Honorary Doctorate (Doctor of Laws) from the University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Tuesday, June 6, 2017
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I acknowledge that we are gathering today on Treaty 6 territory, traditional lands of First Nations and Metis people.
Thank you for bestowing upon me this honorary doctorate from this great university. I’m honoured to be associated with a group of faculty and students who together are doing great things for Canada and for the world.
It’s also wonderful to be in Edmonton and in this great province, which is of course named after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, the wife of Canada’s 4th governor general!
Princess Louise was a remarkable person. She was an accomplished writer, sculptor and artist. She painted oils and watercolours, and visitors to Rideau Hall may recall seeing a door she painted with sprigs of apple blossom.
In fact, after she was injured in a winter sleighing accident, Princess Louise dedicated more and more of her time to painting. And though she was often unwell throughout her life, she was a compassionate woman who did what she could to help others, a woman who cared.
This brings me to my theme today, which is straightforward: I call on each of you to care, to do what you can to make this a better world.
But I want you to be smart about it.
You can start now, as you graduate from the University of Alberta, by making a simple, but profound decision: to be an optimist.
Why should you be an optimist?
To answer that, consider the one percent.
Not that one percent.
Rather, think of the one percent of people worldwide who know that extreme poverty has been cut in half over the last 25 years.
This statistic comes from a report released last year by a firm called Glocalities, which surveyed more than 56 000 people in 24 countries and 15 languages.
Let me repeat and put that finding another way.
Ninety-nine percent of those surveyed did not know that extreme poverty worldwide has been halved in the past quarter century.
Only one percent of people surveyed knew this remarkable fact.
Did any of you know?
I only learned this number recently after reading Bill and Melinda Gates’ 2017 annual letter. The letter is addressed to Warren Buffett, who has pledged the bulk of his fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as to a number of family-run charities.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing remarkable development, health, education and policy work around the world. Its focus is relentlessly fact- and results-based. And among the key messages I took from their annual letter were (1) the power of optimism, and (2) the solid empirical case that exists for optimism in the world today.
In other words, their letter shows how the world is getting better.
Pollyanna, I hear you cry! The governor general has buried his head in the sand! Everyone knows the world is getting worse!
Perhaps. Without a doubt, our planet faces some major challenges that we must address.
But let me respond with two points.
One, as Melinda Gates writes:
“Optimism isn’t a belief that things will automatically get better; it’s a conviction that we can make things better.”
A conviction that we can make things better.
That’s an important part of optimism.
Two, the other part of the optimism story comes in simply having a better understanding of what is actually taking place in the world today, beyond the daily, often depressing headlines we see in the news.
If we look more deeply into the facts and issues, we find reasons to be optimistic that are more than just wishful thinking.
As Bill Gates puts it:
“In significant ways, the world is a better place to live than it has ever been. Global poverty is going down, childhood deaths are dropping, literacy is rising, the status of women and minorities around the world is improving.”
These are global facts. These are reasons for optimism about our world.
Let me share another number with you.
That’s the estimated number of lives that have been saved worldwide since 2002 thanks to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Canada is a contributor to the fund.
Do you sometimes despair at the state of the world?
It’s understandable, but I just gave you twenty million reasons for optimism.
AIDS, TB and malaria are three of the deadliest diseases the world has ever known.
Last fall, I attended the Fifth Replenishment Conference of the Global Fund in Montréal, where donor nations gathered to chart a way forward. The Global Fund has set ambitious goals of saving a further 8 million lives and preventing 300 million new infections by 2019.
The ultimate goal? The total eradication of AIDS, TB and malaria by the year 2030.
It can be done, and one of the key insights of the Global Fund and of people like Bill and Melinda Gates is that we must be smarter in our caring if we’re going to declare an end to epidemics and have reasons to be optimistic about the world we’re creating.
Compassion and generosity are of course necessary and wonderful, but unfortunately, it’s not enough to be caring.
We also have to be smart.
That’s where you come in, graduates of the class of 2017. We need caring and idealism, yes, and we also need your ideas, your talent, your energy, your curiosity, your creativity.
When I became governor general, my installation address took the form of a call to service for Canadians to join in building a smarter, more caring nation.
And today, I see more clearly than ever how fundamentally smart and caring go hand-in-hand. They are not separate, but rather complementary and reinforcing.
In our thoroughly globalized, interconnected, technological 21st century world, to be smart is to care.
And vice versa: to be truly caring, we have to be smart about it. We can’t be caring and naive, or ignorant, or foolish.
As the saying goes: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Good intentions aren’t good enough anymore. In fact, they never were.
Now, thanks in part to our technology, which places a vast amount of instantly available knowledge at our fingertips, we can, and therefore must, do better!
Northrop Frye—one of Canada’s great teachers and scholars—once said that graduation from an institution of higher learning is one of the four epic moments in a person’s life—the other three being birth, marriage and death.
I think he’s right, but let me add a fifth.
It’s an epic moment that can occur at any time in a person’s life, but it’s a moment that is never carved in stone or final; it must be constantly guarded and renewed and fought for.
It’s the moment when you choose between optimism and pessimism, or despair.
I call on all of you to choose optimism, to recognize the progress that’s being made around the world, and to believe that where challenges and obstacles exist, we can make things better.
Because the fact is, we can.