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Her Excellency Sharon Johnston - Honorary Doctorate from Western University

London, Ontario, Wednesday, June 21, 2017


First, let me acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional territories of the Anishinaabeg, Haudenosaunee, Lunaapeewak and Attawandaron peoples.

It is wonderful to be back on the Western University campus in London, Ontario, celebrating the graduation of our newly minted lawyers and nurses.

London was home to the Johnston family before any of you were born. Forty-two years ago, my husband, David, now Canada’s twenty-eighth governor general, became the youngest Dean of Law here. I recall his frustration at the resistance he encountered when computers became part of the law school. That is hard to believe when we consider how technology impacts every aspect of our present-day lives.

Family law was also changing. In 1976, the Law Reform Commission on Family Law recommended marriage breakdown as sufficient grounds for divorce, thus eliminating the need to hire a private detective, as my mother did, to spy on my philandering father. And while it has taken many years to change the law, men and women are now free to marry the person they love and become part of the family landscape.

To quote Martin Luther King, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Former president Barack Obama used this phrase when speaking to Canadians recently. I am seventy-four, and when I was young, there were no gays and no closets. I am a more informed person in my old age, and recently while meeting with an LGBTQ group in Waterloo, I promised to walk in the Pride parade.

Changes in the law are the hard evidence of fairness and modern thinking in our society. You as new graduates will undoubtedly make strides of equal importance, whether your degree leads you to practice the law, teach it or apply it. As lawyers, professors, judges, politicians or business leaders, it will be up to you to shape society for the better.

And to the nurses graduating today, I am pleased to say that I understand and honour the careers you have chosen. My grandmother, my mother and my sister were all nurses. My grandmother, a highly trained British nurse, set up the first venereal-disease clinic in Canada following the Great War. My mother, too, trained as a nurse, and later in life added rehabilitation social work to her resume. She set up the first ever federally funded STEM project, a Service to Employ Mothers. My sister, after earning her public health diploma, went north to help better the lives of our Indigenous peoples.

So thank you, lawyers and nurses alike, for dedicating your talent and energy to such worthy careers.

Convocation is—and should be—a celebration, not only of the extraordinary effort you’ve made, but also the vast opportunities that lie ahead. You will plan for some of these, and some will take you by surprise. You will have countless occasions to make a difference in the lives of people you care about, and even in the lives of people you may never meet.

And for everyone you meet, mental health may be an elusive quality of life. The Mental Health Commission of Canada describes a health crisis in our country, with 7 million Canadians facing mental health issues at an annual cost of $50 billion. That’s $4,000 per person per year.

The numbers tell us that every year, one in five Canadians is affected by some form of mental illness, but when we think about the impact on families, friends, and colleagues, the real number is one in one Canadians. These statistics don’t account for the disruption of individuals and families as they battle against an illness they are often afraid to acknowledge.

You likely know people who have demonstrated courage and tenacity in the face of mental illnesses and have made their own recovery and adaptation. It took courage over forty years ago for me to ask for help when I felt I couldn’t cope with five daughters born in seven years. I don’t recommend this fast track reproduction.

Only now do I find that situation amusing. My husband was absorbed managing the law school, and I felt like a single parent. As many do, I went to see my doctor for help. And got it. Within six months of receiving counselling, I no longer felt anxious or angry. As important, I felt physically well. I became a dedicated runner, clocking six miles a day right through this Western University campus. Without that doctor’s wise counsel, I doubt I would be standing before you today. There is nothing wrong with needing psychological help. What is wrong is not asking for it.

But things are improving. I have had the good fortune to witness first-hand the great advances in mental health care in the areas of homelessness, youth suicide, emerging adults, families, Indigenous peoples and just about every suffering part of society.

We have made great strides in reducing stigma in the military, public service and workforce. The last two clerks of the Privy Council—the office of Canada’s senior public servant—have declared mental health a priority for the federal public service. Our military, with the mental readiness to return program, has indicated to its soldiers that seeking and getting care for a mental health problem does not have to limit advancement in the armed forces. We all have a role to play.

As lawyers and nurses, you will be among the most respected persons in your communities. You will be leaders. In your professions, you will be able to support, advise, direct and encourage people with mental health issues throughout your careers. And many of you will be able to participate in treatment, research, policy development and even legislation which, like the changes I saw back in the 1970s, will redefine how Canadians think about and care for people who society once looked at with judgment and fear.

I thank you now for using your education and intellect to help make a difference.

But I have another, more personal message for each of you. Beyond the service and support you give to others, I urge you to remember that as young professionals starting out, you enter the workforce in the busiest period of human history.

Computers and telecommunications have made miracles possible, but they have also compressed time to a degree to which humans have not yet adapted. While we improve our physical health and longevity, our mental health may suffer under the stress.

So here is my message.

As you begin your careers, I invite you to remember three simple things.

First, go out into the community to find out what mental health resources exist…before you need them.

Second, socialize the issue of mental health among your peers. They may need your support. The unique stresses on lawyers and nurses are as great or greater than any other profession. Fatigue, burnout, family stress, and coping behaviours including alcohol and drugs are quite prevalent in highly trained professionals. Be open and listen to each other.

Third, be honest with yourself. You are entering a profession with notoriously high demands and are a precious Canadian resource that we cannot afford to see damaged. It is right and honourable to ask for help if you need it. Set a leading example by summoning the courage to seek assistance early. Then learn from that experience in ways you can share.

So there it is. Just three bits of advice, really. Where mental health is concerned, be informed, support your peers, and be kind to yourself. You can’t go wrong.

Thank you for the honour you have given me today. I am delighted to be in your company, and proud to call you all colleagues in the pursuit of better health for all.