Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean
Speech on the Occasion of the Presentation of an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Manitoba
Winnipeg, Tuesday, June 5, 2007
It is with great pleasure and humility that I would like to thank you for conferring upon me this honorary doctorate. It is truly an honour to receive this degree at a university with such a great reputation for academic excellence and innovative research.
Your motto—one university, many futures—testifies to your commitment to ensuring that all students reach their full potential.
In this regard, I must salute the graduates of the ACCESS program for underprivileged students. Through your hard work and perseverance, you have demonstrated so that everyone can see that when given a chance, all Canadians can achieve their dreams and aspirations.
I must say that I am particularly touched to be here today because I was born in a country where education was a privilege available almost exclusively to the ruling classes. Very few poor Haitians were able to go to school.
In my family, my grandmother spent hours sewing clothing in an attempt to raise money to allow her children to get an education.
In fact, both my mother and grandmother always prized education and learning, and often told me under the mango tree: “Education is the key to freedom.”
Freedom to pursue your dreams and aspirations.
Freedom to create and innovate.
Freedom to participate in shaping a better world.
Institutions of higher learning have always played a fundamental role in this regard. They have provided societies with public spaces where knowledge, dialogue and collective action have been cultivated.
As bastions of free thought, they not only disseminate knowledge, but they also empower millions of citizens to interrogate social practices, to question established customs, and to challenge perceived truths.
Through these critical spaces for dialogue and learning, our society has been able to resist the conformity of ideas.
We have been able to discover our collective strengths as citizens.
We have been empowered to work together as agents of change in our communities and neighbourhoods.
And, I believe that this inherently Canadian drive to pursue the common good is of utmost importance to us today.
While we have succeeded in establishing a societal framework to provide everyone with an equal opportunity to succeed, significant challenges remain.
Poverty is very much alive in communities across the country.
Discrimination still manages to rear its ugly head.
Homelessness still confronts hundreds of women and men across Canada.
These forms of social exclusion should be of great concern to us, especially when they affect children and youth.
For social exclusion breeds alienation.
Alienation breeds social disengagement.
Disengagement threatens to undermine the very values and principles that allow our democratic society to flourish.
And all of this is very real.
Canadians have been horrified by cases of children as young as 10 being prostituted on our streets.
We have been dismayed by the incidence of gang violence that have taken away dozens of lives.
We have been alarmed by the number of young people seeking refuge from family violence and abuse, on the streets.
And, we have been struck by the number of young people who are still dropping out of school.
These are all symptoms of alienation and social disengagement.
Some of us have responded to these situations with a spirit of fatalism and indifference. You have all probably heard the sayings: “They will never change.” “It’s not even worth helping them.”
Yet my travels across the country have confirmed my intuition that this pessimism is misguided.
In the face of poverty, violence, and desperation, we are seeing more and more young people taking a stand and refusing to be the victims of their circumstances.
They are saying no to a life of crime, no to a life of despair, and no to a life of hopelessness. They are working tirelessly with their peers to bring about tangible change in their neighbourhoods and communities.
Just yesterday, thanks to Stephen Wilson and his team, I spent a moving three hours in North Point Douglass Winnipeg at the Graffiti Gallery, learning how youths from across the city are using urban art as a tool to address some very disturbing situations.
This was part of my national effort to gauge the way in which young people are using the arts to combat social exclusion, violence, and to turn their own lives around.
What I saw was a community in crisis. In some of the most poignant terms, grade five and six students told me that everyday, they are forced to confront gangs, bullying, drugs, and violence.
Mothers told me that they feared they would be unable to protect their children; some even spoke about their children witnessing stabbings on their doorsteps.
Teenagers told me about how family abuse had brought them on the brink of gang membership and suicide.
None of these people had chosen their circumstances. These were children and youth that difficult situations had almost abandoned on the side of the street.
Yet despite all the sadness, the fear, and the trepidation, I also met a community that had decided once and for all to break the silence and transform their community into a space where security, solidarity and compassion would prevail.
Among the youth, I was struck by the confidence in their poise.
I was moved by the hope in their eyes.
I was thrilled by their unwavering commitment.
With very little resources and strong support from their community, they are showing us that change is indeed possible.
Without any doubt, everyone deserves a second chance. But they need our support, and we must all accompany them in their efforts.
For these youths are not “lost cases” as some would have us believe. They are a perfect illustration of the ways in which the spirit of solidarity and compassion can save people’s lives.
We have a lot to learn from their courage and tenacity, and we should be inspired to discover the role we can all play to create collectively a more compassionate society.
In this, we must see the human face that lies behind situations of social exclusion.
We must open up our hearts to those experiencing difficult situations.
We must offer a helping hand to those in need.
For our capacity to flourish as an open and democratic society is contingent on our willingness to work together to ensure that no one is left behind.
And, we have perfect examples of such dedication with us today. I must salute the exemplary work of Dr. Stephen Lewis, who has waged a heroic battle to promote the rights of women and combat the spread of HIV-AIDS in Africa.
I cannot forget the incredible work accomplished by Senator Sharon Carstairs in her crusade for palliative care. They are both extraordinary role models for us all.
As governor general of Canada, I encourage you, class of 2007, to discover how you too can use the knowledge and skills you have acquired in order to build a better society and a better world.
This is all about shared responsibilities, and you all have a vital role to play. Let us seize the moment together.