Alumni shine at Celebration of Excellence
Joyful song launched the evening of performances and presentations as the choir Horizon came singing into the auditorium. The celebratory, largely a capella performance set the tone for what followed: The night was an exciting mix of presentations and performances — and the energy was palpable.
More than 300 people gathered at the Winnipeg Art Gallery on May 1 to celebrate and honour five remarkable individuals who, armed with ambition, moral courage and a University of Manitoba education, have changed — and continue to transform — the world and our communities.
The Distinguished Alumni Awards Celebration of Excellence on the evening of May 1 marks the first time the University of Manitoba has honoured five alumni in this unique way. The awards were expanded this year to five.
The event was a celebration of alumni achievements, from the design of the award (by jeweller and alumna Hilary Druxman), to the entertainment. The night featured JUNO nominated acts alumna Erin Propp [BJazz/11] in collaboration with professor Larry Roy [MMus/10] and Faculty of Law alumna Desiree Dorion [LLB/08], along with soprano Andriana Chuchman [B.Mus.(Perf.)/04], who recently performed at The MET in New York. She was accompanied on the piano by dean of the Desautels Faculty of Music, Edmund Dawe.
Other performances were by alumni, faculty and students, and included Horizon’s artistic co-directors Leanne Cooper-Carrier [B.Ed./10] and Scott Reimer [B.Ed./10] and the Mint quartet, featuring U of M alumni.
This year’s new additional awards recognize University of Manitoba graduates who have achieved outstanding accomplishments in their professional and personal lives, and who have been inspirations to fellow alumni, current students and the community. Honorees included a former refugee, a chemical weapons inspector, a Manitoba industry leader, an Indigenous community leader and a human rights scholar and advocate.
“It is always a pleasure to celebrate the accomplishments of our alumni when they achieve such a standard of excellence,” said David Barnard, President and Vice-Chancellor at the U of M. “I am confident that in the future, since they possess such remarkable talents, we will again find ourselves celebrating their contributions and successes.”
“We’re celebrating tonight because there is simply no part of our daily lives in Manitoba, in Canada and in the communities where we live, learn and work around the world, that hasn’t benefited in some way from University of Manitoba alumni,” added John Kearsey, Vice-President (external).
“And the energy here is something that I have never experienced before. It’s inspiring.”
Kearsey: ‘The energy here is something that I have never experienced before. It’s inspiring.’
“Our alumni community is brimming with exceptional, accomplished individuals, which is why we decided to expand the awards to celebrate alumni achievements in five categories,” said Heather Reichert, president of the Alumni Association of the U of M.
“We are extremely proud to honour these deserving recipients and celebrate their achievements at this inaugural event.”
The first award was handed out by President Barnard to Chau Pham, who, holding back tears, told the audience that she was humbled to accept the award and offered her “sincere thank you” to the U of M and “to all who have walked with me and who still walk with me today.”
Dr. Pham [BSc/2000, MD/2005, MBA/2013] received the University of Manitoba Distinguished Alumni Award, Young Alumni. Her hope, she said, was that she “would have been able to make some difference” through her work, and that her life work would be an example to others.
“I thank you for your belief in me and for this very humbling recognition tonight,” she finished.
Performers Erin Propp and Larry Roy were next up, performing a quietly stunning rendition of the title song from their Juno-nominated album, Courage, My Love.
Heather Reichert, president of the Alumni Association, presented the award to John Bockstael [BSc(CE)/1980].
He noted how overwhelmed he has been by the publicity — he had received congratulations on the award (as well as on his new grandchild) from so many people, he said. “It has been a true pleasure and an honour to receive this from the university that helped launch my career.
“Tonight’s recognition was not expected when I signed up to help the [Engineering] Faculty [through the Friends of Engineering (Manitoba) Inc. board],” Bockstael said. “This award will serve as a reminder to me that giving back really matters.”
Distinguished alumni awards and musical performances were interspersed throughout by U of M students who performed passages from the U of M “Trailblazer” campaign. “There’s a powerful force in this place that has shaped me,” all said. “I am a visionary and I will be the change,” one of them finished.
“Where you are shapes who you are becoming,” stated the next presenter, Janice Filmon — who was awarded a Distinguished Alumni Awards in 2005 along with her husband, former Manitoba Premier The Honourable Gary Filmon.
The awardee for Community Leadership, Bruce Miller, was described as “the kind of guy people want to follow, on a journey” and “one of those guys that gives.”
Miller told the crowd that the award is “very meaningful” to him. He also laughingly thanked the selection committee for “making the right choice.”
Acknowledging his “debt to the various people” at the U of M who instilled in him “the desire to do community service,” he also thanked the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management as well as Joanie Halas, a prof in the faculty.
Miller noted the historical disconnect between the Indigenous and mainstream philanthropy communities. “By understanding each other, we lower that historical disconnect,” he said. He dedicated the award to his wife, now deceased, and to “those who have gone before us, who set an example for us to follow every day.”
A moving musical interlude followed by Desiree Dorion, “Turn To Me.” Addressed to a child, the lyrics were, “When your whole world turns upside down, you can turn to me.”
Chancellor Harvey Secter called the performance, along with the others throughout the night, “a delightful reminder of just how multi-talented our students and alumni are.” He presented the next award, in Professional Achievement, to Nobel Peace Prize winner Scott Cairns [BSc(Maj)/2001].
Carins was one of the main leaders of Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Syria. “I’m very honoured to be here with you tonight,” he said.
“Tonight is a celebration of excellence — but for me, it’s a celebration of humanity. It’s good to be able to remind myself of that, especially given where I am right now.” Cairns flew in from work in Damascus.
Cairns: ‘Tonight is a celebration of excellence — but for me, it’s a [also] celebration of humanity.’
He said that he “is inextricably linked to that conflict now — and by recognizing me, you are inextricably linked to me…. Thank you for reminding me that we are good inside, that we are doing good for the betterment of humanity.”
Dean of the Desautels Faculty of Music Edmund Dawe performed a work by Rachmaninoff. He introduced soprano alumna Andriana Chuchman, who performed an aria from the Barber of Seville.
Introducing the piece, Chuchman explained, “When you are deeply passionate about something, nothing will stand in your way from accomplishing your desire.” You will be polite, she smiled, but “when someone hits you in that weak spot, you turn into a viper and fight for what you believe in!”
Chuchman, who has been praised for her buoyant, brilliant vocals, gave a thrilling, commanding performance.
Vice-President (external) John Kearsey followed. “This year marks the 55th year that alumni have been recognized with alumni awards,” he noted, introducing the recently appointed Senior Advisor to the University of Manitoba, Ovide Mercredi — also 2013’s Distinguished Alumni Award recipient.
Mercredi introduced the final awardee of the night, international human rights lawyer David Matas [BA/1964], who received the University of Manitoba Distinguished Alumni Award, Lifetime Achievement.
He was lauded for his “great knowledge as well as his bravery” — a “rare person who has devoted [everything] to the cause of human rights.”
Matas was lauded for his ‘great knowledge as well as his bravery’ — a ‘rare person who has devoted [everything] to the cause of human rights.’
Matas told the audience that the working title for his autobiography is Why Did You Do That? “Justifying my behaviour to myself — justifying this award is someone else’s problem. Why I accepted it, is another story.”
He noted that, “Often it’s a matter of rights against rights — in where the balance lies.” He told the audience he welcomed the opportunity to debate these and other matters at the university.
Vice-President John Kearsey invited further rounds of applause for the spoken word and musical performers, the staff involved in producing the event and the alumni honoured at the event.
To close the evening, he introduced the traditional University of Manitoba song, “The Brown & Gold,” sung by the group Mint. “Rah, rah, rah. M-A-N-I-T-O-B-A! CHEER FOR MANITOBA U!”
A reception followed the program.
International human rights lawyer David Matas [BA/1964] received the University of Manitoba Distinguished Alumni Award, Lifetime Achievement, which recognizes graduates who are distinguished in their career and in their contributions to society.
Matas’s outspoken stance on violations of human rights around the world has made him one of the world’s leading scholars and advocates of the oppressed.
Since co-authoring the report A Bloody Harvest with fellow U of M alumnus David Kilgour [BA/1962], Matas had his life threatened, saw his work labeled “extremist”, has been banned from presenting his findings in Russia’ received (with Kilgour) the 2009 Human Rights Award from the International Society for Human Rights’ and was nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. For Matas, the size of his opponent seems irrelevant; if he sees them committing crimes against humanity, he digs in his heels and takes them on.
“I never drop a human rights cause until it’s resolved,” admits Matas. “I’ll be at it until the problem disappears—or I disappear.”
Scott Cairns [BSc(Maj)/2001] received the University of Manitoba Distinguished Alumni Award, Professional Achievement, which recognizes graduates who demonstrate outstanding accomplishment in their field of endeavour.
Cairns’s passion for chemistry formed the foundation that resulted in his leading a team of weapons inspectors from the United Nations’s watchdog Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which won the Nobel Peace Prize, into the heart of Syria, seeing firsthand the effects of a brutal regime upon innocent victims of war.
Recently, while reflecting on his experiences with students at John Taylor Collegiate, his former Winnipeg high school, Cairns offered the following advice: “Avoid the comfortable.” And it is because of people like him, who step out of their comfort zone for others, that the world is that much safer.
Chau Pham [BSc/2000, MD/2005, MBA/2013] received the University of Manitoba Distinguished Alumni Award, Young Alumni, which recognizes graduates who are 35 years of age or under at the close of nominations.
Her story begins with a daring escape from oppression in her native Vietnam, pirates attacking the boat that was whisking her to safety, and two years in a Thailand refugee camp battling tuberculosis. By age seven, Dr. Chau Pham’s journey was unfurling like the trailer to a Hollywood film. Then, like a scene from a movie, she met the first of many heroes who would forever change the course of her life: a doctor from the Red Cross who gave her a clean bill of health and put her back on her path to Canada— and to freedom. An impressionable young kid, she knew in that moment she had to become a doctor. She also knew why: “The secret to happiness is in giving to others,” Pham said years later.
When she was 18 she established the charity Canadians Helping Kids in Vietnam. She continues to tirelessly work to help children with insufficient medical care.
John Bockstael [BSc(CE)/1980] received the University of Manitoba Distinguished Alumni Award, Alumni Service to the University of Manitoba, which recognizes graduates who have demonstrated superior leadership and service to the University of Manitoba.
The Bockstael name has been synonymous with construction in Manitoba for more than a century. Today, countless brick-and-mortar examples of their work dot the city and province—cementing their legacy to the community. But perhaps one of the strongest foundations ever created by the family-owned company is the one president and CEO John Bockstael helped establish at the U of M in 2008: theFriends of Engineering (Manitoba) Inc.
Beyond his commitment to ensuring the best possible education experience for tomorrow’s U of M-trained engineers, Bockstael was also actively involved in the fundraising drive that helped create the new engineering complex which opened at the U of M in 2006. Not surprising, given his family’s history of creating the spaces in Manitoba where we can successfully live, learn and play.
Bruce Miller [BRS/1999] received the University of Manitoba Distinguished Alumni Award, Community Leadership, which recognizes graduates who have significantly contributed to their community at home or abroad, making a difference to the well-being of others.
As a student and researcher in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management, Miller raised awareness around Indigenous sport and recreation. He later became involved with the North American Indigenous Games (NAIG) in 2002, helping coordinate a research complement to the athletic competition and working to establish a legacy fund that will ensure the success of the Games going forward. He will continue to build on this success as chair of the planning committee for Team Manitoba for the upcoming 2014 event in Regina.
Today, Miller heads up the Aboriginal Relations Strategy for the United Way of Winnipeg. Through this role, combined with his work on the federal government’s Urban Aboriginal Strategy, and as a founding board member of the Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples in Canada, Miller is applying an Indigenous lens to a world of charitable giving, promoting the traditional values of sharing, caring and giving that he holds closest, and helping create a meaningful new understanding of philanthropy in Canada. Miller has combined his natural gifts and his greatest passions—his Indigenous heritage, inspiring youth, sports and education—to become a champion of community building between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada and across North America.
A brief history of the award
The Alumni Association and the University have a long history of celebrating the wonderful accomplishments of alumni. The Distinguished Alumni Awards recognize University of Manitoba alumni who have achieved outstanding accomplishments in their professional and personal lives, and who have been an inspiration to fellow alumni, current students and the community.
In 1937, the Alumni Association established the Alumni Jubilee Award to commemorate the University’s 60th Anniversary and to honour a student, from any faculty, for outstanding extracurricular contributions. The Jubilee Award was redesigned and reintroduced in 1959 to honour an alumnus/alumna whose contributions to society were outstanding; it was renamed the Distinguished Alumni Award (DAA) in 1996.
In 2012, the Alumni Association, together with the University of Manitoba, recognized the importance of expanding the awards program to acknowledge more than one graduate per year. As a result, in 2014, five awards were presented, including the DAA.