MAWANI, Nurjehan



Please note: Speeches appear in the language in which they were delivered.

Madame le chancelier, monsieur le recteur, distingués membres du Sénat, chers diplômés, parents et amis,

Je vous remercie avec gratitude de l’honneur que vous me faites, un honneur qui revêt une grande importance pour moi. En effet, c’est cette même université qui, il y a treize ans, m’a accordé le privilège de donner la première Conférence commémorative Gordon Henderson. Depuis, les liens que j’ai tissés avec le corps professoral et les étudiants me procurent toujours une profonde satisfaction.

C’est aussi avec fierté et modestie que j’accepte cette reconnaissance de l’Université d’Ottawa, car cette institution, l’université canadienne, symbolise ce que nous chérissons en ce pays : son engagement envers le bilinguisme et le respect de la diversité.

It is thus not at all surprising - and from my perspective, quite wonderful -- that graduates from this University go on to participate actively in all aspects of Canadian civic life: from international affairs and development, to private enterprise, to our vast and highly developed NGO sector, to the education of young and not-so-young minds. ..the list is endless.But perhaps of most immediate relevance to me, is your participation in the Public Service of Canada.

I single out the Public Service of Canada because of my personal commitment as Special Advisor on Diversity in the Public Service.I believe that the graduates who come to the Public Service from this particular school are role models for us all because so many are bilingual and represent the diversity of Canada.

Our continuing resolve is to ensure that our Public Service is inclusive, where merit includes fair access to opportunities, and where no one is excluded for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to do the job.

When your Rector, Gilles Patry called me to tell me of this singular honour, he also mentioned to me that I would be speaking to you.I thought that I might best make use of these precious few minutes by sharing with you a little bit about my self, and about the formative events of my life that resolved into a commitment to fight for equality.

Growing up in Africa, I never imagined that I would be standing before you one day for this very special occasion.That I would be in Canada in the first place!I was born in Kenya, which at the time was part of the British Empire.Growing up in Kenya, I was acutely aware of the inequities around me; schools were segregated, as were hospitals, sports facilities, and even restaurants. This was colonial Africa - where differences were highlighted and exploited. We fell prey to this mentality and succumbed to the loss of dignity that accompanied it. There was a café in Mombasa that I particularly remember - it had the best samosas in town.When I was a child, our Sunday outing was not complete without a stop at this café. The only problem was that we were not allowed to be served inside, as it was for Europeans only. So we sat outside in our cars, eating the samosas and not questioning the indignity of it.

For me, the turning point was the opening up of the Aga Khan institutions, including my school, to people of all races.This was in defiance of official Colonial policy which mandated racially segregated schools.It was a revolutionary idea and its impact was very far-reaching: we began to understand that things could be different - that the status quo was not right and that it could, and should be changed.

As I became increasingly politically aware during my teens, I became conscious of the enormous disparities in the treatment between men and women, rich and poor, and African, Asian and European.This changed me, and more than anything, I wanted to make a difference.

I was consumed with finding a way to redress some of the wrongs that were so obvious. I wanted to become either a lawyer or a teacher - I saw both of these as ways to bring about change. As it turned out, at the age of 17, I chose law - not because I thought the law was loftier than teaching, but because I wanted to follow a boy half-way across the world -- and law school gave me a legitimate reason for persuading my parents to let me go to England!I soon realized, though, that my passion for advocacy was best served by legal training and the rigour that accompanies it.

The grand plan had been to return home and play a role in the newly independent Kenya. However, the political situation changed and it was no longer feasible to follow my dream in Kenya. For those of you who are wondering what happened to "the boy" - let me relieve you by telling you that part of the dream came true - and I married him when I was 21 and he is here with me today!

I started my legal career in England.I originally qualified as a barrister and was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn (in 1968).At that time, however, I found it virtually impossible for someone with my profile (dark hair, woman, not from the establishment) to have access to Chambers from which I could practice my chosen career.

In fact, I ended up retraining, and qualified as a solicitor which was much more acceptable for someone with my profile, since I could sit in an office safely behind the scenes.The irony was that I would then meet clients and brief other barristers - white males approved by the establishment -- who would then plead for my clients in Court, using my research and my legal advice!

My chance to be an advocate and an activist came through my volunteer work.

At the age of 26, while expecting my first child, there was a turning point, which laid the foundation for my future. We were experiencing the fallout of the Uganda exodus.Thousands of Ugandans of Asian origin lost everything overnight, because Idi Amin, the new dictator of Uganda, decided they had to go. At the time, I was a lawyer and a volunteer with the Ismaili National Council for the UK at the time.We saw the need for establishing an organized response to help deported Ugandans, who had been rendered stateless.Families had been torn apart, with some ending up in camps in Europe, while others were airlifted to Canada.

Part of our response was reunite them and help them to resettle.Even at the time I remember being impressed by the openness and generosity of the Canadian government and the Canadian people in welcoming them to this wonderful country.

This early success in being able to use my knowledge and professional training to help other gave me tremendous confidence and the desire to do more.I was equipped for life to deal with sometimes intractable bureaucracies, obscure policies, and a variety of special interests.All of these skills would hold me in very good stead both in my professional and volunteer activities.

Once in Canada, my big break came when one of the partners at my law firm, who knew about my volunteer work, proposed my name for a position on the former Immigration Appeal Board. The idea was that I would take a sabbatical for two years and then go back to practice. Well, apparently I am still on sabbatical because that was 1986 and now it's 2004 and the rest is history!

You may ask what has kept me in the system - it's the same theme - the concern for the public good and the potential to make a difference. The former IAB was transformed into the Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada's largest tribunal, which makes over 40,000 decisions annually on refugee and immigration matters. The opportunity to be the first woman (and a visible minority at that) to chair the IRB literally put me on the "other side" so to speak. I was now in the position of those that I had previously worked hard to influence and I now had the levers to actually make change.

My proudest achievement was getting gender-related persecution recognized internationally as a ground for claiming refugee status under the Geneva Convention.You see, previously, it was only possible to ask for refugee status on religious or political grounds, but that left out in the cold many women who were persecuted just because they were women: whether by the practice of female genital mutilation, or by abusive male family members.

À la conclusion de mon mandat de sept ans à titre de présidente de la CISR, j’ai été nommée commissaire de la Commission de la fonction publique du Canada, où j’ai encore bénéficié de la possibilité de poursuivre les efforts pour instaurer une fonction publique diversifiée et inclusive.

Depuis novembre dernier, j’occupe mon poste actuel, qui est de réaffirmer l’engagement du Canada de créer une fonction publique qui est le reflet de la diversité culturelle, linguistique, régionale et sociale du Canada.

Pierre Trudeau a déjà affirmé que la chance est le fruit de la rencontre des possibilités offertes et du travail. J’estime avoir été très chanceuse dans ma vie, grâce au grand nombre de possibilités que j’ai eu de faire une différence. J’ai bénéficié ici au Canada de ces possibilités, qui ne m’étaient pas offertes au Kenya ou en Angleterre. Récemment, lorsque Son Excellence l’Aga Khan a affirmé que le Canada était un modèle à suivre pour le reste du monde, je crois qu’il parlait de l’esprit d’équité et des valeurs civiques qui animent la population et les institutions sociales de notre pays.

This country have given me and my family a very satisfying professional and personal life, and I wish the same for you, the Class of 2004, as you venture forth into your unique futures.You have had an excellent education here at the University of Ottawa, which will put you in good stead to confront - and surmount - the challenges life will throw before you.Believe in yourself, and in your ability to make a difference.Never be afraid to challenge yourself and the world around you.If you have a vision, however grand or modest, pursue it, and surely luck will come your way.

Merci beaucoup de m’avoir invitée à partager avec vous cette journée tout à fait spéciale.

Back to profile: Nurjehan MAWANI

Back to top