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  1. The Governor General of Canada
  2. Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette
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Honorary Doctorate from the Université de Montréal

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Presentation of an honoris causa Doctorate from the Université de Montréal

Montreal, Friday, May 28, 2010

Receiving an honour is like living a beautiful, unforgettable day.

It is a bright spot in our memory that we then cherish our entire lives.

And I am especially touched by the honour of receiving an honoris causa doctorate from the Université de Montréal because, I am very proud to say, this is my alma mater.

Being back here today, in the places I used to visit as a student, allows me to outline the journey I have taken.

When travelling in Europe as a young woman in the 1970s, I discovered Italy, where—after the May 1968 demonstrations—those with the power of imagination could dream as big as they wanted. They were electrifying years of great upheaval.

I will never forget being in the streets of Rome, alive with the cries of workers, feminists, artists and students, who were all pouring their whole, joyful hearts, sometimes clumsily and with unfortunate gestures, into challenging certainties and reinventing the social pact.

Voices everywhere were rising up, like a call to freedom.

Yes, for a young, blossoming woman—a rebel in her days—who, with her parents, fled a universe reduced to whispers by dictatorship and oppression; for that child of exile who found refuge and security in Canada, a country where everything is possible, the experience of that trip was like a resurgence of the power of words, one, like Dante’s trip, that ended in paradise, a metaphor for enlightenment.

Filled with an irrepressible desire to prolong that experience, I returned to Montreal after an exciting year.

Upon my return, I remember telling my mother—with a determination that only the young possess—that I was going to enrol in Italian and Hispanic studies at the Université de Montréal to push the adventure further; that is how passionate I felt about this way of speaking and living. Literature and language are precious tools of knowledge that have allowed me to learn more about the world, to travel through it, to observe it by increasing my perspectives, views and opinions, and by exploring the great power of words.

Those years of discovery and learning greatly helped mould me into the person I have become and have also allowed me to better define the values that have always guided me and that I still defend, wherever I go, as Governor General of Canada.

Values that, as a whole, prevent us from limiting ourselves to what is already a given and invite us to be surprised still and always by the extent of everything that we still need to gain, as knowledge and through effort.

Therein perhaps lie the very foundations of the freedom that nothing and no one can ever take away from us: by this I mean the freedom to choose, to understand, to elucidate, to create, to take part, to marvel at, and to change our lives.

But, as I stand humbly before you, in complete admiration of everything you have accomplished, I would like to share one regret I have with regard to those years of study, a regret that is highly personal.

I regret never finishing my master’s thesis in comparative literature at the Université de Montréal, which was to focus on the notion of exile through the works of the magnificent Dante and a number of other writers from the Americas.

I sometimes think about how that study would have turned out, but, over time, it has pleased me to think that this reflection on exile has been replaced by a call to solidarity, the defence of which is central to all my convictions.

Dante himself comforts me in this belief, as he said that, “some people wait for time to change. Others tackle it and act!”

Dear friends, I have seized it eagerly and wholly, as though my entire life course to this point were summed up from exile to solidarity.

I am a woman of exile—of exiles, to be more precise—exile from the country of my birth, certainly, but also exile from the absolute, the certainties that block the horizon of possibilities, and certain biases that do not allow our ways of living or expressing ourselves to change.

A woman of exile snatched by the universal, by an urgent need for solidarity, which—I believe—brings feelings and action together to strengthen the spirit of human dignity that moves me more than anything.

Whether during all the years I was committed to working with women who had been the victims of violence or were living in distress, or those I worked as a journalist on Canadian public television, or in the role I have occupied since September 2005, I have never stopped intensifying my efforts to make solidarity the cardinal value of all my actions and of all my ambitions.

And I sincerely hope that you, the graduates of 2010, hold this same conviction beyond this institution that I love and that we all love. I look at all of you, with your vast knowledge that we must put to good use and of which we must recognize the great wealth, not just for the future, but starting right now. It would be a mistake for us to not make the most of the energy you represent.

All the more since university prepares us to constantly extend this work of ideas and critical thought in new directions so that—above all—it regenerates and strengthens the ties humans invented to better live together and to live better together.

That is the fundamental reason why I believe that universities play a vital role in training and strengthening thought.

It is therefore with great emotion that I would like to take this distinguished opportunity to thank this institution, the Université de Montréal, for everything it has given me and everything it has allowed me to imagine “pour la suite du monde,” to use Michel Brault and Pierre Perrault’s beautiful expression.

And I now call upon your own commitment, dear friends, so that the world to follow will meet your aspirations.

I wish you all every success and happiness!