Canada is a ‘shining example’, says former Latvian president

Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who returned to her native Latvia after 45 years in Canada and became the republic’s first female president, received an honorary doctor of laws degree from York University on Wednesday during Spring Convocation ceremonies.

Right: Vaira Vike-Freiberga

Elected as the sixth president of the Republic of Latvia in 1999 and re-elected in 2003, Vike-Freiberga served as head of state until July, 2007. In spite of this accomplishment, it was her Canadian experience and admiration for her adoptive country that formed the heart of her convocation address to graduates of York’s Faculty of Health. Vike-Freiberga paid tribute to the caring and holistic nature of Canadian culture, which she says "serves as a shining example for the rest of the world of what can be accomplished in a multicultural nation."

Vike-Freiberga should know, as she has experienced multiculturalism first hand. She fled to Germany with her parents in January, 1945, to escape the Soviet occupation of Latvia. After immigrating to Canada, she attended the University of Toronto and McGill University. From 1965 to 1998, she was a professor in the Department of Psychology at the Université de Montréal, where her research focused on memory processes and language, and the influence of drugs on cognitive processes.

"It is a great honour for me and for my country Latvia for me to be here," said Vike-Freiberga. "I myself received my first degree at the University of Toronto at Victoria College exactly 50 years ago today. The years have gone by very quickly and have allowed me to see many changes in the world and I must say that many of these changes have been for the better.

"I am so proud of having had my chance to serve Canada in the scientific and academic world and it has given me great joy," she said. "It has also been a great joy for me to see Canada grow and thrive as a beacon of hope for many, like my parents and their compatriots, who were political refugees from the tyranny that occupied and annexed their country. They came here having lost everything and they found here in Canada a haven of refuge – a place of hope, where they could work and know that as human beings, they could be considered equals of everyone else.

"In talking to students of Victoria College just a few days ago, I was happy to hear that today’s young people, as with you young people who are here today, feel themselves to be Canadians, period. In spite of their diverse backgrounds, in their upbringing and in their hopes and aspirations, they felt that being accepted in Canada and accepting of others, was as easy as breathing and it was not something that they had take deliberate efforts for and they did not need to have a sign stating ‘I am not prejudiced’. I think that is one of the greatest accomplishments of Canada."

Canada, said Vike-Freiberga offers an important lesson for the rest of the world of constructive multiculturalism in action. She noted that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the resulting new democracies, many European nations were learning to co-exist with their new neighbours who had, for so many years, been secluded behind the iron curtain. These new democracies, said Vike-Freiberga, and the move to develop the European Union could learn from the example set by Canada’s multicultural mosaic.

"Europe has a chance, like they’ve never had before in history, to demonstrate the dedication and loyalty to the continent, to show the hope for the future, that in many ways Canada has demonstrated," said Vike-Freiberga.

She urged graduates to continue to care and promote a world based on holistic appreciation of each other’s cultures. "Show the world that we are an extended family that encompasses and embraces all and our world will be better than it was before."

To see an archived Web cast of her speech, visit York’s Convocation Web page.