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  2. His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston
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News

Queen’s University Principal’s Distinguished Visitor Lecture

Kingston, Saturday, October 13, 2012

 

I am delighted to return to Queen’s to help inaugurate this new lecture series. Long may it contribute to the life and learning of this wonderful university!  

Let me begin by thanking you for being here. I have spent enough years on university campuses to know that the choice between a Saturday afternoon and a lecture hall is not always an easy one!

In fact, it was in right here in Kingston in 1937 that my predecessor John Buchan famously said that when it comes to matters of public policy, governors general should confine themselves to speaking in “Governor-Generalities.”

That being said, I will do my best to keep the generalities to a minimum this afternoon, and to speak instead to some of the very specific challenges and opportunities before us today as students, as educators and as citizens.

I am talking about the challenges and opportunities that come with living in an era of rapid and profound change on a global scale.

And, if we are to judge by the words of physicist Neil Turok in his new Massey Lecture on the coming quantum revolution, we should prepare for even greater changes to come.

I quote:

“What is coming is likely to be even more significant than any past transformation. We have already seen how mobile communications and the World Wide Web are opening up global society, providing information and education on a scale vastly larger than ever before. But this is only the beginning of how our new technologies will change us,” he writes.

Which raises the question: if this is only the beginning of change, how are we to best prepare for the future?  

Of course, there is no easy answer, but I recall asking myself a similar question during my early days at Queen’s, as a student of law in 1965. While they may look like simpler times from today’s point of view, I can tell you I was far from certain about the path I was on in those days—as were many of my contemporaries.

I also recall learning a number of important lessons at Queen’s that have stayed with me, and which I expect to remain relevant despite the seismic changes taking place in our world today.

As is so often the case in life, one of the most important lessons I learned is also one of the simplest. And that is how critical it is to pay attention to relationships. Whether we call them friendships, partnerships or—as in the world of diplomacy—people-to-people ties, I believe our success as individuals, as institutions and as nations is largely determined by the degree to which we forge and nurture meaningful relationships with others.

I learned this lesson from the outset of my interaction with Queen’s. At that time, I was close to completing my second year of law at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, and I was considering where to finish my studies—preferably at a Canadian school with an eye to practising in Canada. I spoke to the deans of four law schools: Cambridge, Osgoode, Western and Queen’s.

Queen’s was the only Canadian school willing to recognize my two years of study in the United Kingdom. The dean at the time, Bill Lederman, encouraged me to finish my time overseas and to gain the wonderful experience of studying at Cambridge, before coming to Queen’s to complete my studies.

Dean Lederman recognized that my international experience would be of benefit to myself, to the Queen’s community and to this country, and I will always be grateful for his vision and generosity.

This story illustrates several important components of the approach to learning for which Queen’s is renowned. In its focus on people—on the learning and well-being of individual students—this university has distinguished itself. Of course, work remains to be done, but a basic concern for student success lies at the heart of what goes on here.

One of the keys to this people-focus is flexibility, and it is a tremendous asset in our world today. By recognizing the unique experience I was having at Cambridge, as well as the validity of my foreign credentials, Queen’s was ahead of its time as a practitioner of the diplomacy of knowledge. This I have never forgotten—and in fact, as governor general, I have made this kind of diplomacy a priority of my mandate.

Today, Queen’s is recognized as one of the great learning institutions in North America. It is simply ahead of its time in so many ways.

To put a finer point on it: Queen’s is a leader because so many of the people who come here are ahead of their time.

This is true of the students, the faculty and the administration, but as an alumnus, I want to focus on those who today are where I was so many years ago: the students.

It is no secret that students today—and young people generally—are facing many economic, demographic and social challenges along the path to adulthood.

As the recent Vital Signs report of the Community Foundations of Canada puts it: “Canada’s youth are growing up in an era of complexity and uncertainty that has delayed, or even destroyed, the landmarks that once signaled a transition from one phase of life to another.”

On the positive side, we also know that young people today are remarkably flexible, unafraid of complexity and eager to challenge the status quo.

It is no exaggeration to say that the extent to which students are able to exercise their creativity and drive will determine our future well-being—and not just here in Canada but around the world.

Here at Queen’s, we have many reasons for optimism, but I want to highlight your student government as one particularly rich source of possibility. As you know, this university is home to the Alma Mater Society, the longest-running undergraduate student government in Canada. It has always been and continues to be at the forefront in building civic-mindedness and leadership at Queen’s, and I would like to challenge students to apply their best thinking to our Canadian democracy at large.

Let me focus on the matter of voter participation, which is near historic lows. According to Elections Canada, voter turnout for the 2011 federal election was 61.1 percent—almost 20 percent below the high-water mark of 79.4 percent, set during the election of March 1958. Bonus points if you can name who won that election! (Diefenbaker majority)

There have been ups and downs in voter turnout since 1958, but the trend is clear: an alarmingly lower percentage of Canadians are voting than has historically been the case.

Of particular concern is youth participation in our democracy, with only 38.8 percent of eligible voters aged 18-24 casting a ballot in the 2011 election. As students of Queen’s who are uniquely engaged in school and society, you undoubtedly have many insights to share on this worrying trend.

Now, I am not here to discuss the reasons for declining voter turnout or to propose specific solutions. Rather, I want to look to history for a vivid example of how innovation—or the lack thereof—can be a key factor in the vitality of a democracy.

As a classical scholar who wrote biographies of Julius Caesar and Augustus, John Buchan—whose extensive library I am looking forward to viewing later this afternoon—would approve of my looking back to the history of Rome for an example.

The Roman Republic, as you know, began as a relatively small city. Through annexation and conquest, the Romans expanded their rule across all of Italy and beyond, conferring citizenship and voting privileges on conquered peoples along the way. However, as Yale University political scientist Robert A. Dahl points out in his book On Democracy, the expansion of Rome was accompanied by “an enormous defect.”

The defect was that Rome failed to adapt its political institutions to the huge increase in the number of its citizens and to its growing size. At this point, I should mention that Roman citizens could only vote and exercise their rights and privileges by travelling to the Forum in Rome itself. This made sense when Rome was no bigger than a city, but it was highly impractical to think that citizens living in far-flung territories would travel all the way to Rome to cast a ballot or to participate in citizens assemblies.

In short, the Roman Republic failed to develop a system of representative government, in which elected representatives served in the capital on behalf of citizens. What was needed to reflect the new reality of Rome was the innovation of representative government, and the fact that such innovation failed to materialize vividly illustrates how we are sometimes blind to the obvious. 

As Dahl writes:

“Most of us readily take things for granted that at an earlier time remained to be discovered. So, too, later generations may wonder how we could have overlooked certain innovations that they will take for granted. Because of what we take for granted might not we, like the Romans, be insufficiently creative in reshaping our political institutions?”

I leave that question with you as food for thought, as students of Queen’s and of Canada who will reshape our institutions for years to come.

That question also brings me back to my theme this afternoon—that of the rapid and profound changes taking place in our world today, and of the vital importance of working and innovating together.

This university is the ideal place to serve as an incubator of innovation, because of the diversity and brilliance of minds assembled here and because of your many links to Canadian society and to the world. As Jon Gertner points out in his book The Idea Factory, the story of the famous Bell Labs in New Jersey, innovation is not a one-directional linear process from education and research, to experimentation, to practical application. Rather, innovation occurs back and forth at various points along that linear storyline.

Innovation, Gertner goes on to say, cannot be fostered by one person, but rather is the result of several people working on various aspects of the same problem. In short, the process of innovation is shared.

In closing, then, let me again stress the importance of fostering meaningful relationships at every opportunity as you confront the challenges and opportunities of today and tomorrow.

In Canada, working together has always been at the heart of our success, and so it always shall be.

Thank you.