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President Barnard’s address to graduands at the 49th Annual Fall Convocation

October 20, 2016 — 

 The following is the address University of Manitoba President and Vice-Chancellor David T. Barnard delivered to graduands at the 49th Annual Fall Convocation:


Together we celebrate the achievements of you, the graduands seated before us. Congratulations.

I trust that what you have acquired here – knowledge in your chosen areas of study, the desire and ability to think critically and to learn continuously, and some dear friends – will serve you well as you take your places as leaders and contributors to society’s betterment here in Manitoba and around the world.

You embark on the next stage of your lives at a truly auspicious time.

I know everyone says that on occasions such as this one, but I think that this moment, your moment, here in this country at this time is as wide open for change as ever before, because over the past several years, we have faced some hard truths about ourselves and our history, as a nation.

And, now, we have tasked ourselves with moving forward. Together. Reconciled.

Whether you count yourselves among the recent global migrants to this country, as descendants of early settlers or later immigrants, new arrivals, or members of the Indigenous peoples, you assume your new roles of increased responsibility just as this country has an opportunity for a new beginning.

Next year Canada marks its 150th birthday. Over the same period, the University of Manitoba will reach its 140th anniversary. Causes for celebration, to be sure, and there will be plenty, here on this campus as we remember the achievements and highlights of the past 14 decades, and across the country as we pay tribute to a century and a half of nationhood.

But we need to think deeper. We need to learn from the experience and findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We need to be honest with ourselves.

Our nation’s origin story is false. It leaves out the foundational role of the First Nations peoples, the Métis, the Inuit. And their lasting contributions. It also conveniently leaves out the exploitation, duplicity and, ultimately, the cultural genocide that was perpetrated by colonizers upon Indigenous populations.

Those are serious faults upon which we cannot build a strong future.

We all – collectively – need to own that.

You all – as tomorrow’s artists, scholars, professionals – can lead the way in fixing it. We’ll have a much better nation if you do.

The same critical lens can be brought to a review of the history of this university.

As leaders in society, we might have stood up as an institution and spoken out against the Residential School system when there was still an opportunity to make a difference. We did not.

We might have lifted the pre-World War Two quota on Jewish medical students sooner. We might have made our physical spaces more accessible, our classrooms more inclusive. But we fell short.

Even with our many undeniable successes over the years –  educating Manitoba’s leaders and world game-changers, Canada’s first Chinese students, more Indigenous lawyers and social workers, teachers and engineers, than most Canadian universities – history, our history, records that all too often we failed.

We could have done better. This university can, I am proud to say, claim one particularly bright and reassuring story at its very foundation. Our first ever benefactor, Alexander Kennedy Isbister, a Métis lawyer and scholar of Cree and Scottish descent, who left $83,000 and more than 4,000 books to the University of Manitoba when he died in 1883, did so with one remarkably forward-thinking stipulation: that the money be used for scholarships and prizes for all who merited them, regardless of sex, race, creed, language or nationality.

May his act of generosity continue to inspire all of us who care about the future of this university, and in particular, you, graduands, as you build a better future for this province, this country, this world, and for yourselves. Let us learn from the lessons of the past, so that the next 140, 150 years bring dignity and prosperity to all. You are the ones who can make that happen.

There is an Indigenous way of understanding the responsibility of current generations towards future generations, from which we can all learn and benefit. It is the notion of seven generations stewardship, which originated with the Great Law of the Iroquois.

This beautiful teaching urges the current generation to think ahead seven generations as it makes important decisions.

I reference the seven generations teaching today from a place of humility and respect, and I encourage us all to learn more about the teaching from the Elders in our community who can explain it more authentically and thoroughly than I. But I think this teaching can guide us as we mark this milestone year in our nation’s and our university’s ongoing narratives.

And I ask that you all join me today in committing to making it a central purpose of the University of Manitoba’s anniversary year to understand, share and explore the truth of the seven generations teaching.

That way we can utilize the opportunity afforded by this anniversary to make a real difference.

We will share more with you about our 140th anniversary activities in the coming months, culminating in a central event on the University of Manitoba’s actual birthday on February 28, 2017. I hope you can join us.

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking with Gord Downie. We have all been moved by the courage and selflessness he has shown as he faces what will likely be his last days.

At a time when he could understandably focus on his own fate, Gord has turned his attention to difficult issues at the very core of this nation, those stemming from a reluctance to open our eyes to the residual trauma and horrible inequities suffered by Indigenous peoples.

And in his quest to address these issues, he has cited the seven generations teaching, reminding Canadians of the Elders’ counsel that it will take seven generations to heal the deep wounds of the Residential Schools.

Today, I encourage you to contemplate the words Gord Downie stated so clearly and plainly from the stage of The Tragically Hip’s summer concert in Kingston, Ontario and in September when he donated the proceeds of his latest project to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation here at the University of Manitoba: “We are not the country we thought we were.”

Graduands, what a critical and perhaps imposing, and yet amazing, time to be coming into your own as educated and informed citizens of this country, of this planet.

Please, make this the country – make this the world – we think we are.

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