Delivered May 23, 2019
Professors and administrators,
Honorary degree recipients Dale Gladsoe and Bruce Gordon,
Families, friends, and especially graduands,
Thank you for welcoming me to the University of King’s College, for this honorary doctorate, and for the opportunity to congratulate you, the graduands, on this special day.
I have come many times to Nova Scotia, and to the University of King’s College. I thank you and the people of this fine province for making my wife Miranda and me so much at home here.
I want to acknowledge that we are gathered in the traditional territory of the Mi’kmaq people. We are also in a land that was settled, later, by the Loyalists – including the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia, with whom I share an intense connection as friend, supporter and writer.
To the graduands today, let me say that I hope each one of your finds your own unique ways to purse life with energy, passion, intellect, and consideration for other people here in your own communities, and around the country and the world.
It is impolitic to offer specific advice. My own daughter Evangeline Freedman is among you today.
Through her and my other children, I’ve learned that effective parenting means offering support without getting too specific about what to do or what not to do. However, I’ll go out on a limb and say this:
A liberal arts education does not mean only reading and admiring dead white men, and part of it actually involves connecting in real and thoughtful ways to the place, history, literature and culture where you live.
As you know, and as Dale Gladsoe mentioned at dinner last night, the University of King’s College was founded in 1789. Slavery was still alive and well in Nova Scotia at the time, and only six years earlier, 3,000 Black Loyalists had arrived here after fleeing New York City at the end of the American Revolutionary War.
When I was researching The Book of Negroes, I spent hours poring over paperwork and records in the humble, tiny archives of the Black Loyalist Heritage Society in Shelburne, on the south shore of Nova Scotia. Shortly after I learned many details about The Book of Negroes and other elements of Black history here, an arsonist burned the Society and its archives to the ground.
Until that point, the Society had a tiny budget, which it raised through local fundraisers and bake sales.
But after they were burned down, they came back with a vengeance and spent many years raising millions of dollars to create the fabulous Black Loyalist Heritage Centre Museum.
So, as for my one word of specific advice: go see that Museum. It’s in Shelburne –practically in your own back yard. Learn for yourself about the hundreds of years of African-Nova Scotian history. Do not be that quintessential Canadian who knows more about African-American history than about our own past and present in this province and nation. Defy the stereotype. Slavery, segregation, and Black resilience, survival, contemporary Black literature and societal contributions on all levels are part of Canadian history. As I have learned, they are also colourful, dramatic, and make for good reading, writing and filmmaking. So go enjoy the Museum and the stories behind it.
Now. Back to that fine line between telling you neither what to do nor what not to do.
I had to juggle with that issue when my daughter Evangeline Freedman came into my life. She was six years old, and her book inhaling personality was fully formed before we met. She was already devouring several books a day – reading them, and understanding them concretely – when she was six years old.
As she approached adolescence, Evangeline’s high-powered vocabulary began to, shall we say, veer into more colourful territory. She began to swear like a sailor. Where she got these words, I cannot tell you. I did not know half of them. She let loose every S- and F- bomb known to humankind, and she invented every manner of cuss word too.
Many of her most colourful inventions involved compounding existing cuss words that had never before been paired. I couldn’t say so at the time, but now confess that on this complicated point, I admired her literary dexterity.
However, as her dad, I found Evangeline’s litany of cuss words intolerable at the family dinner table.
But I also knew that my new daughter would not comply with a verbal request to cut it out. As for commands – well, has anybody in this room met with any success issuing commands to Evangeline Freedman?
So I came up with a strategy. I offered a peace plan.
Eve would be allowed to swear to hear heart’s content anywhere in the house … except on the first floor where we cooked and ate and gathered as a family.
Eve found this prospect liberating. She tested me out. She stood on the first step leading up to her bedroom and let it rip, full throttle. She escaped any parental consequences. She tried it out in the basement, where again she went unpunished. In the safety of her bedroom, she released a full paragraph in which every verb, noun, adverb and preposition was converted into a swear word. Nobody broke down her door. And from that moment on, Evangeline Freedman ceased to cuss on the first floor of our home. For a while, at least.
As you can imagine, if you can negotiate a satisfactory compromise in your own family, you can negotiate pretty well anything.
So, to you as graduands, perhaps if and when you choose to bring children into the world or to raise and love children born well before you met them, you might consider not only reading to them, because what greater gift of love can you give a child than sitting and reading with them ? You also might want to negotiate a family contract with regard to the use of four letter words.
My own opinion on the matter is that there is a time and place for every word in the English language – it’s merely a matter of calculating the heart and heft of each word, and knowing which ones are fit for the family room.
One of the reasons I have always been wary of telling people – you as graduands included – what to do is that I never listened to my own parents in that respect.
My own black father and white mother married interracially in Washington DC in 1953. They left the United Stated and drove the Canada the day after they married. Canada became their adoptive country, and they stayed here until they died.
As the son of immigrants, I can assure you that the last thing any self-respecting immigrant to Canada wants is to see their child become a novelist.
Immigrant parents are looking for their children to become doctors … lawyers …engineers … architects … anything to insulate the children from the social, racial and economic vicissitudes the parents fled in their own home countries.
My mother was so suspicious of this writing business of mine that she kept a quote from the American novelist Philip Roth permanently posted to her refrigerator door.
“When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.”
I became a writer anyway, and have always felt that it is my true working passion, and I hope that you too find your passions. You may find it challenging to pursue them if your parents have different values, but you only live once. You must be accountable to yourselves.
Still, your passions may change as the years advance. Some people think they have a passion, and flame out or find it goes nowhere, and then in the ashes of disaster – a phoenix, which becomes their new and lasting passion, takes flight.
In fact, when parents tell children that they can do anything they want if they just set their hearts and minds on it, it’s actually a big fat lie. Not everybody can become the astronaut who goes to the moon, or the one who wins the Nobel Prize or the Olympic Gold medal or who makes it to the NHL or dances for the National Ballet.
I shot for the Olympics as a competitive long distance runner, but couldn’t even win regional races in Ontario. After years of that pointless pursuit, I switched to recreational jogging and began to write and write and write.
You too may find – or may have already found — that the first thing you dream about doesn’t pan out. Don’t worry. Just pivot, gather yourself and keep going. The next passion will reveal itself, if you carry on.
It is customary to challenge graduands, if only for a moment, in this very significant day.
So here is my challenge to you.
Open your eyes to global realities. The UN notes that nearly 70 million people today are displaced. They have fled violence and persecution and find themselves often trapped – in their own countries, in neighbouring lands, or overseas – without the ability to move forward peacefully and carry on as legal citizens in a land that will accept them.
Regardless of your politics … regardless of how you vote … there is no denying that displaced peoples are on the move. Some of them are moving toward us, desperately hoping for sanctuary.
We have a big country. In my opinion, we have room for many more people, who will help to continue building this country as newcomers always have. Aside from the Mi’kmaq and other Indigenous people, we are all relative newcomers to Canada.
Some displaced people are moving precisely because we in Canada have been involved in bombing them (think Afghanistan) or have participated in other ways to impair their economy, safety or possibilities in life.
One of our measures as Canadians is how we have, and how we will continue to respond to our global brothers and sisters who are fleeing danger and possible deaths.
Will we provide them with the possibility for peaceful, productive lives before they die of starvation or bombs or state-sponsored torture?
Sometimes we have fallen far short of the mark. Consider our response as a nation in 1939, when we refused to allow the ship MS St Louis to land in Canada. The ship was carrying 937 Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust, and we did not allow them entry. We sent them back to Europe, where more than 200 were put to death in concentration camps.
On the other hand, we have occasionally taken extraordinary measures to welcome refugees.
For example, we welcomed thousands of Asian and Muslim people after Idi Amin, one of the most brutal dictators of the 20th century, expelled them from Uganda in 1972. And in recent years, we have gone the extra mile to welcome thousands of Syrians who were fleeing civil war.
I have just filed an essay to The Globe and Mail about a new memoir called No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani. Boochani is a Kurdish Iranian who was born into war, and had to flee violence and persecution in his own country. He paid smugglers to put him on a boat in Indonesia and to try to sneak over the Pacific to the coast of Australia, where he hoped to find safety and a new life.
However, Australian authorities intervened. They jailed Boochani, along with thousands of others seeking to enter Australia without permission, in offshore detention facilities—jails conveniently located outside Australian territory – in the island state of Nauru and on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Between 2013 and 2016, the Australian government spent nearly $10 billion dollars (that is about $9 billion Canadian) detaining thousands of refugees in offshore facilities where they have been denied adequate food, water, shelter or medical assistance.
Some of these refugees have died in detention, and many others have attempted to die by suicide.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN have all condemned this brutal practise, which is designed to punish people for trying to sneak into Australia and to deter others from trying. But Australia carries on, and after the national elections just a few days ago, shows no sign of changing paths.
Australia is not alone in its gross mistreatment of asylum seekers.
President Donald Trump’s administration has separated thousands of children from their migrating parents at the US-Mexico border, and many of these families remain unable to find each other or to reunite.
In Canada, we have jailed some asylum seekers for years simply because we did not know where to send them.
We also have a history – something we fall victim to it, and other times we rise above it — of doing everything in our ability to bar entry to non-white immigrants and refugees.
In a time of mounting hysteria and paranoia with regard to the arrival of migrants in developed nations, Behrouz Boochani reminds us that 68.5 million displaced people in the world today are the same as us. Read his memoir. It has already won four literary prizes in Australia, and will be published next month in Canada.
As for displaced peoples — we are them, and they are us. We could be in their shoes, tomorrow. And tomorrow, hopefully, at least some of them will be renewing their lives among us here in Canada. There is moral obligation at stake, but there is also self-interest.
Here in our own country, which is almost entirely comprised of people who are or descend from immigrants, today’s refugee will be tomorrow’s civil engineer, Giller-Prize winning novelist, high school mathematics teacher, cardiac surgeon, federal Cabinet Minister, or student or professor at the University of King’s College.
So my call to you, as graduands, is to open your eyes and your hearts to our global citizens, and to use your own moral compass to do the right thing.
Sometimes, I have found in my own life, travelling to work, study or volunteer in places where I am not comfortable, and where I am not like the people I am living with, has been one of the best ways to discover and pursue my own passions and to try to be a good person.
Live well, and live beautifully, and do everything you can to make each day count not just globally, but in the way you live among and love the people in your life, here and now.
That is all I have to offer in the way of advice.
You have reached an incredible day in your lives. Congratulations!
And thank you.