Honorary Doctorate from York University

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Toronto, Ontario, Thursday, June 22, 2017


It’s wonderful to be with you at York University on this great occasion. Let me begin by congratulating all of you who are graduating today. You have worked very hard to be here, and for you, this day is well deserved.

Bravo to you all!

Thank you for entrusting me with the prestigious honour of being among you. The key word to focus on there is trust. It’s what I want to speak about today. The state of trust in our communities and in Canada in particular. 

I think it’s appropriate to do so during the Faculty of Education’s Spring Convocation Ceremony. After all, education is a sacred trust, and this is something I gave a great deal of thought to during my previous life and career as an educator.

I would like to cover three points in my remarks:

(1) What trust is;

(2) why I’m speaking about it today; and

(3) a number of specific areas in which we can draw lessons about trust, and also strengthen and improve it as a noun—something we possess—and as a verb—something we practise.

First: what is trust? I think we all have pretty good idea. A quick scan of the Oxford dictionary reveals definitions related to law, philosophy, business, finance, medicine, journalism and sociology, to name a few.

For our purposes today, I prefer a simple definition—a simile: trust is like glue.

Trust is the glue that holds us together. This is true from the micro level—a relationship between two people, a family or neighbours—to the macro—a community or a country!

It’s especially true of a democratic society such as ours. Democracy requires that people have a basic degree of trust in each other and in the institutions and leaders that serve them.

Of course, we rely on more than faith—we have systems and laws set up to safeguard our way of life—but an important part of trust can’t be measured or enforced.

That’s why it’s called trust!

This is the case even in a legal document such as a written contract. As Émile Durkheim famously observed: “in a contract not everything is contractual.”

Let us apply that to the social contract that is the foundation of our democratic life.

In the social contract that underpins Canada, not everything is contractual. This contract is partly held together by the glue we call trust.

Now let me move to my second point and tell you why I wanted to explore this theme with you today.

I’ll share another quote, which I heard from Mark Carney, former Bank of Canada governor and now serving in that role at the Bank of England. He said:

“Trust arrives on foot and leaves in a Ferrari.”

That sound we’re hearing these days throughout much of the world—the one echoed by the headlines we read daily—is the sound of trust leaving in a Ferrari.

Trust in government. Trust in institutions. Trust in media. Trust in newcomers. Trust in leaders. Trust in NGOs. Trust in business.

Canada is not immune. You may have heard of the recent findings of the Edelman Trust Barometer, a global study which looks at public opinion on this important subject.

Amid what it calls a “global implosion of trust,” the study found that for the first time, Canada is a “distruster” nation, where less than half of the population trusts its civil institutions. 

Let me share a few other startling findings of the Edelman survey:

  • Trust in government globally has fallen to 41%;
  • 59% of people in the Western world trust a search engine more than traditional media;
  • Only 37% of the general population globally trusts corporate CEOs;
  • 53% of the general population in the West do not believe the present system is working for them;
  • “Trust inequality” between the informed public and the general population is over 20% in the US, UK and France;
  • 40% of people in the UK believe that facts matter less than authenticity and beliefs;
  • 67% of the general population believes CEOs/firms focus too much on short term results.

What does this mean?

It means the glue that cements our social contract is weakening.

So what do we do? This is a challenge for all of us. We can’t be complacent. Like democracy, a healthy social contract requires our active involvement. It’s not about the few, but the many.

How do we restore, reinforce and build trust in our society? It being fundamental, there are so many areas in which we can look at trust and build it, but let me highlight three areas of focus.

The first is trust in the professions, including the profession of education, which you as York University graduates are poised to enter. It’s a critical profession, as at one stage or another you will educate the future members of all the other professions, among others.  

There are three principal elements to any profession’s social contract.

First, a profession is characterized by specialized knowledge that’s formally taught and obtained by experience and under supervision. Second, the State gives it a right to a monopoly and to control entry and exit standards and competence. Third, it has a responsibility to serve society at large.

This is the challenge, and the opportunity. Knowing that profound change is upon us and that we cannot be complacent, how do we reinforce professionalism in education and through education? That’s a big question and a defining challenge for educators. What’s also clear is that the well-being of the many, not the few, must be at the heart of that redefinition.

In other words, inclusiveness is critical. And in fact, greater inclusiveness is a path we can take to renewal, because in times of change, it is our values that will lead us toward the smart and caring country we desire.

As Polonius says to his son Laertes, who is leaving to attend university:

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

The good news is my second point, which is that our educational system can help us build trust. Post-secondary institutions such as York can help us by redoubling their efforts to balance equality of opportunity and excellence. As the nursing grounds of our professions, universities have a special role to play.

For generations, equality of opportunity and excellence have been core Canadian principles. We haven’t always succeeded and indeed have made terrible mistakes in the past, as in the case of residential schools, but we are at our best when we balance the two.

In today’s world, we must go further. That is, we must pursue both equality and excellence in our learning as never before. We must urgently improve access to education for underrepresented groups, while reaching out to the world and engaging with top talent. Education is an area where Canada can build trust, here at home and abroad.

Third, I want to highlight your role as citizens in building trust in government and civil institutions through participation.

Once again, inclusiveness is essential. When a system of government works well, what does it look like? It’s characterized by a separation of powers, by continuity and long-term thinking, by checks and balances, by a commitment to evolving with the times, and by a sense of values—for example, inclusiveness.

When these features are present, a government can build trust. But it doesn’t happen on its own. Rather, it’s up to each of us as citizens to get involved to ensure these features are present in government.

The phrase “participatory democracy” is redundant, because democracy is by its very nature participatory!

Professions, educators, governments—all three have aspects related to trust that can be enhanced and magnified, and applied more broadly and rigorously throughout our society. We must innovate with an eye to building trust in all three spheres. Above all, we have to get personally involved. This is too important a task to leave to anyone but citizens. The challenge of trust-building means we are all being called to a new era of civic engagement.

So we need to go further. Professions need to take the lead in renewing their social contracts. Educational institutions urgently need to achieve greater equality of opportunity at the same time as they are pursuing excellence at the highest levels. And as citizens, we need to actively ensure our governments serve us, not the other way around.

As educators, think about the glue that holds us together, and make trust building a central part of what you do. This is a challenge but also an opportunity, because those who lead in establishing trust will thrive in the years to come.

I often say that great nations are built on great challenges. So, too, are great universities, great schools and great teachers.

Congratulations once again on your commencement. I wish you the very best with your important work.

Thank you.