Convocation Ceremony Speech

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

Thank you, David, for that very kind introduction … and good afternoon everyone. Bonjour tout le monde.

Chancellor Rovinescu, President Frémont, faculty members, distinguished guests, fellow graduates in the class of 2018, family members, ladies and gentlemen.

Let me begin by thanking the University of Ottawa. This honour means a great deal to me for a number of reasons. First and foremost is this university’s outstanding leadership in so many academic disciplines. From arts, law, education and management to engineering, science and medicine, the University of Ottawa represents academic excellence at its finest.

Secondly, the U of O has been a wonderful partner of the National Arts Centre for decades. Every year in June, for example, the NAC welcomes dozens of young musicians to its Young Artists Program. These are some of the most promising young artists from across Canada and around the world, and U of O’s exceptional School of Music is the students’ home base.  The NAC is very grateful to Lori Burns, professor and director of the School of Music, for this wonderful, ongoing collaboration.

And finally, speaking of home base, for nearly 19 years — the period in which I led the National Arts Centre — this city became my second home. I suspect many of you who moved to Ottawa to study here feel the same way. I have since moved back to Toronto, but I am just delighted to be back in this beautiful city again.  

Tous les finissants ici aujourd’hui… de tous les domaines… me rendent fier d’être l’invité de la cohorte 2018.

I want to congratulate all of you on a major achievement. You’ve handled everything the University of Ottawa has thrown at you over the past few years: the exams, the countless projects and presentations, those gruelling “all nighters” — and I don’t mean the ones that took place in the Byward Market — the impossible course load, those totally unreasonable professors,  and finally, of course, the absolutely exhausting round of graduation parties. I can only say that if you survived all of that, you should be able to handle the so-called “real world” with ease.

I’ve been fortunate to have spent all of my professional life in journalism, broadcasting, publishing and the arts, but my time at the NAC was the most stimulating period of my career. And so, today, I want to say a few words about the seminal role that the arts have played in re-defining Canada over the past 40 years.

Let me begin with a simple assertion. Canada’s artists are arguably this country’s most important “export product” — and increasingly, they symbolize Canada for the world.

When many of you travel internationally over the next few years, ask the people you meet what they actually know about Canada. They’ll probably tell you that they’ve never heard of our politicians (with perhaps one notable exception), that they can’t name any of our business leaders — or even our hockey players.

But I suspect they’ll tell you that the people who really define Canada for them are our artists.

Just think of our extraordinary fiction writers, whose books can be found in even the smallest bookstores around the globe.  Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for her remarkable short story collection Dear Life. Last month, Esi Edugyan was named as a finalist for the 2018 International Booker Prize for her novel Washington Black.

Margaret Atwood has already won the Booker Prize — she is revered as the creator of The Handmaid’s Tale, thanks to the wildly successful TV series — and rumour has it she is the leading contender for the 2019 Nobel Prize in literature. And 26-year-old Rupi Kaur of Brampton, Ontario, is the best-selling poet in the world.

Quebec filmmakers are regularly sought after in Hollywood.  Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed C.R.A.Z.Y., The Dallas Buyers Club and Wild, is winning accolades for the HBO series Sharp Objects. Denis Villeneuve directed Blade Runner 2049, starring his fellow Canadian Ryan Gosling, which was nominated for five Academy Awards.  Gosling is currently starring as astronaut Neil Armstrong in First Man, another movie that’s getting a great deal of Oscar buzz. And speaking of the Oscars, Sophie Dupuis’s film Chien de garde was selected as Canada’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film.

A great many talented Canadian actors have also made highly successful careers in the international film and television world. There’s Rachel McAdams, who recently appeared in the film Obedience. The other Ryan — Ryan Reynolds — is one of the most popular leading men in Hollywood. Ottawa’s own Sandra Oh received an Emmy nomination for her starring role in the thrilling new television series Killing Eve. So did Samantha Bee, the host and creator of the late night show Full Frontal, who discovered her love of performing right here at U of O’s outstanding theatre department.

Canadians, of course, have an unmistakeable flair for comedy.  Saturday Night Live has been produced by a Canadian (Lorne Michaels) for more than 40 years. SCTV, with legendary comedians like Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy and the late John Candy, remains a hallmark of comedy. Another unforgettable SCTV alumnus,  Martin Short, is touring a live comedy show with Steve Martin across North America.

In theatre, the Stratford production of Coriolanus by the extraordinary Quebec City theatre-maker Robert Lepage, received a rave review in the New York Times. Cirque du Soleil continues to be one of the most successful performing arts companies in history, recognized around the world for its mind-blowing circus shows. And Wajdi Mouawad, the former artistic director of the NAC’s French Theatre, now runs the national theatre in Paris, La colline.

And then, there’s music.

Drake broke new ground last month when Scorpion became the first album to have its singles spend 29 cumulative weeks at the top of the Billboard chart. The Weeknd has had eight top 10 songs on Billboard’s “Hot 100” list,  and has won three Grammys and nine Juno awards.  Canada has cornered the market on great women singers, with artists like Ariane Moffat, Tegan and Sara, Alessia Cara, Tanya Tagaq, Marie-Pierre Arthur and Iskwé — and superstars like Celine Dion, Ginette Reno, Isabelle Boulay, Shania Twain, Buffy Sainte-Marie, k.d. lang and Joni Mitchell.

And last summer, the American Repertory Theatre company in Boston produced a new hit musical inspired by Alanis Morrisette’s landmark album Jagged Little Pill.

Canadian classical musicians like Louis Lortie and Ottawa’s Angela Hewitt perform in concert halls all over the world. The late pianist Glenn Gould will remain an icon for generations of music lovers to come. And I find it fascinating that three Canadian artists have made such an indelible mark on the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, one of the most important cultural institutions in the world.  Montreal’s Yannick Nézet-Séguin is its music director, Robert Lepage dazzled New York with his Ring Cycle and Robert Carson is one of the great opera directors in the world.

Des compagnies de danse canadiennes comme Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal et la Compagnie Marie Chouinard sont parmi les meilleures au monde. Et des artistes canadiens mènent certaines des plus grandes tournées internationales cette année.

Two weeks ago, the National Ballet of Canada was in Moscow and St. Petersburg performing works by Canadian choreographers like Guillaume Côté and Crystal Pite.  Crystal Pite was also involved with Jonathan Young as they wrapped up a tour of their remarkable work called Betroffenheit that won audience and critical acclaim around the globe.  And in the spring of 2019, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, so brilliantly led by maestro Alexander Shelley, will embark on a European tour that will showcase Canadian musicians, and works by six Canadian composers.

My point in all of this is that we live in an amazing time for creativity in Canada — and all of us should be very proud of that.

That creativity is also beginning to drive the Canadian economy. Are you ready for some statistics? At $47.8 billion, the arts, culture and heritage sector is twice as large as the Canadian agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industry — and significantly larger than Canada’s hotel and food industry.

And every year, Canadians spend $1.4 billion on “live” performing arts – that’s more than twice as much as they spend on all sports events put together (including NHL hockey).

The artists — and the arts organizations — that I’ve mentioned today all have several important characteristics in common. They had the audacity to dream big dreams. They’ve had the courage to pursue those dreams. And they’ve had the tenacity to keep going until those dreams came true.

Each of you can help make this country even more dynamic, even more adventurous, even more of a player on the international stage. Each of you can contribute your creativity and your spirit of innovation.

This is a wonderful time to be a Canadian. It’s a wonderful time to be graduating. And, most of all, it’s a wonderful time to be bold and to dream big dreams.

I hope that the Canadian artists that I’ve talked about today will serve as role models for all of you,  to encourage you to avoid the comfortable, the safe and the predictable, and to inspire each of you to pursue your individual dreams with passion and great single-mindedness. This country deserves no less.

Merci beaucoup. Thank you very much for this great honour today, and have a wonderful graduation.

Back to top