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  2. His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston
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Address to the University of Saskatchewan

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Address to the University of Saskatchewan

Saskatoon, Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In 1979, I was named vice-chancellor and principal of McGill University; I should say I was a very young and naive principal.

I was then asked to give a short, warm and inspiring acceptance speech, and so I went with what I thought might work: stand up to speak, speak to be heard, and sit down to be appreciated.

That first month, we were dealt a series of Draconian budget cuts. But Hydro-Québec was offering lavish capital grants to replace non-electrical appliances with ones using cheap hydroelectricity. We leaped at the gold and, among other things, replaced the paper hand drying dispensers in all of the university washrooms with electric hand dryers.

Proud of this brilliant and decisive leadership, I went to inspect. The first washroom was the men’s room in the Engineering building. Before my wondering eyes was a sparkling white machine. But even on this first day, some graffiti had been scratched above the depressor button. It read: “Press this button for a short, warm, inspiring message from your principal.”

Let me begin by saying what a pleasure it is for me to join you here today on this beautiful campus on the shores of the South Saskatchewan River.

I have long been looking forward to this visit, and am particularly glad to be here at the outset of a new academic year. Having spent most of my life in a university setting, I truly appreciate the excitement of this moment, its sense of promise and potential.

Until September 30th of last year, I had never held a real job. I entered university at 18 and found the place so delightful and enticing that until age 69 I never left. In fact, I am still on a one-year (renewable) leave from my law firm so that I could be a law professor.

But all of the important things in life I have learned from my children. All five of my children—all daughters—are in the public service. So when I was asked to take this job—and I was deeply honoured to do so—I severed my umbilical cord with the university and followed my children into the real world.

Last year at this time, I was preparing to take on my current role, and I can tell you that being a student, professor or university president and serving as governor general have more in common than you might expect. For one thing, in each role, the learning never stops.

Nor should it. When we are at our best, our most energetic and aware, we view everything we do as learning. During the past year, I have been speaking with Canadians from all walks of life about the importance of learning and innovation to our society. In 2017, we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation, and I believe this wonderful milestone presents us with an equally wonderful opportunity.

An opportunity to imagine a smarter, more caring Canada—and for that, we need the people of Saskatchewan. 

As the writer Noah Richler observed in his literary travels through Saskatchewan, this prairie landscape has time and again been “the crucible of grandiose imaginings.”

Often, those “imaginings” changed Canada for the better. For example, our system of universal public health care was forged and introduced in Saskatchewan, before being exported to other provinces and, eventually, to all of Canada. This concept of ensuring basic health care for all citizens is now considered a key element in the social contract that binds our nation together, and it is in many ways the envy of the world.

Of course, we struggle with the challenges and imperfections of this arrangement, but our success is remarkable and it is worth recalling how far we have come.

People in Saskatchewan know that success doesn’t happen by accident. Like our unique Confederation itself, our social contract and institutions are the result of years of careful consideration of the nature of Canadian society.

In the same way, the remarkable achievements of the University of Saskatchewan are the product of a great deal of study and effort on your part and that of your predecessors. Achievements in important fields such as agriculture, energy and resources, health sciences, water security, Aboriginal studies and particle physics.

What these achievements demonstrate is that you understand the vital link between learning, education, innovation and our collective well-being.

I have long felt that learning is vital to our society. The crest of the coat of arms I was granted upon becoming governor general features the image of a burning candle. The flame symbolizes not only enlightenment, but also the transmission of knowledge from one person to another. By learning and by sharing what we know, we collectively strengthen and enlighten our communities and our country.

More than that, learning is the key to innovation, which in essence is about crafting new ideas to improve the way we do things. In our rapidly changing world, where the frontiers of knowledge have eclipsed those of land and sea as the outermost reaches of human endeavour, the ability to innovate—socially and technologically—will determine our quality of life.

Ken Dryden emphasizes this in his wonderful book, Becoming Canada, where he writes:

“To think about Canada, we need to think about the world. And the world’s future, it is clear, will depend on learning and on getting along.”

In making this call to service in the cause of building a smarter, more caring Canada and a fairer, more just world, I am counting on your help. From the social innovation of Medicare to the sub-atomic insights of the synchrotron, Saskatchewan is known for its leadership and ingenuity across Canada and around the world. And to those of you who are new to this university, this province or this country, your ideas and your energy are not only welcome—they are essential.

I see a symbol of the spirit of this place in the spectacular gothic architecture that distinguishes this campus. The use of local materials, the dedication to tradition and to innovative restoration, and the remarkable masonry work inspire us all.

Like the prairie sky, these towers and this community encourage us to look upwards and to dream of what could be.

In the words of George Bernard Shaw, a famous British author: “Some people see things as they are and wonder ‘Why?’ We dream of things that ought to be and ask, ‘Why not?’”

Thank you.