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David Vardy

Address to Convocation

Friday, Oct. 21, 2011

When I started my university career in 1957 the university was located on Parade Street, just a few short blocks from where I lived on Merrymeeting Road, where my father operated a trucking business, selling sand, crushed stone, cement, bricks, lime and various building materials. I was a big disappointment to my dad. Dad was a hands-on businessman who ran a small business and was handy with tools and equipment. He could repair a truck, build a shed as well as market his goods and make his customers happy. I was a bookish kid who did not know a wrench from a spanner or a starting motor from a carburetor. He wanted me to take over his business. I did learn to drive a truck and I did lots of manual labour but it was not my forte.

I remember when I started Kindergarten at St. George's School, Dad walked with me down one Merrymeeting Road block to the school. I dragged my feet; I did not want to go. After I had spent five years at Memorial, one year at the University of Toronto and three years at Princeton, Dad said, "I couldn't get you started in Kindergarten and now I can't get you to stop." By then he knew he could not count on me to carry on the family business. But while he was disappointed, Dad was always very supportive, as were my mother and my sister, Elaine.

When I graduated from Memorial in 1962 on this campus, with two degrees, in economics and commerce, I did not dream I would be here today receiving this honorary degree. Nor did I dream of the challenging career of public service I would later have, with many opportunities to contribute. Who would have thought that a public service career would be exciting? Who would have planned such a career? Back in those days public service was held in higher esteem than it is today. Early in my career I undertook post-graduate studies in economics at the University of Toronto and at Princeton University before teaching at Queen's University.

When I came back to the province the Smallwood government had just been defeated after 23 years in power. This was a seismic event for the province; there was a massive demand for change in the operation of government, new ideas and new structures. The opportunity to do interesting and demanding work was there for the taking. Planning task forces on each sector of the economy were the order of the day. I became a deputy minister at the age of 34 and the senior civil servant in the province at the age of 38. The world was my oyster.

While I remained within the provincial public sector, I would experience major changes in my career, beginning with helping to create a new nerve centre for government in the Cabinet secretariat. We were a group of rambunctious young Turks and we had the audacity to challenge the Cabinet documents coming into the centre, each signed by Cabinet ministers, no less. We asked questions that had not been asked before because we wanted to ensure that public policy decisions were well thought out. We undertook professional analysis of recommended actions. We tried hard to drag the Newfoundland public service into the 20th century -- but we were not perfect.

One day the Speech from the Throne was being read in the House of Assembly and I received a call from a deputy minister who will be nameless. He said, "You know we sent up notes for the speech which said that the new mobile dental clinic has been a great success, improving the dental health of children all over the province. This statement was included in the speech. Unfortunately, it was not true." The deputy minister said the clinic has been parked in the back of Confederation Building for the past two years because his department did not have the money to make the mobile clinic mobile. "But let me tell you," he said, "the dental clinic is going out on the road this afternoon."

There are a number of projects in which I played a part that stand out in my memory. These include the divestiture of the Bowater paper mill, the signing of the Atlantic Accord in 1985, the early development of the Newfoundland and Labrador Institute of Fisheries and Marine Technology, the task force on collective bargaining in the fishery and the creation of the Leslie Harris Centre of Regional Development and Policy.

The sale of the Bowater paper plant in Corner Brook was an exciting project. Bowater had told the premier that they had been trying to sell the mill, without success. This was in August 1983. If they could not find an operator, they would close it before Christmas. The premier asked me to find a new operator to avoid the permanent closure of the mill. I assembled a team of officials and we put together a market prospectus to sell the mill. The prospectus emphasized the strengths of the enterprise, its access to wood resources, skilled workers and low-cost power from the Deer Lake power plant. We approached 150 companies from many parts of the world with this market opportunity. We negotiated with the federal government, which wanted to close the mill to reduce industry overcapacity. In December of 1984 we had a buyer who was prepared to invest $200 million in the mill, with help from both the federal and provincial governments. The operator was Kruger Inc., which has been operating the mill for the past 26 years, although the other two mills, at Stephenville and Grand Falls, have shut down.

This project required 18 months of hard work by a team of a dozen public servants working seven days a week. The key was the teamwork which enabled us to move a mountain, stone by stone. The team was a group of Memorial graduates, trained to be the best in the world, who could negotiate on behalf of government and the people of the province. Don't ever underestimate the power of teamwork, graduates. You will find that we can do anything to which we set our minds. Memorial graduates have a "can do" attitude. Put a group of them together and they can challenge the world.

Another project on which I worked was the negotiation of the offshore energy agreement, now known as the Atlantic Accord of 1985. This agreement gave the province a right to participate in the management of offshore resources and the right to collect royalty revenues as if the resource were on land, as is the case in Alberta. Canada recognizes that the provinces have the right to collect these revenues if the oil deposit is located on land, but not if it is under the seabed. The Atlantic Accord corrected that anomaly and created a joint management regime, through the Canada Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board. These negotiations were led by my friend, the late Cyril Abery. I was a member of the team and was present when the agreement was signed by Premier Brian Peckford and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in February of 1985. The prosperity currently being enjoyed by the province can be traced back to the Atlantic Accord. Again, we had a strong team of Memorial graduates negotiating on behalf of the province.

Back in the '70s and '80s, I worked as a policy adviser to government, in close contact with premiers and ministers. It was my job to tell them what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear. I had to "speak truth to power." I was part of a group who had earned the trust of government. We were trained by Memorial professors such as the late Mose Morgan, who taught us how to undertake research and to write clearly. He required us to write an essay every week, which he critiqued using the skills he had learned at Oxford. Some of us were students of economics professor Parzival Copes. The late Dr. Doug Eaton referred to us as the Copes Mafia. The Copes Mafia included Cyril Abery, Ed Power, David Mercer and Bob Peters. Mose Morgan, Peter Gardiner and Parzi Copes were great teachers who set a high standard for their students, a Memorial standard that serves you today as it served us, nearly 50 short years ago.

During this period I wore a beard and the late MHA Steve Neary thought I was a veritable Rasputin. He referred to me in the House of Assembly as a "bearded weirdo." Bureaucrats today must be seen but not heard. They are shyer than I was about doing media interviews. In one such interview, I questioned whether our province had enough clout within the federation to control our own destiny. I questioned our place in Canada, which subsequently became the subject of Vic Young's Royal Commission. At one point the media attacked me as a separatist. Perhaps I was rebelling from the image of the fawning public servant, described in the British TV series, Yes, Minister.

My career took a sharp turn in 1985 when I became president of the Fisheries and Marine Institute. My stay at the institute was short but we charted a course and "the ship" has become internationally recognized for the quality of its training and the success of its graduates. In a province where the fishery is so important, the institute is the university's flagship serving the fishing industry, marine transportation and safety, as well as offshore oil and gas. Memorial can be proud of how the institute engages with the community, not only imparting knowledge but learning from the community in the process.

My career turned in another direction in 2001 when I returned to Memorial University to build a bridge between the university and the community through a different kind of engagement, namely public policy research. The Public Policy Research Centre, which I led, became the Harris Centre, in 2004. Through a variety of innovative instruments, including the new Yaffle search engine for regional development prospects, the Harris Centre has become recognized as a leader in stimulating solid public policy research and building bridges with government and with the community at large. This new engagement model recognizes that the community is an equal partner with the university in defining the forces that shape our society and in understanding how these forces can be directed toward strategic goals. The Harris Centre is another university flagship, lighting the way as our province moves boldly ahead.

In each of the projects I led, I had the good fortune to work with teams of highly capable individuals, educated at Memorial University. Our teams were at the very least as competent as the people with whom we were negotiating, whether they were from other provinces, the federal government or from the private sector.

The key to all of this is the high quality of the education and research at Memorial which could turn out people with the skill sets needed. People make all the difference. The recognition conferred on me today by Memorial University is a tribute to the highly skilled people within government, university and the private sector with whom I have worked over the years. I am standing here today on their shoulders, on their behalf. Some of these public servants are in this room today.

My lovely and loving wife, Janet, and our children, Adam and Andrew, gave me incredible support. They allowed me to do many things and to spend incredibly long hours in the office. Janet and the boys deserve much more credit for what I did than I do. I am not always happy when I recall the long hours I gave to my work. What I say to you is: Don't do as I do, do as I say; maintain a proper balance in your life.

What evolution will take place in the next 20 to 50 years? As graduates of Memorial, you will be well placed to assess the needs of the community as they evolve and grow. As you move into leadership positions, you will, like your predecessors, be well placed to contribute to future growth.

The local business climate holds many opportunities for new graduates. I wish you well in your endeavours. As you move forward in your careers, you should reflect on how Memorial has prepared you and on how the university should continue to evolve its culture of engagement with the community. You are the products of the university, ambassadors to the community. Stay in touch with your friends and with your professors. Join the network of university alumni and work with them to promote Memorial. When you travel, tell people about your alma mater and let them know that you can connect them to the resources that Memorial has to offer in its many centres of excellence.

My best wishes for your success, in life, in work, in your family relationships and in your future educational pursuits. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today. Many thanks to Memorial for conferring this honour in recognition of the many public servants who have worked in the public interest for the betterment of our community.

I conclude with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."