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The Honourable Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella and Israel Idonije, Honorary Degree recipients

Supreme Court Justice, NFL player honoured at Convocation 2014

June 5, 2014 — 

The highest honour the Senate of a University can confer upon an individual is an honorary doctorate.  At the University of Manitoba the criteria include distinguished achievement in scholarship, the arts, or public service.

At  Spring Convocation 2014, the University of Manitoba will award eight honorary degrees to remarkable individuals.

The recipients of this honour at the June 5 ceremonies are The Honourable Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella and Israel Idonije.


The Honourable Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella

BA (Toronto); LLB (Toronto); classical piano (Royal Conservatory)

The Honourable Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella

The Honourable Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella

In this year of the Centennial of the Faculty of Law, and of the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, in this province with a long and deep history of human rights struggles, at this University with its commitment to human rights teaching and research, it is fitting that our recipient of an honorary doctor of laws is Supreme Court of Canada Justice, Rosalie Silberman Abella.

She has devoted seemingly limitless passion, energy and intellect to all that she does but particularly to human rights.  She has said that “one of the psychological legacies of having a Holocaust background like mine, is that you take nothing and no one for granted and you appreciate that it’s not just what you stand for, it’s what you stand up for….Without democracy, there are no rights; without rights there is no tolerance; without tolerance there is no justice; and without justice, there is no hope.”

Justice Abella was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany just after the end of the Second World War.  She and her family came to Canada as Jewish refugees in 1950.  Twenty years later she had earned both an Arts degree and a law degree from the University of Toronto.  She was called to the bar in Ontario in 1972 and was appointed a judge in the Ontario Family Court in 1976, the youngest judicial appointment in Canada; she was seven months pregnant with her younger son when she was appointed. She was the sole commissioner of the 1984 federal Royal Commission on Equality in Employment and the theories of equality and discrimination she developed became the foundation of the Supreme Court’s first decision about equality rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1989.  In 1992, she was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal and in 2004 was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Justice Abella is known and loved in this city.  She spoke last February at the retirement of Chief Justice Scott, in 2006 she visited and spoke at the Faculty of Law and met with members of the Jewish community, and in 2004 she came to receive the Tarnoplosky Award for Human Rights at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Bar Association.  While she has been a great champion for human rights, she is so much more. She is a champion for humanity.  She is a lover of the arts, an accomplished pianist who graduated from the Royal Conservatory.  She has served as a judge for the Giller literary prize, and has a remarkable collection of art hanging on the wall of her office.  When she spoke to our law students, she reminded them that they must make time to read great literature and poetry, to play or listen to music and spend time with their loved ones.  Law serves people, and law students and lawyers must never forget their own humanity.

The University of Manitoba is proud to recognize The Honourable Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, who has enriched our society with her integrity, bold ideas and humane service.


Israel Idonije

Israel Idonije

Israel Idonije

While quarterbacks in the National Football League have scrambled to escape his grasp, thousands of young people in Winnipeg, Chicago and West Africa have found comfort and hope in a hug from Israel “Izzy” Idonije.

A feared defensive lineman, and a humble humanitarian, Mr. Idonije is an extraordinary study in contrast.

Mr. Idonije is the only Manitoban, and former Bison football player, to ever suit up in the NFL. His career spans more than a decade, and during that time the 33-year-old has experienced something few of his professional peers ever will: playing in football’s ultimate competition—the Super Bowl—in 2007.

He has debunked the myth that kids from Canada can’t crack the NFL, and it’s a message he shares with current Bison football players each time he returns home: “I don’t care where you’re from, you should set your goal for the highest possible achievement,” says Mr. Idonije.

Impressive as his on-field accomplishments are, Mr. Idonije has never let his career define him. He calls his status as a professional athlete his “platform”, and uses it as the foundation for what has been a lifelong endeavor: community service.

For his charitable work, Mr. Idonije has received numerous honours, including being recognized at the White House by President Barack Obama and former President George H.W. Bush as a Daily Points of Light Awardee in 2013.

Since 2007, the primary vehicle for Mr. Idonije’s philanthropic activities has been the Israel Idonije Foundation. It focuses on kids in underserved communities in the three places Mr. Idonije considers home: West Africa, where the foundation delivers humanitarian aid; Winnipeg, where it hosts an annual All-Star Football Camp in Winnipeg; and Chicago, where it leads a variety of after-school, mentorship and community-relations-building activities.

In recent years, Mr. Idonije has branched out beyond the work of his foundation to reach kids in different ways – like starting a comic book series called The Protectors. As an entrepreneur, Mr. Idonije builds brands and opportunities reflective of his own diverse interests. The end result always has a positive impact.

Mr. Idonije’s childhood experiences helped forge his identity. His family immigrated to Brandon, Manitoba, from Lagos, Nigeria, when he was four. His father Henry and mother Choice, both Christian missionaries, didn’t have much money, but they exposed young Israel Idonije to the wealth one realizes through selfless acts of charity.

Inspired by those early experiences, Mr. Idonije’s personal investment in his foundation today goes far beyond lending his fortune or fame to the organization. His work with kids parallels his role on the football field. In both, he is an indomitable presence on the front line. To both, he commits himself 100 percent.

Mr. Idonije was traded from the Chicago Bears in 2013 but not only did he continue his work in Chicago, he also looked to get involved with youth in Detroit.  After only being in Detroit for a few weeks, he teamed up with an alternative school and began an incentive-based program to help them make improvements in school.

He was re-signed to Chicago for the 2014 season and last summer he joined Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a bet with kids who are part of the Rahm’s Readers literacy program. The bet: If the kids collectively read more than two million books during the summer, the duo would take the traditional Polar Plunge the following spring.

The kids won the wager.

This past March, Mr. Idonije made good on his promise, joining Emanuel and TV talk show host Jimmy Fallon for a frosty dip in Lake Michigan. The water hovered around the zero degree mark, but the smile on Mr. Idonije’s face told the cameras that there’s no place he’d rather be and nothing he wouldn’t do for the kids he loves.

The University of Manitoba is proud to award an Honorary Doctorate of Laws to such an inspiring, selfless role model who is committed to achieving excellence in all his endeavours.


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