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Oration honouring Sheila Fraser

Mr. Chancellor, on the terrible Day of Judgment we shall all be called to account for our sins of commission and omission, before we enter the pearly gates of everlasting life – but how can we account for ourselves in the meantime? How can we ensure that we have more credits than debits in the ledger of life? Who will report to St. Peter that we have used our powers responsibly not capriciously, with due diligence and not delinquently? On earth, the heavenly saints cannot protect us from squandering our resources, but, fortunately for us we have, in their stead, professional accountants and today we honour one of the most celebrated of their number – Sheila Fraser. What better person to protect us against ourselves, and against those in whom we place our trust and our tax dollars, our honourable members of Parliament.

Mr. Chancellor, as auditor general of Canada Sheila Fraser has for a decade brought honour to the high and unenviable position of calling our politicians to account. Brought up on a Quebec farm, where she learned the values of hard work, integrity and unselfish service to others, obtaining a business education at McGill University, Sheila Fraser built a distinguished career at Ernst and Young and gained national recognition as deputy auditor general and then auditor general of Canada. All these achievements, she combined with her marriage to fellow accountant, Henri Gagnon, and with raising their three children. She has, indeed, lived up to the motto of her ancestral clan, Fraser – Je suis prêt – I am ready. She has been ready to dedicate her life to the challenging task of holding fast our politicians to the principles of our great Canadian democracy: that elected politicians are accountable; that their judgments and actions should be transparent; that they should honour the principles of probity in all their public dealings. By establishing the legislative independence and autonomy of the Office of the Auditor General, she made clear the distinction between the politicians' role in making policy and the accountant's role in pointing out constructively, without fear or favour, when the taxpayers' money is spent "not wisely but too well."

Mr. Chancellor, I know it must be very difficult for you to believe that any of our democratically elected politicians would ever be so misguided as to spend public monies recklessly, to misappropriate constituency allowances or, heaven forbid, fall into the mess of malfeasance. No politician we know would ever for example take bribes to sell fridge magnets. No politician we know would ever book rooms at the Savoy so they can see Elton John. No politician we know would ever take a limousine when a minivan would do. No politician we know would ever use a search and rescue helicopter instead of a car and a fishing boat.

Mr. Chancellor, without the watchful, honest, independent eyes of the auditor general and her clear, plain-speaking voice, who knows what Faustian dreams would entice our politicians to act not in our best interests but in theirs, "just because they could."

For more than a decade Sheila Fraser courageously and steadfastly bore the brunt of the politicians' anger when she exposed the blatant abuse of public funds and drew attention to the climate of fear and intimidation in some government offices where some parliamentary leaders, in Sheila's words "broke every rule in the book."

Sheila has been the very model of a modern auditor general "very well acquainted with matters mathematical." And indeed she may have given some prime ministers nightmares when they heard the name of Sheila. When, rather like the familiar Newfoundland March storm, Sheila's Brush, she would confront them, unexpectedly, with a chilling reminder of the realities of life in a democratic Canada.

Sheila may have given the politicians nightmares, but the public loved her. They greeted her on the street, gave her flowers, and treated her like a rock star. Only in Canada, could accountants be so popular. They knew her office was the cornerstone of our democratic civilization.

Mr. Chancellor, in the classical world, the ordinary citizens honoured Pallas Athena, the goddess who presided over the security and defense of civilization, whose advice was taken by wise kings and who was prepared to fight against injustice, though she preferred reasonable resolutions to conflicts. In our Canadian world, we are too earth-bound to love deities, but we can give honorary degrees to a woman who has been our country's conscience and who has brought honour and probity to our workaday world and who in her modest, Canadian way says she was just doing her job. So, I ask you, Mr. Chancellor, to honour this remarkable woman, Sheila Fraser, by conferring on her the degree of doctor of laws honoris causa.

Dr. Annette Staveley
Deputy public orator