Gordon S. Earle's Convocation Address

Well thank you very much, I’m very very pleased to be here today; and I thank King’s for the honour that it has bestowed upon me today by way of honorary degree. You know, when I first knew that I was going to be receiving the award I called my eldest daughter, who was living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and I told her. Her response was, “Wonderful dad. Does that mean you’re going to have to give a speech?” And I said, “Well, I don’t think so. Maybe I’ll be thanking them for it,” I said, “but I don’t…I’m just going to go there, relax, enjoy myself, and enjoy the honor that’s been bestowed upon me.” Well that was not to be the case. Shortly after that the honourable president of the university called me and asked me if I would consider giving the convocation address, and of course what could I say but certainly; I’d be glad to do so.

The thing I find about being the last of the program uh is that everything you’re about to say has been said by others before. But then I’ve always felt that if something is worth saying once it’s worth being repeated, so I’m going to congratulate all of you students who graduated today. You have begun on the next step of your journey of life so this is—you’ve probably heard the expression—today is the first day of the rest of your life. And indeed it is. What counts today and from there on in. So you’re graduating into a world today where there are all kinds of problems. And I shouldn’t have to tell you what they are because they’ve been on the news: we have concerns about our health care system; we’ve come through about two and a half years of COVID-19; and just as we get through that we hear news of another strange virus monkeypox and we think oh no, when will we ever return to normal? I think the reality is that what we are facing today will be our normal and we have to continue to meet the challenges of the day. So we look around at our world and we see so many changes with respect to climate change; we see many species being eliminated or becoming endangered because of their habitat being ruined by the things that are happening environmentally. There are wildfires going across the country destroying people’s homes and properties. There are wind storms and all kinds of things. We probably saw the vision of the big storm that went through Texas, I believe it was, trees being torn up by the roots and people losing everything that they had worked for. So these are some of the things that are facing us as we move forward. [There are] a lot of social problems—we see an atmosphere of racial hatred rearing its ugly head, where people are being killed shot and taken advantage of simply because of the color of their skin. We see this happening not only in the United States, but it’s also happening in Canada. We have a situation where we are living in a land that was once occupied by our Indigenous people, and yet when you look at their situation in life they are worse off than so many others—poverty, illness, reservations that are subject to flooding, and so forth. And the sad part about this is that every so often politicians, when they’re running for office, they promise they’re going to do great things to resolve these problems and then you look a few years down the road and the things, if not the same, have gotten worse. So we have to be serious about how we’re going to face life and what we’re going to bring to life to make it better for those who are going to follow behind us. Social problems, racial issues, shootings…Well just recently we heard about this shooting in Texas where a young man shot I believe 18 people, killed them, wounded others. And a lot of these crimes seem to be committed by young people, but also by older people, and yet we wonder where people’s conscience is that they can relate to people in a way that shows no empathy, no concern for life itself. One of the big areas of concern today is this war between Russia and [Ukraine]. And we can see these things in our homes because it brought right to us as we sit and watch our television. We can actually see people being bombarded, people being killed, people being maimed, people losing everything that they’ve worked for, and why? We ask ourselves, why must this be? It should not be, it doesn’t have to be, and if people were wanting to make some of these things disappear, we have to exercise one of the powers that we have, which is the greatest power available to us, and that is the power of love. I was going to take a few moments today just to talk a bit about that and to do so I’m going to tell you maybe three short stories.

The first one happened back around in the 1940s. My father, as has been mentioned, I think, in the introduction, was a railroad porter. He worked on the trains… I think I’m going to take this mask off as I talk. He worked on the trains and part of his job was to make life easy for the traveling public. It was not a high-status job but yet it was a very important and significant job in that day and age because it was one of the few jobs that Black men were entitled to work at and gave them a basic living. Now my father always said, he said to myself [and] my two brothers, “Look boys, I want you to grow up and not have to do the kind of work that I do.” It wasn’t that he was ashamed of or embarrassed about his work but he felt that there should be other opportunities available to us, and he emphasized that education will be the key to help us get further ahead and have choices in our lives as to what we wanted to pursue. My mother and my father were my two best role models when I was growing up and I’m sure that many of your parents are the same for you. So I remember my father telling the story of how when he was assisting a family on the train…and I even titled this little story “Dirty Hands” because I think if you give a story a title then

you’re more likely to think about it if you remember that title and you think about the message in that story. So my father was assisting this young child down off the steps of the train and she was traveling with her mother and all of a sudden the child recoiled from my father’s hands and said, “Your hands are dirty, your hands are dirty.” The mother became very awkward and embarrassed and tried to shush her child up. You know, she didn’t want her talking about the colour of my father’s hands, it was an awkward subject for her and she acted that way, responded in that manner. My father said, “No, no, no. Let the child talk.” And he stooped down on the level so he was eye level with the child and he said to her, “No, my hands are not dirty.” And he put his hand out and let her feel the skin on his hands and he said, “This is the colour of my skin. This is the colour of the skin that God gave me when he made me.” And then he took her hand and said, “Your skin is a different colour. It’s white. That’s the colour of the skin that God gave you when he made you.” Now that explanation was sufficient for the child to understand that there are differences among people but we don’t have to be afraid of the differences. We don’t have to recoil in fear. We don’t have to be awkward about acknowledging that there are different colors of skin among the human race and that all people are equal and should have equal opportunities to pursue a life regardless of the color of their skin. Now my father had responded with love. He could have gotten angry and annoyed at the child and he could have just ignored her and said something nasty to her but that was not his nature. He responded with love to let that child know that he cared about her and that she should in turn respect him. So that story I called “Dirty Hands.” I want you to think about that from time to time.

The second story it took place at night in the 1980s and I call that one “Do you love me?” Now, this took place when I was working as an ombudsman for the province of Manitoba. An ombudsman, as many of you probably know, has the responsibility of ensuring the government treats its citizens fairly; and if a person has a complaint or concern about the way they’re being treated by the government they can go to an ombudsman. The ombudsman does an impartial investigation and comes up with some recommendations to resolve the problem. So we received all kinds of complaints at our office, many of which were not even within our jurisdiction, but they were concerns that people had. And I had always made it clear to my staff that if the individual is calling [and] insists that he or she wants to talk to the ombudsman by all means make sure that that call came through to me. So one day I was sitting in my office working and my receptionist came in and she said, “Mr. Earle, there’s a woman on the phone calling from one of the psychiatric facilities and she wants to speak only to the ombudsman.” So I said, “Put the call through.” And I was getting prepared to hear her complain about either the food she was getting at the institution or the care that she felt she should have and wasn’t getting or the facility itself. I was expecting something to do with a matter that would be within my jurisdiction to deal with. But no, the minute I came on the phone she started to talk to me about her life. She went back to when she was a child and how she was abused and mistreated as a child and then as she got older she ran into problems in her teen years and then she married and her husband was not kind to her. He abused her, he didn’t respect her, he wouldn’t even let the children come to visit her in the institution where she was staying. And it was a terrible story, it was one of the worst stories I’ve heard about how a person is treated and the lack of respect for that person and then all of a sudden she stopped and she said, “Mr. Earle, do you love me?” Well, then the red flag started to go off my mind because the only person who would ask me that question usually is my wife and I didn’t want to read a story in the next day’s newspaper with the headlines: Ombudsman Professes Love for a Patient in a Psychiatric Facility. So I thought I’d better answer this carefully, so I thought just for a minute and I said, “I love everybody.” She came back and she said, “Mr. Earle, I didn’t ask you if you love everybody. I asked you, do you love me?” Right then I knew exactly what she was asking. She was asking if after everything she had told me about her life and the troubles and trials and tribulations that she had, did I care for her? Did I love her? Was I able to tell her that she was worthy of love? So I knew my answer and I said, “Yes, I love you.” Well, there was a silence that came through the phone and I could almost feel the peacefulness that descended upon that woman’s shoulders knowing that out there there was someone who felt she was worthy of love. Now I don’t know from that day to this whether that woman ever got better from the mental illnesses that she was experiencing or whether her life ever got better, or whether her children came to see her at the hospital. I don’t know any of that because I never heard from her again. But the one thing I do know is that for one moment in her life she felt loved and she felt that someone cared about her and she felt worthy of being a human being. So I guess what I’m suggesting by that story is that you have graduated from certain professions that you’ve been studying for and you’re going to be moving ahead in life, [and] you’re going to be meeting many people—many who will be perhaps like that child, curious about the differences between races; or perhaps like that woman who felt that nobody loved her—and the manner in which you relate to that person is going to determine how the situation turns out. It’s going to determine how you leave your mark and how people remember your legacy when you have passed on. There’s a song that I can’t remember who exactly wrote this song, but the words go to the effect that if I have helped somebody as I pass this way then my living will not be in vain. So my encouragement to you as a graduate is to think about helping people as you go through the next stage of your life and as you move forward in your journey.

Now, the third and last story I’ll tell—because people are probably getting a little tired now, it’s been a long day—but my third and last story is simply called “Mandela.” Now many of you may have heard the name Nelson Mandela. Mandela—he was a Black South African who was educated in law and became a lawyer. And in South Africa 80 percent of the population in his time were black and the other 20 percent of the population were white. And [South Africa] had a system then called apartheid which was segregation based upon racial origins and the power was all resting in the hands of the 20 percent who were white. And there were no Black people in government and Black people were at the bottom strata of society and the apartheid system favored white people and privileged white people. Well, Nelson Mandela decided to join the African National Congress in 1943. Now in 1943 I was just being born so I am a babe in the cradle, and here’s this young man about 25 years of age who was fighting for the rights of his people, fighting for equality, fighting for a government that recognized the worth of all citizens and not just the privileged few. So Nelson Mandela and his followers decided they were going to overthrow this apartheid system of government and they started working on that to the point of carrying on practices which was sabotage to the government and as a result, he was put in prison. He was put in prison and he was about 44 years of age when he was put in prison. He was tried, convicted of trying to overthrow the government and was sentenced to life imprisonment. So this happened in 1962, [when] he was put in prison. Well, there was such an outrage because he had gained a reputation worldwide of fighting for social justice and for what is right. And there was international pressure on the government of South Africa to free Nelson Mandela—and that was both internationally and at home. This pressure is being put on so the president of the day F.W. de Klerk, he decided that he would free Nelson Mandela and he freed him after he had served about 27 years in prison.

Now here’s a man that was spending a good portion of his life in prison and yet he is given freedom. He could have left the prison with a heart full of vengeance and wanting to get even with the people who had done him wrong but no, he left the prison with a heart filled with love and with a desire to continue to fight for and to bring about change in his society. So de Klerk freed him from prison in 1990. Now about four months after he was freed from prison he visited Canada and he made several visits since then but at the time he visited Canada he was not a head of state in South Africa, and yet he was given the privilege to speak to the Canadian parliament because Canada was supporting him all the way on his efforts to become…to have freedom for the Black people in South Africa. And he spoke to the Canadian parliament in 1990, then he came back again in 1998 and spoke to the parliament. Now in 1998 I had the good fortune of meeting Mandela because at that point in time I was a Member of Parliament representing the constituency in Nova Scotia. And so people were crowded together in standing room only to hear Nelson Mandela’s speech. During his speech he gave some kudos to Canada for supporting him and he said that—at this point he was the president, the new president of South Africa; he won in a multi-racial election and become president—and he was full of praise for Canada because Canada had helped him along the way and supported him. Now I put a caution there that even though he was full of praise for Canada, we as Canadians have to look at where we truly stand with respect to human rights and the kinds of things that Nelson Mandela was fighting for; because the reality is in Canada that our Aboriginal people, our Indigenous people, have been treated very poorly under what we call the Indian act, an act which defines who in fact is an Indian and who is not. And [it is] an act which subjugates, in the same way as that apartheid system in South Africa did, subjugates our Aboriginal people and also does not treat fairly Black people. It was mentioned in the introduction that I fought for recognition of the number two black battalion construction because Canada did not allow black people to fight for the armed services in the First World War. All we were deemed good for was to do the construction work and prepare the way but we were not allowed to carry arms. So when we look at our history of Canada even though worldwide we were toted as peacekeepers and so forth we did not have the kind of freedom that Nelson Mandela fought for in South Africa. However the main story I want to get through with respect to Mandela is his heart of love. He was able to accomplish great things because of the love that he felt for his fellow human beings and his desire to create racial human…racial unity among the groups in his country. And that is why he was able to accomplish such a task because of the love within his heart.

Now at the 1998 meeting when Nelson Mandela addressed the Canadian parliament the crowd was overflowing, it was standing room only. And I am a somewhat introverted self, I am not one that would push my way to the front of a crowd to see someone. I might stand in the background off to the side and observe whereas other people may push forward. And at the end of Nelson Mandela’s speech in 1998, the crowd was merging forward, closing in on him, and I was standing back there quietly just observing when all of a sudden someone grabbed me by the arm and started to pull me forward and said, “Gordon come on I want you to meet Nelson Mandela.” And it was Alexa McDonough who was the leader of the party that I had represented in parliament. And Alexa was very outgoing and more of an extrovert than I was. She knew her way around parliament because she had had several years’ experience as a politician and so she pushed this way and that way and she pulled and practically dragged me through the crowd. Next thing I knew I was standing face to face with Nelson Mandela and I can tell you that was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life because here he was, and it seemed like he related almost instantly to me because [Alexa] said to him, “Mr. Mandela, I want you to meet Gordon Earle, the first black Nova Scotian elected to Canadian parliament.” And perhaps he compared that with him being the first black president of South Africa and understood the studies…the struggles that you had to go through to be first in something but he looked at me and his face was practically glowing. I felt like time was standing still and that nobody else mattered, it was just him and I there as he took my hand and shook my hand and it was a powerful handshake yet gentle. I could feel the love coming from him, the love of me as a fellow citizen who has gained some, made some gains in society on behalf of the Black population. This was the kind of love that Nelson Mandela displayed. This is the kind of love where you have the power to give forth to people that you meet the same kind of recognition, the same kind of love which says, yes you are worthy of my respect, you’re worthy of my love. I remember my father always saying to us, “Son, I don’t really care what type of work you get as long as you do it well, do it to the best of your ability, and never let any person take away your good name.”

So as you move forward in life—and I leave the challenge to you. I’m going to cut my talk short because a couple of things: not only are we running out of time, but I had my reading glasses in my coat pocket and it was so warm with this gown on I took my coat off and left it down in the VIP room, so my glasses are there, and everything else that I had in connection with the speech. But I’m speaking to you, I’m speaking to you from the heart, that you’ve got to—when you go through life—treat people with respect and keep your own good name intact. Do the best you can to help build a better world. Congratulations to all of you, God bless you.