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2014 Encaenia
His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston’s convocation address

His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston's convocation address

I am delighted to be here with you today, and I feel very fortunate both to receive this honorary doctorate of civil law and to be in the company of the other worthy recipients.

I have spent much of my life in academia, so to be recognized by King’s College is quite meaningful to me. It was also interesting to learn that I am not the first governor general to be presented with an honorary degree from this institution. The Duke of Connaught received one in 1912, describing the school as “one of the educational pioneers in this country, deserv[ing of] the respect of all good Canadians.”

Certainly an apt description of King’s College!

This university’s history dates back 225 years. Imagine what a fresh-faced young Canadian in 1789 would have experienced, the lessons that would have been taught, the discoveries that would lie ahead. For more than two centuries, King’s College has witnessed advances in science, astronomy, mathematics, genetics, medicine, and the very nature of the universe itself.

And King’s College and its students have proven themselves to be resilient over these past two hundred years. Take for example the massive fire in 1920, which destroyed the university, then housed in Windsor. The very continuation of this institution was in jeopardy, but instead of accepting its fate, this school fought to live another day. Since then, Halifax has been this university’s home, and this place has been your home since you began your studies.

A lot has changed over the past 225 years—indeed, a lot has changed in the past decade alone!—but this should not be surprising or concerning. After all, at its very core, the university experience is about learning and evolving.

We all come into the university experience with preconceived ideas and notions, all of which are soon challenged in this stimulating environment. Some of what we believe is reinforced, but sometimes what we learn is transformational.

You may have experienced this same transformation when presented with a case so persuasive, so convincing, so passionate, that you cannot help but be changed by it.

It could be as simple as discovering a new author or considering a new historical perspective, or as significant as a complete rethinking of career paths. No matter how small or large the transformation, the experience of learning is as enthralling for students as it is for professors.

There is power in education, and one of my fellow honorary recipients today gives us perhaps one of the most affected interpretations of this. I speak, of course, of Malala Yousafzai.

I hope the other recipients on the stage will forgive me for focusing on Malala, but her story is unique and reflects how important education is for all societies.

By now, we all know something of her story. This young woman selflessly risked her life to speak out about the importance of education, specifically for girls. For those of us here, it is difficult to imagine what it would be like to have our freedom of education taken away. But for Malala, this was a fact of life, and she was determined to change it. She has reminded us that education is an inalienable right, one worth every risk.

At her address to the United Nations last year, Malala said: “…Let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution.”

There is a lot we can learn from this young woman. And incidentally, the reason she is not physically here with us today is because she did not want to disturb her studies. I think that speaks volumes about her dedication to learning.

I am also delighted that King’s College will be launching the Malala Yousafzai Canada Scholarship. To give young women in developing nations an opportunity they would not normally receive, that is the essence of Malala’s message—and Canada’s message as well.

A quality education—like the one you received here at King’s College—can help us to grow as individuals, more confident in our beliefs and in our knowledge.

However, what you do with those beliefs and knowledge when you leave here, that is up to you.

Whatever you end up doing, wherever you end up, I encourage you to give back in any way you can. I have seen first-hand some wonderful ways in which young Canadians are making this country a better place to live.

Let me tell you a story about giving.

When I was the dean of law at the University of Western Ontario, I made a point of being the first person to meet with and speak to the incoming class of 150. I said, “you are entering a noble profession—the law—and with it comes a trust relationship, the basis of justice in our society.”

One way to promote trust is through compassionate work. Specifically, I would encourage students to take 10 per cent of their cases pro bono.

And over the years, when I had the opportunity to speak with those graduates later about their professional practice, many of them would say to me:

“Dean, I just couldn’t give 10 per cent of my time, but the 2–3 per cent that I was able to give was always the most meaningful.”

I love that story, and I love what it says about human nature and our experience of giving. Not only does giving make a difference to others, it means something to us. This kind of generosity leads to a wonderful reciprocity of giving, a virtuous circle.

There is no doubt in my mind that each of you will leave your mark on Canada.

All of you here owe thanks to those first King’s College students, who entered the university 225 years ago filled with hopes and dreams and ideals. Though that first class was small, the students’ aspirations were not. And with each subsequent class, through years both lean and stout, these young Canadians have given back to their communities, solidifying the reputation of Canada’s east coast as an innovative and transformational place to study.

I would like to leave you today with the same message I have delivered to countless young people all across Canada. There are those who would say that you are the leaders of tomorrow. But that is simply not the case. You are already leaders today. You are changing Canada, you are making a difference.

Whether you plan to study further or enter the workforce, whether you stay in Halifax or move to other provinces or countries, I know that you will take all that you learned here with you.

Use your talents, use your passion, use your knowledge, use your kindness, use your creativity, use everything that you have at your disposal to do good in this world. Because when you do—when we all do—we build a fairer, smarter, more caring society.

Thank you and good luck to you all.