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Oration honouring Minnie Vallis

Born on the island of Ramea, Minnie Vallis spent her formative years learning about the value of work, resilience in the face of hardship and the rewards of self-discipline. At the age of 14, barely out of school herself, she began working at her first job – as a teacher in a one-room school.

By 16, which (I need not remind you) is two years younger than most of our students are when they enter university … at 16, she was teaching in Fortune Bay, married, and expecting her first child. Since then, she has worked and volunteered in education, social service delivery, mental health services, municipal politics, recreation, and more, all while raising seven children and sharing her life with her dear partner, Percy, who passed away in May of this year.

Minnie Vallis has become a welcome voice on many social issues in Newfoundland and Labrador. From backroom organizing to public speaking, Minnie has been tireless in serving the interests of individuals and groups who need assistance. She has spent her life working beside students, women who have been abused, seniors, the youth, communities, people with disabilities and caregivers. During this time, she has distinguished herself both in public forums as well as in her work one-on-one dealing with people in crisis.

A lifelong social reformer, she still shares her experience in schools, including a recent lecture where she taught local high school students about the contributions of Wilfred Grenfell, and her conviction that this campus should continue to use his name. I am relieved that we followed her advice!
Her life has been a collage of voluntary work. She is on more committees than a CEO. Of course, in her case the “CEO” would stand for a Community Empowerment Organizer. She has worked with groups such as the Humber Valley Regional Caregiver Network, the Western Regional Integrated Health Authority, the Coalition of Persons with Disabilities, Page One (a writers group), the 50-Plus Club in Meadows, 4-H, Girl Guides, recreation committees, New Horizons for Seniors and Transition House (in Corner Brook). She has offered her gifts to municipal politics, having served Meadows as a councillor, and sometimes mayor, for over 14 years.

This work has not gone unnoticed. Her awards include the Lieutenant Governor’s Volunteer Medal, the Queen’s Jubilee Medal and one of the first provincial Senior of Distinction awards to be bestowed.

She is a welcome sight at the microphone if you are looking for help. She is not a Quaker, but truly represents two of their central principles: first, to bear witness, meaning to be present with those who need help; and secondly, to speak truth to power, to confront those in authority, when they are in need of correction. She is a model of the type of citizen that a healthy democracy needs.

As an example of her approach to life she was in a serious automobile accident in 1992, after suffering two cerebral hemorrhages. After regaining consciousness two weeks later, she had to re-learn how to read and walk and write and many other activities of daily life. But she was relentless in this recuperation, and overcame this adversity with an even stronger sense of dedication to assist people with physical challenges, and to assist their caregivers. Reflecting on this experience, she said: “The lesson I had to learn a long time ago was to turn what appeared to be stumbling blocks, into stepping-stones.”

In 2009, Minnie Vallis received a Senior of Distinction Award from the Newfoundland and Labrador government. As she accepted her award, she noted: "They say to grow old is mandatory, but to grow up is a choice. Today I feel like a kid at Christmas time. Nervous and excited."

Well, Minnie Vallis, with today’s honour, I hope you feel that it’s Christmas all over again…! Today offers us a chance to give back to you a small measure of what you have given to us.

Vice-Chancellor, for her lifetime of service to the people and communities of Newfoundland and Labrador, I present for the degree doctor of laws, honoris causa, a woman who has listened with, stood beside, and given voice to many people and causes over the years, Minnie Vallis.

Dr. Ivan Emke
University orator