GRAY, Charlotte

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Discours

Veuillez noter que les discours sont publiés dans la langue dans laquelle ils ont été présentés.

Chancellor Labelle, President Patry, professors, parents – and most important, graduates.

Tout d’abord, j’aimerais vous dire, particulièrement aux gens sur la scène avec moi, qu’il me fait grand plaisir de recevoir un doctorat honorifique de l’Université canadienne, Canada’s University. As someone who has embraced the history of Canada, I am deeply moved to be part of an old and venerable institution, which owes so much to that remarkable priest, Joseph-Henri Tabaret. You know, an extraordinary quality of vigorous optimism built this country, and Father Tabaret had it in droves. In the mid-nineteenth century, Canada was a small, conflict-ridden colony with really nasty linguistic and religious conflicts. And there was no money for post-secondary education. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Did this deter Father Tabaret? Not a whit. He turned a small theological school into a mighty university.

His legacy is this institution, which symbolizes so much that is best about Canada – not just its bilingualism, and its determination to be a leader in research, innovation, and teaching, but also in its inclusiveness. I love the fact that you can boast of faculty and students originating from more than 150 countries. I am blown away to be accepted into an academic community that, in past years, has welcomed not only almost every Prime Minister and Governor General of Canada, but also John Lennon.


But I also want to speak very directly to my fellow members of the graduating class of 2005. I have something important to say – but don’t worry, I will keep it short. Vous avez travaillé tellement fort pour atteindre cet objectif que cela se doit d’être célébré. Le temps n’est pas aux longs discours!

It is, however, a time to realize something very important. It is time to realize that you are already part of history – the history of this institution, this country, your communities. You may be the first person from your family, your ethnic group, or your region, to attend this university. Your name may be on a plaque on the wall somewhere on this campus, commemorating a special achievement. You are now part of a group that is entering Canadian society, well-qualified to be citizens and to weave your thread into the national fabric. As Edmund Burke, the political philosopher, once said, “History is a pact between the dead, the living and the yet unborn.” History is not just about yesterdays, or dead people: it is a fluid continuum – and you are part of it.

You know, as Canadians, we have done a terrible job of marking and celebrating our history. We are too diffident and anxious about it. We are worried that it isn’t as “good” as the history of other countries – although “good” in this context often means as blood-drenched, or as long, or as imperial, or as class-ridden. We have a long history that starts with the arrival of the first aboriginal peoples, includes the establishment of modern Canada on a foundation of “peace, order and good government”, and will not end with the political turmoil of today. And it is our history that makes us unique, in a world that is rapidly being homogenized by the likes of Starbucks, the Gap, and the Simpsons. It is our history that defines us – not hockey. Look how well we’ve managed without a hockey season!

And Canada’s history is often surprising. Let me give you two facts that contradict our self-image as a prim, tentative people.

First Fact: One of the first pieces of pornography in the whole of North America was published in Montreal in 1836. It was supposedly by a woman called Maria Monk, and the title was Awful Disclosures of … Five Years as a Novice and Two Years as a Black Nun in the Hotel Dieu Nunnery at Montreal.  This slim, and obviously fictional, Canadian book was the all-time American bestseller until 1852, when Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published.

Second Fact: Canada, as a nation, is often described by more testerone-driven societies as being as bland as Pablum. You know, that’s just fine – because we’ve taken bland to the bank. Pablum is the miracle baby food that was developed in Canada in the 1930s by researchers at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. In the pre-Pablum era, around one in six Canadian infants died because of disease or malnutrition. Pablum reduced infant mortality rate dramatically because it was a wonder-food, containing all the calories, vitamins and minerals that growing babies need. More important, the royalty on world-wide sales of Pablum triggered an explosion of medical research.

Maybe these fascinating factoids smack of MacHistory – easily digested nuggets bearing scant relation to the broader themes of our past. I would argue, however, that each tells a much bigger story. That early piece of pornography demonstrates the power of the church in nineteenth century Quebec – and Father Tabaret, unlike poor Maria Monk, used that power to great effect. The story of Pablum is part of the larger story of Canada’s rapid transformation in the mid-twentieth century, from an impoverished and scattered rural society into a sophisticated urban nation with first class intellectual institutes. And this university is a key player in the network of intellectual institutes. Regardons seulement le travail accompli par l’Institut de cardiologie de l’Université d’Ottawa ou le rôle de l’Université dans le développement de projets en Afrique, en Asie ou en Amérique du Sud.

Wherever you come from, this is your history. But you bring something unique to it too. You bring your stories – the stories of your families, and how you all came to be here. So I want to ask you to do something: I want you to take the time, in the next few weeks and months, to ask your parents and grandparents for their stories. Get to know them. You never know when they'll be gone for good. Write down those stories, or better still, tape or video-tape your parents telling them, so that your children and grandchildren will be able to hear their voices. The richness of Canadian history comes from the extraordinary diversity of stories like theirs. We are losing our history, and our sense of who we are, because too many of us don’t understand that, in the deepest sense of the words, History Is Us. Now it is your opportunity to contribute to our history – our story. Make it a good story.
So that’s my message to you. Value our history, and accept that, wherever we come from, we are all part of it.

Now, it may seem odd, on the day when I know many of you are looking towards the future, to talk of the past. But today’s graduates will be shaping tomorrow’s world.

That’s a tall order, isn’t it – shaping tomorrow’s world. But I will leave you with one last thought. I remember that ghastly feeling, the day after my graduation, when I realized that this was the first day of the rest of my life.  Je n’avais aucune idée de ce que j’allais faire. Je n’aurais jamais deviné que j’allais déménagé dans un nouveau pays et que j’allais finir par écrire sur les politiques et l’histoire de ce dernier.
Since then, I’ve discovered that many of the most interesting people I know didn't know, when they were 21 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 50-year-olds I know still don't. So don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do next. As graduates of the University of Ottawa, you are superbly equipped to start writing the next chapter of your lives. And if you know your roots, you’ll find it is easier to grow. That is true for you as individuals, and for our country.

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