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Oration honouring Roberta Jamieson

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, there is an Aboriginal legend that tells of a dark period in the history of the peoples of the Six Nations. Some say it was a thousand years ago. Some say that it was two thousand years ago. Legend agrees that it was a period of cruelty and bloodshed as the nations fought against one another. After many years of fighting a canoeist came from afar with a message of peace and unity. In legend, he is known as Peacemaker and his message is known as the Great Law of Peace. For many years, his message was rejected and fighting continued. Finally, a Mohawk woman Jigonsaseh accepted the message but with a proviso; she told the Peacemaker, "The message is good, but it will not be good unless it is practiced." He accepted her wisdom and together they worked to translate the message of peace into actions. Harmony between the nations was restored.

In recognition of Jigonsaseh's wisdom, The Peacemaker gave her the title "Mother of Nations" and, to all women, from that day to this, the responsibility to guard the Great Law of Peace.

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, today we have before us Roberta Jamieson, a Mohawk woman, world-renowned as an expert in conflict resolution, who is indeed a guardian of the Great Law and, like Jigonsaseh, epitomizes the words "Well done is better than well said." Her message is powerful; her actions even more so.
Roberta Jamieson was born on Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, where, as one of eight children, it has been said she had her first lessons in the value of negotiation. She went to a reserve school, she read books, lots of books, and she hung out at Bobby's Diner where she heard first-hand the politics of the Six Nations. Bobby's Diner was owned by Roberta's family and was named after her father. Here, elders would congregate and debate politics and sometimes listen to music, including the recording made by Bob himself, Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere – the first-ever jazz recording by an Aboriginal person.

After high school, Roberta enrolled at McGill and was studying pre-med when she was catapulted into national politics. Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa had announced his intention to build the "project of the century" – the largest hydroelectric dam in North America at James Bay. Roberta joined a nationwide protest by Aboriginal Peoples against the dam in an attempt to save traditional Cree hunting and fishing grounds from flooding. Roberta, then a 21-year-old student, her long hair in braids, went on TV and debated land claim issues with then-minister of Indian Affairs, Jean Chrétien. The debate ended when a poorly briefed Chrétien stomped off the stage in disgust.

Despite her success in delivering a powerful message, Roberta recognized that a law degree would allow her to develop actions to complement her message, and defend First Nation rights. She switched from medicine to law and became the first Canadian Aboriginal woman to graduate from law school.

With her legal training, Roberta was asked to help chiefs with the formation of the Assembly of First Nations. Roberta was the first woman to chair those national chiefs' conferences. Subsequently, she drafted frameworks for Aboriginal self-government and served as the first woman ombudsman for the Province of Ontario.

Jamieson's career of "firsts" continued when she was elected the first woman Chief of Six Nations. During her tenure as chief she was troubled to witness the wasted potential of Aboriginal youth: while Aboriginal youth are the fastest growing demographic in Canada, they are the least likely to graduate high school. Closing this gap by supporting the educational goals of Aboriginal youth would enable Indigenous communities to thrive and in the process, save Canada $115 billion in expenses and contribute $410 billion to Canada's GDP, according to former auditor general, Sheila Fraser.

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, Roberta Jamieson spoke eloquently to audiences across Canada of the cultural and economic imperatives to close this gap; she spoke to Senate committees, to investors and business people at the Empire Club in Toronto, and to CBC audiences on Peter Mansbridge's One on One.

But, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, Roberta knew, the message was good, but it needed to be practiced.

So practice she did. Jamieson became the CEO and president of the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, recently renamed Indspire. To date, it has provided more than $49 million in scholarships and bursaries to more than 14,000 Aboriginal students across the country.

Roberta Jamieson gives much credit for her success to the support of her immediate and extended family. She still lives on Six Nations with her husband Tom Hill, who won the Governor General's award for the arts, her daughter and grandchildren.

Today, Roberta Jamieson describes her role as Doda, grandmother. Mohawk wisdom says that the decisions one makes must be judged not only by the impact they have on the children and grandchildren of today, but by the effect they will have on the seventh generation whose faces we can see coming toward us. And, it is by this benchmark that Roberta Jamieson measures her decisions: she balances her vision with practical solutions, while looking ahead to how her actions will affect her grandchildren and children of the seventh generation.

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, I present to you this child of Jigonsaseh, Doda to this generation of Aboriginal youth and to generations to come. She is an activist for Aboriginal rights who is firmly rooted in community and family: consider that when her daughter Jessica was born, Roberta introduced a nursing child to land-claims and self-government meetings. At one particularly tense moment during a prolonged constitutional meeting of 600 delegates and chiefs, Jessica, then two years old and noticeably frustrated, called out from the back of the room, "Mom, are you done yet?"

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, we believe and indeed fervently hope that Roberta is not quite done yet. For the degree of doctor of laws honoris causa, I present Roberta Louise Jamison.

Dale Foster
University orator