Mistry entertains convocation crowd with Shrubs R Us



Above: Rohinton Mistry autographing convocation program for York Dean Gillian Wu, Faculty of Pure & Applied Science

It didn’t matter which speech you heard at York’s 2003 Spring Convocation as honorary doctorate recipients stepped up to the podium. All had messages that were pertinent, even hard-edged, for the future alumni – and some were highly entertaining.

There was Rohinton Mistry and his pointed satire; Joan Goldfarb and her heartfelt message about volunteerism and the role of art in society; Rose Wolfe with her encouragement to education students to resist pressures on them; and Roberta Jamieson’s tough take on Ottawa’s new Indian Affairs legislation. All the speeches and proceedings can be viewed online at www.studentaffairs.yorku.ca/convo/convolive.htm.

Rohinton Mistry (right), author of Family Matters (2002),  A Fine Balance (1995) and Such a Long Journey (1991), delivered one of the most entertaining, and least conventional, speeches in recent memory. Unfortunately, you probably had to be there. His talk consisted almost entirely of an extended allegory about George W. Bush and the Iraq war.

Mistry spun a story of the CEO of the most powerful company in the world – a gardening firm called Shrubs R Us – waking up with a pain in the groin that he assumes is a hernia inflicted by his nasty arch-rival, the chief of Fertilizers R Us on the other side of the world. (Doctors think it’s gas.)

The shrub king and his close supporter, the poodle king, take over the fertilizer king’s turf by force, and then proceed to dig into piles of fertilizer in a vain attempt to find evidence of the plot.

After long effort in the steaming mountain, they ask, “how did we get into this mess?” You can, advised Mistry, shovel fertilizer to some of the people some of the time, but “if you try doing it to all of the people all of the time, you’ll start to smell bad and get a whopper of a hernia.”

Left: Mistry being interviewed by the media following his convocation address

“There is a lesson for the rest of us, too,” concluded Mistry, “we who have no dreams of world domination. Once upon a time, when it was believed that this was the best of all possible worlds, the best advice one could give or receive was to cultivate your garden.

“Alas, that is no longer enough. By all means cultivate your garden, but do keep an eye on the big garden centre as well. Thank you.”

Joan Goldfarb (right), a dedicated volunteer and philanthropist who is heavily involved in the arts scene, delivered a paean to volunteerism, which she said “brings depth and meaning to one’s life.”

Volunteers, Goldfarb said, “elect governments, they build community centres, they create benefit societies, good aged homes, theatres and educational programs…. There are volunteers everywhere and they have done more shape the nature of Canada than any of us can possibly imagine.”

Although she had met many creative and talented people in many parts of the world, she said, “it is the work I have done volunteering that has opened up new worlds for me.” Through volunteering, she had learned about teaching disabled children and adults, about geriatric care, government policy, cultural policy, how the court system works and how the creative process can help people with disabilities.

Left: Goldfarb with York Chancellor Avie J. Bennett

“The bonus,” added Goldfarb, “is that you meet people who, in the truly real definition of the word, are awesome.”

Not surprisingly for an accomplished collector, Goldfarb also paid tribute to the role of art in society. “I fully subscribe,” she said, “to the notion that the reason for art is to remind us we are human…. One of the great things about the arts is that you cannot, and you should not, separate them from your life. They are a fundamental part of the world we live in.”

York is well-known for the diversity of its student population and its inclusivity, said Rose Wolfe (right), chancellor emerita of the University of Toronto and director of two foundations. It was a theme she wove into the fabric of her talk on diversity at universities.

York has been “a leader among Canadian universities in embracing students of every social rank and cultural background,” Wolfe said. “It has always been inclusive and welcoming to people of all backgrounds, and that’s why I feel so honoured that today you have made your University my University.”

Recounting her early days in higher education, Wolfe said she arrived at university as a member of an immigrant Jewish family struggling to make a life in Canada. Her parents hoped that life would be better for their children than it had been for them, “and [their hopes] included the expectation of a university education.”

Wolfe added a sobering fact. “It is important to remember that Ontario’s universities in those days were different places. Visible minorities were rarely seen and Jews were not welcome in certain professional faculties. Their admission was restricted and barriers placed in their paths, in the same way that women were discouraged from enrolling in some programs.

“Fortunately, the lessons of those days contributed to the more open and inclusive universities that we cherish today.”

Wolfe, who spoke to graduating education students, also injected a political note as she urged them to “resist those who would make things difficult.”  “You are graduating at a time when your profession has been denigrated by those who do know better,” she said. “You must understand, however, that thousands of Ontarians – parents and students – are with you and support you in your important work.”

Left: On the right, Rose Wolfe with York President and Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden

Wolfe said the philosophy of individualism holds great attraction for many. “There are some who even feel that it absolves them of the responsibility for others and rationalizes neglect as a necessity for empowerment.

“I sense, however, that the tide is turning,”  said Wolfe.

Roberta Jamieson, a Mohawk who served as Ontario’s first Aboriginal Ombudsman, also had a political message. After reminding the audience they were sitting on the former land of the Mississauga and Seneca nations, she fired a broadside at the federal government over three pieces of legislation involving Native people that she called “an unconscionable abuse of the democratic process.”  

Right: An emotional moment as Roberta Jamieson accepts her honorary doctorate

The measures, she said, would allow the Minister of Indian Affairs to “intrude in every detail of the governance of the first peoples of this country” as well as give Ottawa greater control over day to day events and “end the paltry land base we have left.” They would also create an agency on land issues “appointed by, responsible to, reporting to, the very minister against whom they will be asked to judge claims – hardly independent, fair or just treatment for the first peoples.”

This “very colonial and paternalistic approach,” she said, was being railroaded through Parliament. “You would think there was a national emergency.” The good news, she said, was that the bills expired with the current session, “but the bad news is, they are sitting waiting for Parliament to return in the fall.” She exhorted her listeners to contact their MPs.