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Address to convocation by Dr. Flora MacDonald

Pages >> Biography | Address to Convocation | Oration

May 28, 2003

Vice-Chancellor, Graduates, and your families and friends:
Let me first offer my sincere congratulations to you, the graduates, for your proven abilities, your successful achievements, and particularly for your determination to reach this milestone ceremony, despite what must sometimes have seemed insurmountable obstacles.

Secondly, let me express my sincere appreciation to the Senate of Memorial University for the honour they have done me in granting this Honorary Doctorate. My path to this platform may, over the years, have been just as difficult as that of the graduates, but at least I've had a long lifetime to make my way here.

It's always a great personal pleasure for me to return to St. John's. My mother was born here and her stories, and those of her kinfolk, about the St. John's of her childhood, were very much a part of my early education.

My mother passed away earlier this year, just two weeks short of her 102nd birthday, which showed the staying power of her true Newfoundland genes.

I confess to having a certain apprehension when asked to give the Convocation Address at this Commencement - something akin to the mind-set I imagine you graduates had just prior to your last exam. It is not an easy task to address a graduating class in today's troubled world. Economically, times are erratic. Socially, people seem less understanding, less tolerant. Spiritually, many of the values traditionally held are eroding. The future is more questionable than ever. And nowhere more so than when we look outward to the world around us, a world scarred by turmoil and conflict, reeling from the impact of globalization and still adjusting to the information-age revolution.

Ian Smillie, an international development consultant, recently wrote about the future in this vein: “In the years ahead, Canada will no longer have a place amongst the world's leading economies, let alone the G8. China will replace the United States as the world's largest economy within 25 years, and nine of the ten top economies will be those of countries we now think of as `developing'.

India will replace Germany as the fourth largest economy, and by the end of the 20th century, seventeen of the world's mega-cities will be in the South. Canada does not appear on such lists.” And he adds: “The future security and prosperity of Canadians will depend not on the size of our economy or our population. We will need to earn our way, in large part through our intellectual capabilities and policy leadership.”

I have no doubt that Canadians are capable of doing just that - `earning our way, in large part through our intellectual capacity and policy leadership'. We have the human resources to make that statement come true. I am privileged to see many examples of what Canadians can accomplish, sometimes in the most unusual places.

Much of my time in recent years has been spent in developing countries. Our news media depicts these nation-states, almost exclusively as the spawning ground of terrorism and major conflicts, disasters and virulent new diseases. There may be some, but not the whole, truth to that characterization. Radical economic and social change have added to an already volatile mix.

But that volatile mix also has a positive dimension. It can, and I think will, create an environment, an excitement, the will energize these early years of the 21st century - your century.

By contrast, my generation looks back on its century with some disquiet. Though there were some remarkable achievements, it will stand in history as a century disfigured by two world wars and marred in its latter half by the escalating occurrence of conflict. Those conflicts generated the global displacement of some forty million people - refugees and internally displaced persons. The former U.N. Secretary-General, Butrous Butrous-Ghali, referred to that phenomenon in these words: “Refugees and other uprooted people are the products of failure - the failure to resolve conflict and its underlying causes: intolerance, antagonism and poverty.” And he added: “The search for solutions requires a willingness to listen to and work with the people most directly affected.”

`A willingness to listen to and work with the people most directly affected!' A number of young (and not so young) Canadians are doing just that - working with the people most directly affected.

They don't claim to be out trying to save the world. But they do know that what they are doing gives them an insight into, and an understanding of, the ways in which different people in different parts of the world live their lives, develop their cultures and find their means of expression.

In other words, helping others and learning from them - and in doing so strengthening the bonds between individuals, and between nations. The work being done by young Canadians abroad is helping to create the environment and generate the excitement that will, I predict, characterize the 21st century.

Take the case of a young woman from Vancouver. One year she was a successful accountant in her home town; the next found her in what was then Zaire (now the Congo) managing a refugee camp for almost 300,000 thousand homeless refugees who had fled their country, Rwanda. The detail involved in setting up that camp was horrendous - opening up roads in the bush, arranging accommodation, providing food and water, saving lives. `What is it really like?' I asked her. `Difficult,' she smiled, `but satisfying.'

Earlier this year I spoke at the national conference of a remarkable organization called `Engineers Without Borders'. The audience was composed of young engineering students from universities all across Canada. Upon graduation, some of them are selected to go to developing countries to put the skills they have learned into practical aid projects. One young man informed me that he had gone off to Burkino Faso to help with the construction of bridges in remote parts of the country. `Was it worthwhile?' I asked him. `It was a turning point in my life,' he replied. `I became so involved with the people I worked with that I asked to stay on for another six months at my own expense.' Dedication indeed.

Recently I was in Afghanistan -- a country that has suffered 23 continuous years of conflict. A year ago the media carried daily reports from that part of the world, but given the prominence more recently accorded to Iraq, Afghanistan has pretty well disappeared from the global radar screen. Its infrastructure has been destroyed, its professional capacity depleted. But that's being slowly rectified - not by the people who promised to wage peace as well as war, but by the people of Afghanistan themselves.

For instance, an Afghan-Canadian residing in Ottawa was persuaded to go back to his native country and see what he could do to help. A year ago when I went with him into the high central mountains of Afghanistan, people in the villages were quick to tell us that schools topped priority list of needs. Education is a highly-prized commodity in Afghanistan but in recent years it hasn't been easily available.

In one village I visited at that time, a teacher using a single hand-held slate as his blackboard was trying to teach a class of boys and girls seated on the ground amidst the rubble of a bombed-out mosque. The young Afghan-Canadian stayed on to work with the people in that and other villages.

Just a few weeks ago I met that teacher with the hand-held slate once again, but now he is one of several teachers who are holding classes throughout the day in the rebuilt mosque. The people of the village, under the leadership provided by the Afghan-Canadian, had taken matters into their own hands; they devoted a great deal of time and energy to the restoration of the mosque. Now it is not only a religious and cultural centre; it is also in continuous use as a school - for boys and girls during the days; and in the evenings, it becomes a learning centre for men and women, most of whom had been unable to attend school during the many years of conflict.

The winter in this highland region is long and cold, but my Afghan-Canadian friend had not only stuck it out in his mud-brick hut, but was so pleased with what the villagers had been able to achieve that he has challenged other villages in the vicinity to see if they can match this accomplishment. He wants his region, one of the poorest in the country, to use education and practical work plans, to enable the villages to reach a higher standard of living.

I cite these examples of what some young Canadians are doing in other parts of the world to create the environment and marshal the excitement that will energize this century. Such experiences are not just a one-way avenue. What Canadians learn in these work sites is just as important as what they contribute. And governments, the U.N. agencies, and the private sector are recognizing that the results they desire can best be obtained by working on a people-to-people basis - by encouraging non-governmental organizations to play a leading role in this new world of global networking.

Within the next ten years, over 80 per cent of the world's population will live in countries of the South. Over 5 billion people. It's a world of enormous challenges and problems, but also a world of enormous potential. And of enormous opportunity.

What does it take to be a part of this exciting and challenging new environment?

It takes COURAGE -the courage to seize opportunities when they come along;

It takes ADAPTABILITY - the willingness to embrace and learn from new experiences;

It takes STAMINA - the determination to stick with it regardless of the difficulties; and it takes a particular quality - CURIOSITY. In Tibet I met a Canadian who was bicycling up the 17,000-foot Jiatso-la Pass, en route to India. He told me his curiosity had led to a commitment to bicycle, on a fund-raising tour, through all seven continents - although he wasn't quite sure how he would make out in Antarctica!

COURAGE - ADAPTABILITY - STAMINA - CURIOSITY . With these qualities you are well equipped to carry out your goals anywhere in the world. I envy you the opportunities that lie ahead, and I wish you well.

Pages >> Biography | Address to Convocation | Oration