UBC Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree Speech
Hon. John A. Fraser
27 May 2004

I want to thank President Piper for her generous citation.

But I am mindful that whatever I have been able to do to merit your recognition was not done alone. Just as those of you who graduate today would never have succeeded without the help of your parents, guardians, teachers, professors and friends, I recognize, not only those who in my early years were so important, but so many others since then. Without them I would not be here.

It is customary for the recipient of an honorary degree to say a few words. Those few words are, traditionally, supposed to inspire the new graduates, especially if the honouree is someone of importance! Or, so some would like to believe. However, a few years ago, the Province columnist Dan Murphy wrote an article entitled: “The Art of the Commencement Address". Seeking elucidation, I read it and was dismayed at what he wrote:

“Universities,” he said, “all like to get big shots from business, the arts and public affairs, but there are only so many Kissingers and Lloyd Robertsons … so schools drop their criteria a few notches. They decide that they don’t really need a Nobel Laureate, and will settle instead for someone who is simply not in jail at the moment. Someone like you.”

I had the privilege of enrolling at U.B.C. in the Autumn of 1949. I was seventeen and, along with the veterans, part of that first Canadian generation able, in large numbers, to go on to a university education. The war, and increased prosperity, had made great changes in Canada. The governments of the day wisely recognized the importance of education, and money was found to expand university enrolment, and, especially, to enable veterans to go back to school.

For many veterans, going back to school meant going back to High School. They were the depression drop-outs. And there were many still at U.B.C. during my time, and, especially, at the Law School. U.B.C. President Norman MacKenzie was determined to let everyone in who wanted to come – and if their academic past was shaky, that did not bother him too much. I remember him telling us at a law school lecture: “They fought for us, and they deserved a chance and many confounded the naysayers!” Most would never be accepted today if marks on a computer system were all that mattered. But many went on to distinguished careers. Present circumstances are very different and universities face difficult challenges. But, many of us are troubled with grade inflation, limited space and increasing financial liabilities. We may be turning away a significant number of able young men and women that our country cannot afford to lose. You are likely, and sooner than you think, to be leaders in the community. Your efforts will be needed to persuade governments, and others, of the essential necessity for adequate funding to universities.

Some of you will be teachers. You have, arguably, the most important task in our country. That does not belittle other professions, trades or callings. It is, however, to remind us that the education of our young, and increasingly, our not so young, determines ultimately the prosperity, stability and idealism of our country. There is a difference between training – the skills needed to perform the infinite variety of tasks required in a complex, technological age – and a liberal education in the larger sense. You will be responsible for both. But, try, if you can, to instill in those you teach – not just an acquaintance but a friendship, with literature, music, philosophy and history. In a sometimes anxious journey, these are companions of great worth as we seek intellectual and spiritual comfort.

Those of you graduating in human kinetics will soon be teachers, counsellors, trainers, coaches, administrators and researchers. It will include the whole range of recreational, amateur and professional sport and, increasingly, the remarkable advances of disabled athletes. There is an old adage “Mens sana in corpore sano” – “A sound mind in a healthy body”, which perhaps sums up the cultural context of your profession. Some of you will be engaged in demanding competitive sport. The desire to win, and the pressure to win (and the two are not necessarily the same), is integral to competition. But not everyone under your charge or guidance can be the winner. Our daughter was with the Canadian Free Style Ski Team and won the World Cup in aerials in 1986 and competed in the 1988 Olympics. Anna had a poster in her room: “Success lies not in being the best but in doing your best.” We will host the 2010 Winter Olympics. Much is said about the economic and financial return. But, remember, the basis of the Olympic movement is the unapologetic idealism of its founder, Pierre de Courbertin who said: “The foundation of true human morality lies in mutual respect and, to respect one another, it is necessary to know one another.” His words, of course, go beyond the playing field, but that is where it is often first learned.

And some of you will be lawyers. Jonathan Swift over 200 years ago wrote, I think with wry humour: “Lawyers are a race of men among us who believe that anything that hath been done before may legally be done again.” This sardonic reversal of the meaning of precedent is still with us and is used regularly by politicians and bureaucrats to justify their sins of commission or omission.

You are not, generally speaking, a much loved profession – until you are needed! Remember what Shakespeare said in King Henry the Sixth, Part II: “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.” What is usually forgotten is Cades loyal follower, Dick the Butcher, wanted lawyers killed because their stubborn insistence on the rule of law stood against unlawful power.

Quietly take to heart the ancient counsel: “A lawyer without literature is like a mechanic without tools.” You too will be better for the friendship of the liberal arts. But, ultimately, you must seek justice. The inscription at the law school: “Fiat Justicia Ruat Coelum – Let justice be done though the heavens fall” is not just some well-turned phrase. It was used by Lord Mansfield to free the slave Somerset in 1772. Lawyers should remember it, yes, but so should we all.

In conclusion; what do we expect of all of you in the years to come? Simply this: that you make the same commitment to our country that the best of those who came before you made. Canada did not happen by accident on some sunny July 1st in Ottawa, in 1867. There were Canadians long before that. They dreamed of having their own country; and they and their descendants, and others who came from many places, worked for it, fought for it, and died for it. We want you to live for it.

Cherish our university’s tradition of academic excellence. Nurture your spirituality, as you understand it. Have faith in the best of our country’s history and idealism. And, when things are difficult, as in everyone’s life they will sometimes be, have courage. Winston Churchill was once asked: “What is the greatest quality a person can have?” He answered: “Courage because it guarantees all others.”

We are proud of you. Do your best. And good luck with all your endeavours in the years ahead.

Thank you.