The courage to make meaningful change

Donald Cousens, who has spent so much of his life working on behalf of others as a public servant, urged graduands to make a difference in Canada and the world through action and not to be complacent or merely observant.

"At the end of your life’s work, will you be able to say ‘Yes, I did make a difference’. I helped make the world a better place?" asked Cousens, the recipient of an honorary degree awarded during Monday’s convocation ceremonies for graduates of the Faculties of Environmental Studies, Health, and Science & Engineering.

Left: Donald Cousens. Photo by CSi/

Cousens, who has served the communities of Markham and York Region for many years as a school board trustee, mayor, member of provincial parliament and cabinet minister, has been described as a collaborator, innovator and great humanitarian. In addition to his work in public office, Cousens is also a member of the board of directors of World Vision Canada, the relief, development and advocacy organization dedicated to overcoming poverty and injustice. A graduate of Queen’s University and the recipient of a masters of divinity from Knox College, at the University of Toronto, Cousens reflected on the responsibilities associated with higher education. "We who are privileged with higher education, need to reflect on the advantage and opportunity it affords us to make a difference," said Cousens.

He outlined in his convocation address to graduands what he felt were the five most significant issues that face the world today and invited those present to accept his challenge to do something about them. His five issues include poverty, climate change, innovation, elimination of extremism, and good government.

"Change begins with vision and a dream," said Cousens. "Poverty means illiteracy, inadequate medical care, disease and death. That is what grinding poverty means. Poverty is insidious, indescribable and inexcusable in a world that has so much."

On the environment, Cousens urged for a strengthening of Kyoto Accord targets. "Kyoto targets need to be strengthened. We need to understand the consequences of climate change, unless we reversal climate change, great numbers of plants and animals face extinction. Countless numbers of people will swept away by a rising tide unless greenhouse gas emissions. Every country and every person has a responsibility to become environmentally sensitive and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions."

On innovation, Cousens spoke about his personal battle with kidney disease and how, as the recipient of two kidney transplants, medical innovation had saved his life. "If it not for advanced medical research, I would not be alive.

"York University has taken up the challenge to become a leading research university," said Cousens. "York has increasingly demonstrated a commitment to work with its community partners and to mobilize knowledge into the community where it can make a difference. We need research in all fields, we need to support people and projects."

On extremism, he spoke with passion about a post 9/11 world. "Car bombs and people bombs are the tools of destruction and the expression of contempt for another person’s human rights," said Cousens. "Moderation and mediation are not options for these people [extremists]. There is a universal urgency to return to societal values.

"The fifth and final issue is the need for good governance," said Cousens. "Good government sets the stage for everything. It sets the stage for law and order, health care and services to meet people’s needs. In Canada, we have a legacy of good government. It is not the case for many other countries around the world. It is our responsibility to challenge all of the world’s governments to be honest, to serve people, to deliver the resources of the country, to develop them and to train young people and invest in the future.

"And so I ask, how do each one of us make a difference in a world so complex and challenging. Change begins with the vision and the dream that the world and society as we know it can be improved. Can we make a difference? Yes when we decide to be participants and not observers. Then and only then can change happen."

Convocation ceremonies take place this week, daily through Saturday. You can watch live Webcasts of the ceremonies while they are on. Archived versions will be available a few days later.