Skip to main content

Each year, honorary graduates share their wisdom and experience with a new cohort of university and college graduates. Here are excerpts from speeches by some of the Canadian arts figures that were honoured this spring:

Charles Foran, award-winning author, CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship

University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto

Open this photo in gallery:

Charles Foran.Sarah Faulkner

A few years ago, the British novelist Zadie Smith was asked by a CBC interviewer about the purpose of art – what art can achieve. She replied that Canada knew the answer to this question already. It’s right there, she said, on your currency.

The answer, according to Smith, was then in very small print on our 20-dollar bill. It was a quote from the Québécois novelist Gabrielle Roy.

“Could we ever know each other in the slightest,” Roy asked, “without the arts?”

Many artists, and certainly most novelists, have their own variation on this insight: that art helps humans know – or perhaps know better – other humans. That it reminds us we are surrounded by creatures with identical DNA and story lines, and that being mindful of these truths, and acting upon them however and whenever we can, is good for our souls and for our species.

Now, you can go your entire life without reading a novel and still be a fine person. You can. But it would be a pity. Novels and stories make it so easy, so natural, to dwell inside the lives and minds of others, and to learn how they think and dream, hope and pray.

Novels and stories deny overriding differences between us, at every level – race, gender, geography, history. Instead, they keep repeating: Look, you are right here, and I am right here, and there is no gap between us. Not if you are being honest. Not if you are being humble.

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, inaugural recipient of the Governor-General Award in Landscape Architecture

Concordia University

Open this photo in gallery:

Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.Eric Thayer/The Globe and Mail

My career has brought great opportunities, dishing out challenges and successes in equal measure. Since I was a child, always looking for inspiration, needing respite from the details of my professional years, the natural world continues to draw me outside.

Try to remember, when the noise is too great and the demands endless – find a place where the birds are singing, where the rising sun will touch your face, where the dirt of the earth will stick between your toes. Maintaining a connection to the land, the waters and the sky is vital to nurture yourself and your work […]

I believe that many of you already know the power of one among many: Your individual intentions, paired with those around you, have yielded great results in your studios and seminars. With this same spirit of supporting one another through successes and failures, remember to listen to each other and you will meet the challenges of tomorrow. So, go forth with courage into this new world, equipped with both local and global aspirations, which challenge you to perform at your best.

Take the words of Buckminster Fuller, the great architect and futurist: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Terry Mosher, (a.k.a. Aislin), Montreal Gazette cartoonist

Concordia University

So, what can a high-school dropout like myself possibly have to say to so many bright, engaged, students upon graduation? […]

Anthony Bourdain, may he rest in peace – a public figure that so many of us came to admire – claimed that curiosity was his only virtue.

So the only genuine advice that I can give you collectively is this: Follow your nose. Find something that interests you. And then, find out everything you can about it. Become passionate about the subject […]

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. That from Dorothy Parker, God bless her.

Mark Rowswell (a.k.a. Dashan), Chinese-language comedian

University of Alberta

Open this photo in gallery:

Mark Rowswell.University of Alberta

My comedy is not about accentuating the differences, exaggerating stereotypes for comedic effect. It’s about breaking through that and trying to provide a new perspective, one that’s more shaped by common experience between me, as someone who’s not Chinese, breaking through the language barrier and trying to find commonality with the audience that we can laugh about together.

I decided to focus on this point, because in the 30 years since my own convocation, the world has become more global – the “global village” – as we expected. But I have to admit I’m surprised that it’s also become much more tribal. We thought the internet was going to bring people together, but it increasingly seems to have pulled us apart, as social media and digital algorithms divide us into silos of like-minded people […]

I hope your University of Alberta education will allow you to move beyond that. Be proud of your heritage, your culture, your identity, your tribe, but not to the exclusion of others. That pride comes from within, not in comparison or contrast to others.

Dave Pierce, Emmy-winning songwriter, composer

University of Calgary

There are very few ceremonies in our culture that celebrate someone’s mentors and that brings them all together. Today is special to me for this reason. Last May, I was invited to take part in a sweat lodge near Blackfoot Crossing. The significance of living together on Treaty 7 land is an important step to community awareness, one that I wanted to better understand. A sweat is a ceremony that is led by an Elder. The particular sweat I attended was lead by the elder of an Indigenous friend I was working with. I was enamoured with my friend’s description each time he would reference his Elder as truly “his Elder.” As we built a sweat lodge out of saplings, I met the eight others who would soon be crowded into the small dome. Inside a sweat lodge is dark, hot, crowded, and you can’t get up to use the bathroom without disrupting the whole ceremony.

This experience of several generations, from diverse backgrounds, acknowledging each others’ journeys taught me an invaluable lesson in community. We were celebrating the essence of mentorship through ceremony. That day I gained an awareness that we are our future great-grandchildren’s ancestors. And therefore mentors. Because of my experience at the sweat, I asked many of my mentors to attend this ceremony today and I knew I’d be sweating enough in this gown.

Interact with The Globe