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Convocation address of John Ralston Saul

Chancellor, it's wonderful to be with you again. Minister, chairman of the Board of Regents, graduating class. Of course, the wonderful thing about speaking after you've received your degrees is that I've now seen each one of you individually and, of parents who play the multiple roles parents play, you did miss the philosopher Vico being regularly chased through the streets by his students for being such a bad lecturer. On a more serious note, although I think it was more serious to Vico, as president of PEN International we have a standing list which we've been running for 50 years of writers which includes philosophers in prison or in danger and it runs between 800 and 900 at any one time. And that doesn't of course include the ones who are just shot out of the blue and we don't know they're in danger or they don't know they're in danger and that would include about half the writing population of Mexico for a start, the most dangerous place to be a journalist today in the world.

I want to thank this university for such an honour and it's difficult to express this, but it is extremely moving for me to receive an honorary degree from Memorial, the university of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador and therefore, in a sense, to receive this degree from the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, a place which I discovered not in my childhood but which the moment I came here like the people who are from here, a place which has moved me in a way in a way that is difficult to explain except that once you're here you know how moved you are to be here.

And I want to thank all of you, today's graduates, for accepting me into your class and not because you got a choice and now you're stuck with me and I didn't come to any of the classes but I'm thrilled to be graduating with you. You're graduating, so they would tell you, into what is called the real world and you're doing it at a very, very strange time. I think it could almost be called the unreal world at this point. I mean, it is always slightly the unreal world, but this is a particularly strange time. Let me talk to you for just a few minutes about money. It's always a way of getting some attention. Thirty or forty years ago your, you graduates, your grandparents and parents, were more or less convinced that public debt was a bad thing. They were convinced by people in the private sector to make great personal sacrifices in order to pay down that debt. This was the great cause of the '80s and '90s. This cause of the evil of public debt was supported by economists in most of our universities and around the world, the western world, and then just a couple of years ago these same people in the private sector and there are some intellectual supporters through carelessness and irresponsibility provoked a great economic collapse. By then all of you, two hundred and something of you here today, were already at Memorial. And the result was a gigantic debt crisis which we are in the middle of today, but that debt crisis was in the private sector, not the public sector. Around the world in a really astonishing reversal of ideology these people in the private sector begged government everywhere one way or another to save them by somehow taking on the private debt, to transfer the private debt to the public purse just after we'd gotten rid of most of the debt in the public purse. And so, the personal effort, the sacrifice of your parents and grandparents who are sitting here today and will remember those debates for the '90s, their personal sacrifice was wiped out. The debt-free governments abruptly overnight were indebted in a way they basically have not been indebted in modern time. And then, having been saved by the public purse, by your public purse, having had that debt transferred from the private sector in various ways to the public sector, the public sector and their supporters then abruptly rediscovered their old sense of the evil of debt, their old sense of morality in an almost, I don't know, senile way of not remembering what they had done the day before, suddenly they started saying public debt was evil all over again and therefore the old calls for cuts in public programming were raised again. And sooner or later, and this is why I thought I'd bring it up this morning, sooner or later these calls will turn very precisely to health care, to public education and to social support systems. Obviously I say that knowing that I'm speaking to doctors, social workers, school teachers and public education officials who will be focused on the health of children. These knives for cuts will be aimed directly at you. Don't forget that for one minute. And I'm not addressing you in a sort of clever way to make you think about, "My God, if they're making cuts I'm not going to get a job or I'll lose my job." I'm not taking that utilitarian approach here. I'm addressing your ethics. If you studied so hard for these years in these areas you must believe in the value of these fields. Otherwise, why would you be wanting to devote your lives to them? The health of our single tier medical system, of our public education system, of our egalitarian social system is central to your lives as citizens and to our democracy. So if I bring up that revolving debt story, it's almost in a desperate attempt to get an invisible laugh out of you. If it weren't so tragic it would be comic and I think that this is the right province to say that in because if there is any part in Canada, place in Canada that appreciates dark comedy, it's Newfoundland. This is the province which is the specialist in ironic comedy. You're probably the funniest people in Canada and among the funniest people in the world. And of course without tragedy you can't really have comedy so here's a perfect opportunity to laugh. You also come, those of you who are Newfoundlanders and I've looked at the list and many of you are. You also come from a province which has a remarkable reputation for culture. Ben Gould, perhaps the most influential pianist in a way in the 20th century, said a Newfoundlander is first of all a poet and he didn't mean by that the official poets, he meant the citizens of Newfoundland. And I think one can say, anybody who spends two minutes listening to Newfoundlanders, that this is a place of language and when you look at the paintings, it's a place of images. And let me add to that: it is culture, it is culture in the most general sense that drives any healthy society. That's why great scientists . . . I spoke to the Nobel laureate [Dr. Sidney Altman, Memorial honorary graduate] and we talked about it. Great scientists are always driven by literature and art and music. Doctors and politicians, if they're good politicians, read and think. If they're just time servers they don't read. They get briefing papers. And great soldiers read. And they read great books and they think about art. They know that life and policy is not about management. It's not utilitarian. They know that the human drama is a mystery just the way doctors know that the human drama is a mystery that it isn't about a doctor defeating death. It's about figuring out how to live life. And they, those leaders, would understand the anti-debt crusaders to be essentially functionally illiterate, amoral and not terribly bright and had a lot of economic Nobel prizes to their name. But you come, unfortunately for you, into the world at a time when unfortunately utilitarianism is actually worshipped. That many want to reduce education and thinking to merely training and I know that is not the case here but it is the case in general in secondary and post-secondary education throughout the western world. What I can tell you is this. Centuries from now people will be reading E.J. Pratt's poetry and thinking about it and they will be looking at Mary Pratt's paintings. Now you can't say that about speeches by all executives. Their speech is written for them by somebody else, slip from our minds like gas from a car engine, a little puff of energy and then they're gone. You will note a gratuitous insult. Gratuitous insults are very important. They have a purpose. They're all about drawing your attention to something. You are graduating into an unprecedented time of prosperity for Newfoundland and Labrador. That's good. There's absolutely no reason to be ashamed or to be sorry about that. It's clear of course that one must say to oneself that your land is offering up wealth to you. It has not been created by you any more than oil and gas was created by people anywhere where it produces wealth. It is also worth remembering that there is no history anywhere in the world of oil and gas acting as a friend of democracy or social justice. To the contrary, we have a century, a little over a century, a history of oil and gas being intimately linked to dictatorships at worst and dangerous populism at best. It is an industry also in which money quickly flows somewhere else unless citizens and their governments are particularly tough about what that money is going to do and where that money is going to be. Now I'm not attacking anybody. I'm not personally addressing anybody. I'm just making a cool, disinterested political observation. It would be impossible to disagree with one word that I've said about the oil and gas industry because history is absolutely clear on this issue. And I bring it up to you, particularly you graduates, because you are citizens and you should not be just voting citizens but engaged citizens, and here is a subject on which to engage, just one of many, but a very important one for you today, those of you who are citizens of Newfoundland and Labrador. Now is the time for you to get used to being engaged in the public good, in politics, in causes. Frankly, you ought to be spending between twenty-five and fifty per cent of your time on unpaid work. The time to get used to doing that is right now when you're in debt and poor. It's perfect. If you can do it now, it will be much easier later when you can pretend to yourself that you're too busy to serve the public good. An active citizen is someone who takes a daily role in their society's destiny. It is hard work but you will learn that any force of self-interest can be bent to the will of the citizenry. And it should be bendable to the will of the citizenry. Why? Because you, and not some transient system of wealth, you are the guarantors of your society's legitimacy. So, these are serious words. This is a day of celebration. It's a day of fun. It's also one of those turning points and let me do something I wouldn't usually do but I'm just going to read you a paragraph from the first great modern Japanese novel Kokoro by Natsumi Soseki. It came out in 1914. And it's a story about a student and his professor. And this is how the student describes his graduation day: "I went back to my lodgings as soon as the ceremony was over and stripped to the skin." It must have been summer and not here. "I opened the window of my room which was on the second floor and, pretending that my diploma was a telescope, I surveyed as much of the world as I could see. Then I threw the diploma down on the desk and lay on the floor in the middle of the room. In that position, I thought back over my past and tried to imagine what my future would be. I thought about my diploma lying on the desk and thought it seemed to have some significance as a kind of symbol of the beginning of a new life. I could not help thinking also that it was a meaningless scrap of paper." Of course, the truth is it's both. The university has done what it can do. You as students have worked hard. And I do hope that you've had fun because this has been the best chance of having fun in your life. And now you have to create your own reality. So let me add simply this. You are the products of public education in a country built on public education and egalitarianism. I can frankly never understand why Canadians are always making references, comparative references, to England and the United States when it comes to education since these are countries built on private education and on a class system of which they're proud of each in their own way. Memorial was Joey Smallwood's great social project. Its roots lie, interestingly enough, not in Britain or France or in the United States. And they don't exactly lie in Newfoundland. They lie in the Canadian tradition which was formalized in 1849 when Robert Baldwin, deputy prime minister to Louis Paul Lafontaine in Canada's founding democratic government, created the model of the public university. That model of a society, which only had public universities devoted to creating citizens, that model was created in 1849 and gradually spread across the country and it was the model that Joey Smallwood used. And listening today to the language that everybody uses of the public good, the public university, citizenship, it's exactly the words that Robert Baldwin used when he introduced the bill, the Public University Bill in 1849. You are the products of a 160-year-old Canadian tradition of public universities designed to graduate citizens. Don't forget it. It matters. It's not easy words. It's something you need to live. You need to embrace it. You need to be conscious of it because citizens, as Socrates was quoted as saying, if citizens aren't conscious, if you're not examining your life, if you're not in doubt, if you're not worrying, then you're not citizens. So think about it all the time. Those of you about to become doctors, ask yourself this: Why is a system which works, a single-tiered health care system, public, which of course can always be improved but everything can be improved, why is this system which works and is less costly than any two-tiered system and less bureaucratic, why is it constantly under attack? Probably I would suppose it's under attack directly or indirectly from corporations and consultancy firms based elsewhere who are eager to make money out of us by making our system more expensive after they've won the argument of pretending that they have a better system to offer us. Is it not a failure of the Canadian, and therefore in the Newfoundland and Labrador imagination, that we cannot accept that our one-tier approach may be more original and more appropriate than more expensive complicated systems used elsewhere? All I can say to you is that if you lead with ethics and public ideas at the core of your thoughts you'll find the right answer to that question. And those of you who will be tied to student fitness, think of the irony of our schools today, our public schools, in many of our schools, cuts in public funding have led to contracts, financially profitable contracts being signed with fast-food companies peddling fast food and sweet drinks, fat food to our students. So you will be working for the physical health of our students while the school system, for bottom line reasons, is working to undermine that health. There is absolutely no reason why our schools should be pushing junk food on the basis of some fourth-rate economic argument. There is nothing inevitable about these sorts of economics. And let me quote from the first of my honorary degrees at McGill quite a while ago. You can reject the mediocre drivel of those who present the future as an inevitability. Inevitability, preached by people in positions of responsibility, is a sign either of incompetence or of duplicity. You, as citizens, you are the source of legitimacy and are also the source of change. And finally, those of you from social work and the arts, you are at the heart of our idea of ourselves as society. The particularity of Canada as a whole, but also of its parts, of its provinces, and I've always seen this in Newfoundland and Labrador, is that at our best we are driven by an egalitarian idea of ourselves. Of course, we've always had family compacts and shadow cliques and yes, merchant compacts who dream of re-creating here colonial versions of first the British class system and then the American class system. And they keep coming back to it because it's comforting when you're a member of the official elite to think that somehow the society will reward and admire you for being a member of that elite. And therefore you're uncomfortable with the idea of egalitarianism. But that just isn't who we are. And that is not what Canadians want. I believe our egalitarianism comes out of our aboriginal roots. It comes out of our long, difficult history in the North. It comes out of our constant gathering of peoples from around the world who have chosen consciously to change their nationalities. We have all in those conditions had to learn to live together in this demanding place. And that requires openness, a sense of a possibility of change, and at best it is a constant reminder that we must imagine the other in order for our society to succeed. Thank you very much.

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