Archived - Notes for the Convocation Address at Concordia University
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Montréal, June 19, 2012
Graham Fraser - Commissioner of Official Languages
Check against delivery
Beginning of dialog
Mr. President and Vice-Chancellor
Mr. Chair of the Board of Governors
Honoured Platform Guests
Family and Friends
Let me begin by saying how honoured I am to receive this degree from Concordia. One of the immense privileges of my role as Commissioner of Official Languages has been to learn what universities are doing with and for the communities in which they live. And it has been a particular pleasure to see the inception and growth of the Quebec English-speaking Communities Research Network, an impressive initiative launched within the School of Extended Learning to enhance the vitality of Quebec's English-speaking communities.
It is a tradition that recipients of honorary degrees give the graduates some benefit of their experience in the form of advice. I must say, I was impressed by the remarks of David Golden, a renowned former deputy minister in Ottawa, who was given an honorary degree when he was in his nineties. He said “I accepted this because most people think I am dead. I was told to be short; that won’t be a problem. I was also told to give you advice. I’m not going to do that. Go out and make your own damn mistakes!”
Well, I won’t be that short. And, while I don’t intend to give you advice, exactly, let me at least share with you some of the things I have learned over the years that you might find useful.
To begin with, your graduation year has coincided with one of the most remarkable social events in recent times. I graduated in 1968, and the phrase “mai ‘68” still echoes as a symbolic marker of social protest in the 1960s.
Your student president remarked that the John Molson School was not as affected over the past few months by the strike as other parts of the university were. Nevertheless, you have been in a position to see how the events have unfolded. Whatever your sympathies on the issues at stake, I encourage you to think seriously about the events of 2012. As business graduates, you are emerging from university at a particularly interesting time. Montréal, Quebec and Canada are all going through challenging times, but no more than the rest of the world.
Part of the challenge for any entrepreneur or manager is balancing a number of contradictory pressures: the requirements of the company and the desires of employees; the long-term needs and the short-term requirements; the necessity of making a profit and the welfare of the community.
You have probably already learned that a strike is painful, emotional and divisive, but it also creates solidarity and a sense of community. Some of the significant social changes in Canadian history have emerged from strikes, whether they were successful or unsuccessful in achieving their goals. The Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, the Asbestos Strike in 1949, the Radio-Canada strike of 1959, and the Quebec student movement of the 1960s shaped a generation of leaders in the public and private sectors in Quebec.
I do not dare prophesy what the long-term impact of the student strike of 2012 will be, but I expect it will be extremely significant for your generation. Reflect on it, and try to understand it – regardless of whether you support it or not.
I mentioned the sense of community that is forged in a strike.
As Commissioner of Official Languages, I have been able to see what a rich contribution community organizations make to civil society and to enriching our communities, whether by serving meals to the homeless, celebrating Canada Day, volunteering at art galleries or writing for community newspapers.
The explosion of new technologies has led some to worry they may undermine our sense of community. Robert Putnam expressed this fear most clearly in his book Bowling Alone. Yet, while the distinction between real friends and Facebook friends may have eroded the understanding of true friendship, it is unquestionable that social media have provided new ways for people to form communities.
This has sometimes been misunderstood. At one point during the events in Tahrir Square in January 2011, the authorities thought they could put an end to the demonstrations by cutting off access to social media. Instead, thousands of people who had been following the Arab Spring at home on their laptops or smartphones poured onto the street.
This desire for a sense of community, whether in the neighbourhood, the workplace, a political party or a community group, is, I think, a sign of a healthy society. Participation is not only personally satisfying; it enriches the world in which we live.
As business graduates, you may wonder if I am talking to the wrong audience and if I should be delivering these remarks to the School of Social Work. But the most successful companies are those that develop sensitivity to their customers, their employees and their public environment, and treat them like a community. I am thinking of companies ranging from Apple to Xerox, including Desjardins, Fairmont and Toyota.
Here in Montréal, you are deeply fortunate: your experience here at Concordia has been one of great cultural diversity in a city that is the incarnation of linguistic duality.
The success of comedian Sugar Sammy—who cheerfully mocks everyone in both official languages—is proof that the language tensions of yesteryear are a matter for both laughter and policy debate.
The English-speaking communities in Quebec have evolved enormously over the last four or five decades, and Montréal’s cultural vitality is a testimony to the richness of their contribution. Concordia is living proof of this evolution, in its diversity, its academic excellence and its bilingualism.
If you have learned French, you have access to an extraordinarily vibrant cultural, social and political society; if you have not, it is not too late. And the very process of learning your second or third language will expand your horizons, increase your social and interpersonal skills, and give you new perceptions. The summer I learned French, when I was 19, I was working on a student project, and a fellow student, who was herself perfectly bilingual, said “You’re very different in French than you are in English.” I snapped “Of course I am different! I am stupid, I am inarticulate, and I have no sense of humour!” And, in saying that, I realized this was the immigrant experience: coming to a new society and learning the language and the customs, unable to learn as quickly, express intelligent thoughts or get the jokes. So in learning French, I not only learned about my country, but also developed a new sensitivity to immigration and cultural diversity.
Another thing I have learned as Commissioner of Official Languages is that language mastery is a leadership competency. It is difficult to manage employees, serve customers, coach hockey players or deal with the public if you do not speak their language. So in many working environments in Canada—and around the world—speaking more than one language is increasingly important for business success. You are also uniquely positioned to promote the use of both official languages in business.
There is a tendency to assume that one learns most from success, that positive reinforcement after doing something well makes it easier to advance and do it better. This view is at the core of certain educational theories about self-esteem.
I have to say, one of the events in my professional life that taught me the most was being fired. Not, I must add, for misconduct – I was not what is now called “the right fit”.
I learned that, when things go badly at work, there is a natural tendency to scramble the information, to say the problem has been solved when it hasn’t, or to think a supervisor must simply be in a bad mood or be having a bad day.
I learned that those who get fired—and this applies to business executives and cabinet ministers as well as employees—are usually the last to know. Certainly, I was. Everyone around me had it figured out; I didn’t.
So I learned to be more aware of my work environment, more sensitive to what was going on around me, more understanding of those who were in trouble and didn’t know it.
You are on the edge of a new and important phase of your lives, and the next stage of learning, whether in academe, in the workplace or in life. I learned something about the value of community, the importance of learning another language and the lessons of failure.
To paraphrase David Golden, go out and learn your own life lessons.
Thank you very much.