No stage fright for Dr. Robbie Robertson

Aboriginal activist and renowned Canadian musician Robbie Robertson received an honorary doctor of law degree from York University’s Faculty of Education on Tuesday during convocation ceremonies at York’s Keele campus.

Robbie Robertson receives honorary degree

Right: From left, Robbie Robertson receives an honorary degree from York Chancellor Peter Cory and York President and Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden

Active in the advancement of aboriginal rights, culture and arts, Robertson is an award-winning musician of mixed aboriginal ancestry. A legendary musician and songwriter in his own right, he was the driving force behind The Band, collaborating with musicians such as Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan. Robertson is also a talented composer, having written scores for the Martin Scorsese films Raging Bull and The Color of Money. He is the recipient of three Juno awards, as well as lifetime achievement awards from the National Academy of Songwriters, the Native American Music Awards, and the Aboriginal Achievement Awards; his recordings have been credited with helping First Nations music gain mainstream acceptance and recognition. Robertson’s international stature as an artist was recently reinforced in his performance at the opening ceremony of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games. He is active as well in the area of prison reform and in particular in matters of aboriginal prisoner rights.

In his introductory remarks, Paul Axelrod, dean of York’s Faculty of Education, described Robertson as a “composer, musical innovator, emissary for aboriginal culture and human rights, and valued collaborator of luminaries in the worlds of music and film.” Axelrod said Robertson was being honoured for his “incredible influence on contemporary popular culture”, his pursuit and achievement of artistic excellence and his work as a “master teacher in the world of informal education”.

In a highly personal salute to teachers in both the formal and informal worlds of education, Robertson admitted he was once a “young smart-ass kid thinking I knew how to shortcut the system” but, after achieving early success as a rock musician, “started to feel a kind of emptiness” that led him to become an obsessive reader. He explained to the class of 2005 that formal education was not on his parents’ “menu” in the early 1960s when he was growing up on the Six Nations Reserve near Brantford, Ont., and in Toronto, but he had, however, studied at some “colourful, strange schools” and met some inspirational teachers along the way.

Robbie Robertson and Ronnie Hawkins

Right: From left, Robbie Robertson and Ronnie Hawkins in 1963 (photo, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, York University)

From his early days as a teenage musician, learning about life on the road from Ronnie Hawkins, to contributing to rock and roll history with The Band and Bob Dylan, Robertson paid tribute to a number of famous people who formed his personal faculty of learning. Among those he mentioned were author Henry Miller, filmmaker Martin Scorcese and composers Alex North and Gil Evans as well as “gifted native wisdom keepers”, all of whom he drew upon for inspiration in his career. “Every day, I have a deeper appreciation for the knowledge and good teachers,” he said.

Now a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and one of Canada’s most accomplished and influential songwriters, Robertson said he “took the long, roundabout way from Six Nations to York University but I got here and I’m proud of it.”