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Oration honouring Stephen Lewis

Of all human virtues, perhaps the noblest is compassion; of all human vices, perhaps the most destructive is indifference. "True compassion," wrote Martin Luther King , "is more than flinging a coin at a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring ... and that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not constantly be beaten as they make their journey on life's highway."

The Jericho Road: a metaphor of faith, but more than that, a metaphor for any place where there is injustice, suffering and oppression. "Compassion is not religious business," said the Dalai Lama. "It is human business, it is not luxury, it is essential for our own peace and mental stability, it is essential for human survival."

Our human species is, perhaps by evolutionary design, endowed with a village mentality. When our neighbour's house burns to the ground, we do not hesitate to help; however, beyond the village gates live the strangers; indifference to their lot seems by far the more comfortable course.

"The worst sin towards our fellow creatures," wrote George Bernard Shaw, "is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them. That's the essence of inhumanity."
Today our village has become global and all of humanity has become our neighbour; indifference has become indefensible.

Stephen Lewis has spent his life walking the length and breadth of the Jericho Road. While serving as the United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, he witnessed human suffering and misery on a scale perhaps unprecedented in our history: an entire continent brought to its knees by wars, famine, disease and the collective indifference of the rest of the world.

Born in Ottawa in 1937, his political pedigree for a future life as a social activist was impeccable: his father was David Lewis, the one-time leader of the federal NDP, and in Mr. Lewis's own words, he and his siblings "understood, even when pre-pubescent, that either we were ideological clones of our parents, or we were disinherited."

Obviously, the lessons learned in his childhood stuck. After an undergraduate experience at the University of Toronto which he describes as "abysmal in the extreme," in 1961 he began working for the newly-formed NDP. He served as an elected member of the Ontario Legislative Assembly from 1963 to 1978, becoming leader of the Ontario NDP in 1970. In the 1975 provincial election, under his charismatic leadership, the NDP doubled its seats in the assembly, becoming the Official Opposition and eventually forcing the minority PC government into bringing in rent control and other progressive reforms.

In 1978, Stephen Lewis left provincial politics, spending the next six years as a commentator, lecturer and labour arbitrator. In 1984 he was appointed by Prime Minister Mulroney as Canada's ambassador to the United Nations. During this time, he chaired the first International Conference on Climate Change, resulting in 1988 in the first comprehensive policy on global warming.

It was at the United Nations that Mr. Lewis found his true calling. For the next two decades, he was tireless in his efforts on behalf of the voiceless and the disenfranchised, first as deputy director of UNICEF, and then, from 2001 to 2006, as the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Again and again, this extraordinary man of principle and compassion has challenged the indifference of the world to the plight of the African people.

"We know what we're doing," he said in 2003, "and we do it anyway. It's as though we have chosen to pursue and protect our own prosperity and comfort at all costs, and then have dehumanized Africa so that we can live with ourselves."
In 2002, Stephen Lewis was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada. The following year, he was awarded the Pearson Peace Medal and Maclean's magazine named him Canadian of the Year. In 2005, the year in which he gave the Massey Lectures, Time magazine included him in their list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Today, Mr. Lewis teaches a course on climate change at McMaster University. Chancellor, Grenfell Campus sits here, in a tiny corner of an ever-more complex world. One of the central goals of the liberal education we value so highly is to instil within our students a stronger sense of values, of ethics, of civic engagement and of social responsibility – the very qualities that have governed the actions of the man who stands before us today.

Chancellor, I am proud to present to you, for the degree doctor of laws, honoris causa, Stephen Lewis.

Georg Gunther
University orator