laws against rape and sexual violence.

There was an extraordinary study out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo yesterday, which suggested that there is a continuing and positive war on women. The entire international community knows what is going on, and they surrender to an abject and insufferable paralysis. And why? Because it's women. I say to you, if you can carry anything forward in this life, the need of respect by men for women, by boys for girls, is one of the singular features of a civilized society, and there is nothing more paramount in my experience than this enormous quest for gender equality.

So I say simply to all of you graduates, if you can find a small chunk of life to devote to the pursuit of improving the human condition, to social justice, it's not only immensely gratifying in personal terms, it makes a contribution to human well being which is inestimable. It doesn't have to be abroad and it doesn't have to be forever, it can be in this country, in this province – whether it's aboriginal issues or homelessness or poverty, or daycare. All of these issues are alive, and in urgent need of response. And that's a wonderful thing to take with you having had the glorious privilege of the incandescent education.

I thank you so much for this honorary degree, and I salute you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you.