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Vol 37  No 15
June 9, 2005


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Oration honouring Rick Mercer

One expects a satirist to take his cue from Jonathan Swift or Ambrose Bierce ­ to be embittered, trapped in his own failings, railing at the corruption of a world over which he has no control. Rick Mercer bears no likeness to these great figures. Through his ambushes, his streeters, his talking to Americans, he has become commentator in that most common sense of the word: he has encouraged the subject to comment upon itself. Rick Mercer has us look into the matter and asks those questions which we as audience must answer. Now, mind you, the question is set in such a loaded context that we are led to the answer.

As a teenager his initial involvement with theatre was quite peripheral ­ he was in charge of the programs ­ until one day he had no program and so introduced it all verbally and his program was better than the show. And suddenly he was in the theatre club. But we have to look at the consequence of this. Rick Mercer is a man who spent his last high school year on tour with a clown ­ and did not graduate; whose only high school diploma is an honorary one ­ and that from a school for the learning disabled; a man who has made a name for himself making mock of some of the finest Ivy League universities. And it does not stop there. You have all been following the Gomery Inquiry and know of the restaurant meeting where an envelope full of money mysteriously changed hands. Well, it appears that the most damaging revelation in the inquiry is yet to come: that there was another restaurant event. This time at Harvey’s in Ottawa where Rick Mercer sponsored Jean Chrétien to a shake and fries, and thereby improved the CBC budget for the coming year. Now, Mr. Vice-Chancellor, you presume to give him our highest accolade? The fact that he is one of Canada’s best-known comedians ­ one who had two shows at the National Arts Centre by the time he was 23, was one of the great characters on the phenomenally successful This Hour Has 22 Minutes, creator of Made in Canada and Monday Report, winner of over 25 Geminis ­ may excuse your presumption. The fact that he has already received an honorary degree from another university also helps ­ but it only suggests we are a little slow. In any event we need to be clear about why we recognize Rick Mercer. We know he is famous, we rejoice in his fortune but today, here, we honour his sense of responsibility, his loyalty, and his boundless creativity.

Born, as he has often told us, into that North American anomaly, the functional family, he grew up in another anomaly: the suburban outport of Middle Cove. Schooled ­ if that is not an overstatement ­ at Prince of Wales he became head of the student council there. His foray into school politics was a natural extension of an already highly-developed interest in the topic. At home, politics was the main course at supper. In his first job, at 13 in Shea’s Hamburger Hell, he combined politics and potato peeling for Hughie Shea, its owner, his godfather and a real political curio. Rick Mercer really should have been an early candidate for the Roman Catholic priesthood or Mao’s Red Guard. Except that, he was never a zealot.

What, you say, that man with the eyes of a gimlet and mouth of a cynic, how could he not be a zealot? Did he not take time out to fly home and vote in the Denominational Education Referendum? Has he not crucified half of Canada’s politicians? Did he not annihilate the Reform Party with his famous phone-in renaming of Stockwell Day as Doris Day. All true but not entirely true. Mercer has certainly made many a politician look less than brilliant but he has also made them more human ­ why he even made us smile with Preston Manning. This deft touch has given Rick access to all manner of persons and to appear on television with him is a kind of certification of humanity that even their mothers were unable to provide. That honorary high school diploma? It was a mark of respect from the learning disabled to the learning disinclined, to a comedian who can go to the limit but seldom over the line. And would you not expect him, coming from the artsy crowd, to have a somewhat negative view of the military? Then why did he do Christmas In Kabul, his show about and for Canada’s forces in Afghanistan? Likely because they were ordinary Canadians, many of them Newfoundlanders, on a dangerous mission of reconstruction. After 9/11 his brilliant Talking to Americans was nominated for two Geminis. Rick, feeling the human loss of that September day, knew it required a deep respect, and asked that his nomination be withdrawn. Rick Mercer is no common clown. Shakespeare’s true fool, he is a man of more than uncommon humanity with a deep sense of the responsibility of his craft and wit.

But let us also add to this a commendation for loyalty. The National Arts Centre put off his first major piece, Show Me the Button, and he was ever after grateful to them, at one point interrupting a vacation to come out and host their show on Atlantic arts and artists. But gratitude to one did not mean neglect of another: he required that much of the production be done in Newfoundland. And, when he won the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award, he gave the cheque to the LSPU Hall to help artists in the place where he had begun his professional career. Vice-Chancellor, I present to you for the degree of doctor of letters, honoris causa, that man who is Canada’s scourge and Newfoundland’s pride, Rick Mercer.

Shane O’Dea
Public orator

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