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Former prime minister Paul Martin delivers a convocation address to graduates at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., on June 18, 2010. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)
Former prime minister Paul Martin delivers a convocation address to graduates at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., on June 18, 2010. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

Veterans of the convocation address share their wisdom Add to ...

Five veteran convocation speakers and one rookie share memories from their own graduations and what to expect as they prepare to don academic robes this spring to impart advice on the next generation.

Who: Paul Martin, former Liberal prime minister

Prior addresses: 10

Memory of own convocation:

The speaker was a little too close to home, literally: It was his father, former Liberal MP and cabinet minister Paul Martin Sr. “Awful. Think about it. It was awful,” Mr. Martin joked. “My father was a very powerful speaker and it was a great speech, but I can’t think of anything worse than to be graduating when your own father is giving the convocation address. Thank God he was good.”

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This spring’s roster:

Lakehead University on June 1 and University of Ottawa on June 8

What to expect:

Mr. Martin will take a page from his father’s playbook. He has studied his dad’s convocation addresses and is particularly fond of the one he delivered to Dalhousie University – on the way there, the Korean War broke out and his father delivered an impromptu speech on what the war would mean for the world. “It was simply tremendous,” Mr. Martin said of a text he read. “It’s why I believe the speeches you give should be extremely contemporaneous.” It’s why Mr. Martin plans to take on a hot-button issue that is also one of his greatest passions: the challenges facing Canada’s aboriginals. “I don’t want to be political or partisan in any of these speeches,” he said of the “two very different” addresses he’ll write, each about 10 days beforehand. “But the fact is that society is failing to come to grips with the issues raised by Idle No More.”

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Who: Jennifer Stoddart, Federal Privacy Commissioner

Prior addresses: 0

Memory of own convocation:

The address at her University of Toronto graduation was so forgettable that Ms. Stoddart does not recall the speaker, let alone the message. “After that, I boycotted my graduations,” she said. “Nobody said anything compelling to me. … I thought it was an anti-climax to some of the exciting work I had done at U of T. I was disappointed at the sendoff.”

This spring’s roster:

University of Ottawa on June 9

What to expect:

Ms. Stoddart’s message will be this: “Don’t be afraid to be innovative.” Specifically, don’t be afraid to shirk the Bay Street path for one less travelled. “Follow what you’re interested in,” Ms. Stoddart said, adding that she’ll also thank the university for the work it has done on privacy law. “It’s unfortunate if you have to follow what you think you should be doing or where you think the work is.” This is Ms. Stoddart’s first graduation address – a second chance, in a way, to have a memorable moment given her own convocation experience. She has a 500-word draft in hand, thanks in part to her long-time staff. “I told them what I wanted to say and then they presented me with a draft,” she said. “They’ve quickly translated my ideas into prose.”

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Who: Roméo Dallaire, Liberal senator and former commander of the UN mission in Rwanda

Prior addresses: 31

Memory of own convocation:

Mr. Dallaire remembers his 1969 Royal Military College of Canada convocation speaker not for what then-governor-general Roland Michener said but for what happened at the ball afterward. It had been a long, hot day spent listening to 200 cadets’ first names called out one by one. When Mr. Dallaire’s full name was called – Romualdus Antonius Johannes Loudivicus Roméo – the yawning crowd perked up, giggled and clapped. Later, at the celebration, the governor-general summoned Mr. Dallaire and said, “You’re the young man with all the rich uncles.”

This spring’s roster:

University of Winnipeg on March 3, Oregon’s Lewis & Clark College on May 18, University of Northern British Columbia on May 31 and Concordia University on June 11

What to expect:

A personal touch, especially at Concordia, where his mother was once a cafeteria cashier who then worked her way up the university ranks. He’ll tell that story and then move on to remind students they’re graduating in a “revolutionary time frame.” His most practical message will be to spend time “getting their boots or sneakers dirty” in the soil of a developing country, for it was in Rwanda that he had a compelling moment of his own. There, he saw his own then-seven-year-old son in the eyes of a child living through the genocide’s maelstrom. In closing, he’ll ask this: “Do they truly consider all humans to be human or some humans to be more human than others? If they consider all to be equal, then they should work at advancing humanity.” Mr. Dallaire never scripts his speeches, ad libbing instead. He has only blanked once, several years ago at McGill University after returning, jet-lagged and emotional, from an international tribunal on the Rwandan genocide. “I spoke from what was eating away at me at the time, which was [my post-traumatic stress disorder] that was excited by all the testimony.”

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Who: Ken Dryden, former Liberal MP and NHL goaltender

Prior addresses: 7 or 8

Memory of own convocation:

Mr. Dryden, who graduated from Cornell University with a history degree, can’t remember who delivered the address. “It was a long time ago.”

This spring’s roster:

University of Winnipeg on June 6 and Ryerson University on June 7

What to expect:

Of course, there’ll be a hockey metaphor. But there’ll also be an anecdote pegged to his own daughter’s Harvard University graduation several years ago. The sense that day is one he hopes to confer on the University of Winnipeg students: “That their present, in a lot of ways, is leading in directions that aren’t going to work – that they’re going to have to create and find a very different future.” But while he will impart a sense of urgency and ask students to reflect on the kind of life they want to live, he will also bolster their positivity. “They may be told consistently by adults and the media that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, but it isn’t,” he said. “Besides, it’s their world.”

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Who: Deepa Mehta, Oscar-nominated filmmaker

Prior addresses: 7 or 8

Memory of own convocation:

Don’t ask Ms. Mehta who spoke at her Delhi University graduation because the filmmaker wasn’t there – she was hitchhiking in Britain. “I haven’t even picked up

my degree,” she said. “Sometimes I feel that I should go and get it, but it’s probably been eaten by termites.”

This spring’s roster:

Mount Allison University on May 13, University of Alberta on June 5, Ryerson University on June 10 and Concordia University on June 11

What to expect:

Arts with a hint of politics (a bigger hint, she said, in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s home province of Alberta, where her message will not be “pro-conservative”). She said she tends to discuss issues such as arts funding but also more nebulous ideas, like the importance of imagination, which she drove home at Mount Allison. “I don’t think I should stand there being the wise old woman delivering life-changing tips on how to navigate their lives,” she said. The best address she ever heard was one she watched on YouTube, given by the late writer David Foster Wallace in 2005. “It’s brilliant because it’s funny, it’s accessible, it doesn’t talk down to students,” she said. “It’s wise and ironic at the same time.” Part of what made his address so effective is what she hopes to accomplish in her own speeches: “He took for granted that the student body is intelligent.”

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Who: Ed Clark, President and CEO of TD Bank

Prior addresses: 3

Memory of own convocation:

On this front, Mr. Clark is zero for three. “I have an embarrassing thing to say,” he prefaced. “I have three degrees and I didn’t go to any of my convocations.” Still, he took mental notes of what works and what doesn’t while at his children’s convocations and at his wife’s graduation after she earned a PhD in her 50s.

This spring’s roster:

University of Western Ontario on June 18

What to expect:

First, here’s what not to expect: anything remniscent of, as Mr. Clark put it, “the uncle that talks too much at the wedding about himself.” Instead, he’ll invoke a grandfatherly tone, sharing his own life lessons as well as those imparted by his father, an academic who founded the University of Toronto sociology department. “You face enormous pressure to look good, be successful, get ahead, do all these things, but I can tell you that when you get to the end of the journey, those are not the things you’re going to feel good about,” he said, previewing what he’ll say on June 18. He said there are some people – Mr. Dallaire among them – who could say just about anything and be interesting given their histories, but that he must work hard to ensure he makes people think, “That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about that. I should think about that.” Most importantly, though, he said he recognizes that he’s there to entertain: “They’re anxious to get off and party, and you’re between them and that party. You should be realistic about what you’re trying to accomplish.”

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