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Mr. Chancellor, Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen — and most of all, students. I want to begin by warmly congratulating those who are graduating today. For most of you this day will remain one of the most important highlights of your life. You have studied hard, done research and written exams. The degree you get, you have earned. But for me the situation is quite different. To accept an honourary degree is problematic. It’s rather like one of those old movie actors whose work is for most a vague and distant memory. Then they turn up on Oscar night in Hollywood to accept a lifetime achievement award. On the other hand, an honourary degree is personally quite gratifying: here I stand before a large, polite, and captive audience, hearing nothing but good things said about me. For a former politician it’s almost unique. It’s rather like hearing my obituary as it would be written by my mother.
Of course the real reason for accepting an honourary degree from Trent is that it is a great honour. Trent has established itself as one of Canada’s few universities that puts the emphasis where it belongs — on the teaching of undergraduates. Its faculty, many with international reputations, work hard to foster the development of critical and imaginative minds—the objective of higher education. And one of whose outstanding examples is Yann Martel, a superb globally recognized novelist. So today I want to salute, not only the students but also the faculty.
You are graduating in a world that has profoundly changed since I graduated on another June day, over half a century ago. We in the class of 1959 thought the world was our oyster. There were at least six jobs available for each of us to choose from. There was a feeling of great optimism and security. We were confident the future was bright. And, fourteen years after World War II, thanks to the work of my parents’ generation, Canada was profoundly different. Having experienced the great depression, they had made great changes, which were still unfolding during my youth. They had come to realize that markets could not be left on their own or instability would occur and inequality would worsen. Politicians, first in the CCF then with Conservatives like John Diefenbaker and Liberals like Lester Pearson, went on to use the federal government to provide social programmes like hospital care, national pensions, university education and unemployment insurance—all paid for by adequate levels of progressive taxation. Industrial unions had come into being and led to generations of well paid jobs for ordinary families all across Canada.
During the 1960s and 70s, my generation of politicians added to the foundation we inherited. Canada’s governments joined with other advanced democracies in building nations that took seriously the democratic goal of equality. And by the early 1980s Canada had become one of the world’s most equal nations. Through progressive taxation, unemployment insurance, medicare, universal pensions, children’s benefits, affordable universities, and the newly recognized rights of First Nation Canadians, women, gays, and ethnic minorities, increasing equality had become the name of the game. We Canadians actually started to describe ourselves as “sharing and caring”.
When I graduated in 1959, mid-way through this transformation, I could feel this change in my bones. As a working class kid from Oshawa, I could indeed develop my skills and talents. I could make my individual choices. It was only later that I came to understand that virtually all of my years of education in Canada were financed by taxes paid by others. I also learned that the increasing sense of national dignity and confidence that I could feel came not just from economic growth but also from many strong social programmes based on equality. In short, during my formative years, individualism and government were not seen to be in conflict. On the contrary, they were seen to be mutually reinforcing.
But your world has been quite different. You are graduating at a time of national and international economic anxiety. Your moment in history is the culmination of what has been happening since the 1980s, when an ideology very different from the one I grew up with has been at work. Instead of seeing ourselves as individuals thoroughly embedded in society, with all our rights and responsibilities linked inevitably to the lives of others, Canadians have been encouraged to see government as a problem, not an aid for individual development. This ideology rejected the combined legacy of Tommy Douglas, John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson. New narrow priorities were emphasized. Instead of seeing the need for a balance between markets and government, markets were encouraged to triumph. Instead of seeing our personalities as being realized in part by sharing with others, the idea of self-interest was simplified and reduced to mean merely personal gratification. Market principles were even applied to the public service. Is it any wonder that during the 1990s the environment was brutalized and we became more unequal?
Then, in 2008, this worship of the market all came crashing down. Inequality in Canada and the United States is now the worst it’s been since the 1920s. Globally millions are unemployed, and here at home child poverty in Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal is just as bad as it was 20 years ago when Parliament voted to take steps to abolish it. Our production of greenhouse gasses and the devouring of our resources continue as if we didn’t know the fatal consequences for our planet.
I am speaking frankly today. I do so not to discourage but to challenge. You do face more obstacles than my generation. But my point is that previous generations have shown that nothing is inevitable. Where there is a will, change can happen. What has been done can be undone. A better world is possible. You live in a marvelous country, with strong democratic traditions. Canada is one of the best in all the world. Look at those beside you this afternoon and remember you are among the fortunate highly educated few. I urge you to take up the social and environmental challenges. Bring your education to bear. By all means pursue personal success. But also see the common good. Be inspired by great successes in your chosen field. See your neighbours not as competitors but as friends. Regard your government as your instrument, not your enemy. And when you celebrate later today, as you richly deserve to do, remember you are where you are not just because of your own ability but also because of the support of family, friends, and fellow-citizens.
Go forward. Be brave. Be joyful. And make a better world.