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Oration honouring Shelagh Rogers

Vice-Chancellor, nations can be born of fire and war; nations can be born of deep time fed on tales of great deeds. Not Canada. This is a country created by a commission. We mock such a milquetoast mode of creation but need to reflect that it makes for a more peaceable kingdom (except, perhaps, in the realms of hockey and student fees). Canada is no instant country; it is a slowly-developing place of modest growth, steady achievement. This paucity of panache, lack of flash has meant that – as many have observed in the last four years – we have been one of the few countries well-placed to stand against the storm of financial collapse. We have been seen as a moral force in the councils of the world – not the international policeman but the model peacekeeper. We are a nation of differences and we have learned to celebrate those differences, not let them divide us.

Our institutions play a major role in the shaping of this national sense and few are more important than the CBC. With a very specific mandate to develop a "shared national consciousness and identity", CBC has always been a place alive with potential. However, that very mandate embodies a whole series of problems. What do we in fact share: Toronto accent, Ottawa sensitivity, Montreal metropolitanism? The Corporation has always been aware of the limitations of its reach: how could it accommodate the needs and interests of the great urban conurbations and those of the regions; how could it speak for the changing ethnic makeup of Canada; how could it represent the radically different political views of Danielle Smith and the new right or of Elizabeth May and the new left? CBC has always been in a difficult situation when it comes to the balancing of its responsibilities.

But in a most favourable situation when it comes to its people. That so many of them have come to be considered revered Canadian figures says much about the place of the CBC in our lives. Through its personnel CBC has been at the forefront not just of promoting but also of creating Canadian society and culture, of creating the national identity. And that, Vice-Chancellor, in most circuitous fashion, brings us to this person before you. Born and educated in Ottawa, worked much of her life in Toronto, now working out of Vancouver, Shelagh Rogers is an embodiment of the CBC conundrum: she is a classic metropolitan. But only on the surface. With one of the world's most mellifluous voices, Shelagh Rogers has been the tone to which, for over 30 years, Canadians have intuitively responded. That tone is tuned by an ear that catches the sense of an idea, an ear which listens to the person not just the situation. And the ear is informed by a heart that feels with the person. All are driven by a mind of wide-ranging intelligence. One could, with all these sound/body metaphors, suggest that Shelagh Rogers is the organ of the CBC but that word is so subject to misinterpretation that it would be best left unspoken.

She is a journalist who serves beyond journalism. Look at her contributions to Aboriginal people, to literacy, to mental health and to literature. Her involvement with Aboriginal people grew out of a developing awareness that to be First Nations was to be last thought of. This February, asked to participate in a Cree conference at Fort Albany, she took a very long mid-winter trek on five planes and a ferry – a journey she paid for herself. She has also been active promoting literacy through her involvement with Peter Gzowski's golf invitationals and the Frontier College bonspiel.

Of broader impact has been her decision to make public her desperate difficulties with depression, difficulties so serious that twice she had to take leaves of absence from the CBC. Here she has done immeasurable service by creating a more open community of discussion about the illness. In the foreword to a recent book she has talked of her profound sense of loss when she was told she would never have children. This quiet statement, so heart-founded, is disturbing to read particularly when set against what we know of the upbeat Shelagh Rogers. But it is worth noting that her reaction to the situation was not measured – that she took up a salt cellar and that she hurled it into the wall and that she never removed the mark.

For literature she has been a leader over her career from Vancouver to our own Woody Point where, for many years, she has hosted the annual writers' festival. She has been described by a colleague as one of "the most cultured and best-read journalists in Canada ... [with an amazing] ability to read and synthesize data ... [She'll] assimilate everything, finding unexpected patterns, surprising connections. It [is] as if she absorb[s] the information, not just into her brain, but into her heart and her bones." Very early in her career that capacity and her contributions were recognized by an ACTRA award, in 2000 by Canadian broadcasting's highest award, the Drainie, and most recently by being made an Officer of the Order of Canada. For giving us pride in our place and for including so much of us in hers, for epitomizing the role of the CBC, Vice-Chancellor,

I present to you for the degree of doctor of laws honoris causa, Shelagh Rogers.

Shane O'Dea
Public orator