The ethics of beacons, buoys and lighthouses

A tiny spit of sand, hidden by waves, storms and fog, Sable Island, played an important role in the Canadian Constitution and in comments delivered by honorary doctorate recipient Preston Manning during Spring Convocation ceremonies on Tuesday .

Manning, a former federal politician and Reform Party leader, was conferred with an honorary doctor of laws degree by the University during ceremonies for graduates of the Faculty of Arts.

Situated about 180 km southeast of mainland Nova Scotia in the Atlantic Ocean, Sable Island is a narrow, crescent-shaped sandbar about 44 kilometres long and 2 kilometres wide. Since 1583, noted Manning, there have been more than 350 recorded shipwrecks on the island, which is subject to sudden storms, hurricanes and northeasters.

Left: Preston Manning

Sable Island in the 19th-century was recognized as so hazardous and dangerous a place that the Maritime governments responsible for it insisted that it be included in the constitutional act drafted in 1867, explained Manning.

"The constitutional reference to Sable Island is a reminder to me that there are still hazardous coastlines in our world today. Ethically hazardous coastlines – places and situations where conflicting views of right and wrong collide; where the sandbars of public opinion shift with the currents; and where the fog of expediency and uncertainty obscures the hazards that lie beneath the surface."

These ethically hazardous coastlines have shipwrecked individuals, families, communities, governments, universities, research enterprises, companies and even countries, said Manning. 

"It is on this coastline where the Enrons and the Worldcoms and the Hollingers foundered; it is on this coastline where the Canadian ship of state had a hole punched in its hull by the sponsorship scandal; and it is on this coastline where Korea’s stem cell research program was shipwrecked by the unethical conduct of one professor at the Seoul National University," said Manning.

"For me this Sable Island reference serves as a reminder that on this coastline we need graduates like you who are willing and equipped by your training, with high professional and academic standards, to serve as ethical beacons and lighthouses," said Manning. "Many of you who are graduating today with degrees from this distinguished university, will be serving in important positions in the professions, NGOs, academia and governments. I challenge you to bring to bear on these institutions a new and higher standard of ethical judgment and leadership. Standards and leadership that will serve as beacons and lighthouses, directing away from shoals and hazardous ethical standards and toward deeper and more honourable channels and harbours.

"Serve and lead on the ethical front and you will serve your employers, yourself, your families well," said Manning. "Remember Sable Island."