Let freedom ring: governor general opens new research institute

The sound of freedom rang out at York University Sunday as Canada’s Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, opened a new research centre at York University and helped commemorate the 200th anniversary of the British abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

During the ceremony, Jean received an honorary doctorate of laws degree from York University. She then officially opened the University’s new Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples by ringing a replica of the historic Buxton Liberty Bell. The event, held in the Tribute Communities Recital Hall, Accolade East, on York’s Keele campus on Sunday afternoon, drew dignitaries and media from across Canada and the United States.

Above: from left, Lorna R. Marsden, York president & vice-chancellor; Marshall Cohen, Chair of the York University Board of Governors;  York Chancellor Peter Cory; Professor Paul Lovejoy, director of the Tubman Institute; and Stan Shapson, vice-president, research & innovation, look on as Governor General  Michaëlle Jean prepares to ring the historic Buxton Liberty Bell

In his comments to the governor general following the conferring of the law degree, Patrick Monahan, dean of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School, spoke of Jean’s commitment to education and dialogue as being the best course to promote understanding and respect while at the same time eliminating racism, discrimination and the crime of human trafficking. "Through your personal example, courage and conviction, you are a role model for all Canadians," said Monahan. "The entire York University community regards it as a distinct privilege to be able to honour you today and in so doing, to affirm our own commitment to the values you continue to champion."

"The senate of this University takes very seriously the matter of conferring of honorary degrees. The defining criterion for selection is that the individual be worthy of emulation by our students," said York President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden. "As our honorary graduate today, we know that you are most worthy of emulation not only by our current students, but for generations of students to come.

"We are so very proud to be represented by you, not only in Canada but in countries around the world," said Marsden. "Your Excellency, welcome to the York family. We hope you will visit us often."

Left: With emotion, the governor general (left) thanked the University and Chancellor Peter Cory (right) for conferring upon her the honorary doctor of laws degree

"First and foremost," said Jean, "let me tell you what a privilege it is for me to have been granted the honorary degree of doctor of laws from such a prestigious University. As a world-class institution of higher learning, located in the heart of one of the most multicultural and multiracial cities in the world, your mission transcends the mere transmission of knowledge. It goes much further than that to providing a space for learning and thinking that is so essential to safeguarding freedom and democracy in our society.

"The values and practices that have sheltered us from violence, forced servitude and tyranny, are slowly being eroded, as social fragmentation is disconnecting us from each other," said Jean. "Worse yet, we are hearing about more and more cases of slavery and slavery-like practices rearing their ghastly heads around the world.

"I am so proud to be here today to congratulate you for launching the Harriet Tubman Institute. In so doing, you are helping us appreciate the breadth of the African diasporic experience not only in the Americas, but also in the Middle East and Asia. You are telling us of the great struggle slaves and former slaves underwent to reclaim their dignity as human beings," said Jean. "You are reminding us of the importance of remaining vigilant even today, as slavery, slavery-like practices and human trafficking persists around the world.

Right: Jean speaks to the media following the ceremony to open the Tubman Institute

"Spaces of dialogue, learning and exchange are crucial to keeping Canadians and the rest of the world aware of the undeniable importance of freedom and the dangers that continue to lie in its path," said Jean.

Named in honour of Harriet Tubman, a Maryland woman who fled slavery in 1849 and became a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad that brought slaves north to Canada and freedom, the research centre will explore the history and forced migrations of African people around the world.

Researchers and students at the centre are developing leading-edge digital technology. An innovative database being developed with Scott Library and Emory University in Atlanta will be searchable in a number of languages and will interface with other databases including one from an Emory project that is compiling data on the voyages that brought enslaved Africans to the Americas. Personal and official documents, photographs, interviews and maps archived by the institute tell the stories of the migration of African peoples around the globe, whether voluntary or by force, over hundreds of years.

"The governor general’s words give us pause for reflection on the importance of the need to confront social injustice past and present, this is precisely the mandate of the Tubman Institute," said Paul Lovejoy, the inaugural director of the Harriet Tubman Research Institute on the Global Migrations of African Peoples.

Left: The African Dance Ensemble (ADE) led by York PhD candidate in ethnomusicology, Isaac Akrong, perform a traditional piece called Sorsorone, a harvest dance of the Baga people from Guinea, during the opening ceremonies for the Tubman Institute. The choreography borrows from Ghanaian cultural practices and the history of the piece reflects the story of slaves that were taken from the coast of Ghana.

"The Harriet Tubman Institute subscribes to the proposition that people have a right to know their own history and they have a right to know the impact of that history on contemporary culture and society, and in order to understand social injustices,"  said Lovejoy.

"Slavery persists in the 20th century and we need to know why and we need to stop it," said Lovejoy. "The Tubman Institute will undertake the research to that is necessary to confront slavery in the past and in the present."

This article was written by Jenny Pitt-Clark, YFile editor.