Success should not preclude striving for social justice: Arthurs

Succeeding in business or in a profession such as law doesn’t mean giving up on social justice, York University President Emeritus Harry Arthurs told graduands at Spring Convocation ceremonies last Friday.

"Quite the contrary. It means that if you have abilities, if you have resources and opportunities, you also have an obligation to use them on behalf of people who don’t," said Arthurs, dean of York’s Osgoode Hall Law School from 1972 to 1977 and president of York from 1985 to 1992. "I hope, I believe, fellow graduates, that you will do precisely that."

Left: Harry Arthurs

In 2002, Arthurs was awarded the Canada Council’s Killam Prize for his lifetime contribution to the social sciences. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a member of the Order of Ontario and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and of the British Academy.

In his speech to Osgoode graduands, Arthurs linked important events in his life to Friday’s Convocation ceremonies and wove them into a message grounded in social responsibility. As Arthurs put it, "My life measured in coincidences, coincidences linked to your lives, coincidences measured in decimals."

It was June 1958 when Arthurs received his bachelor of laws degree from the University of Toronto. Coincidentally, 50 years later, York was conferring its honorary doctor of laws degree on Arthurs in appreciation of his contributions as a teacher, scholar and leader at Osgoode and at York. And 100 years earlier in 1908, Arthurs’ grandmother began her practice as a nurse and midwife. She arrived in Toronto as an immigrant teenager two years earlier and began work in a factory sewing button holes, but was lucky enough to be sent to the United States for medical training.

"Her first day as a nurse, as a midwife, was as much a landmark for my family as today’s graduation is for yours," said Arthurs. "And, looking to the future, rather than the past, I want to make the point that none of us, however well we succeed – and I’m sure you will – none of us should every forget where we came from or how we got here."

The next coincidence Arthurs spoke of was the death of his grandfather, also an immigrant, in a car accident in 1928. Some 18,000 people turned out for his funeral. "He was a successful businessman, but also a leading figure in his community, in Toronto’s labour movement and in social democratic circles." Arthurs’ own path in life hasn’t strayed far from his grandfather’s when it comes to giving back to the community.

Earlier this year, Arthurs was awarded the prestigious International Labour Organization Decent Work Research Prize, the highest recognition for a labour law scholar. In 2003, Arthurs received the Bora Laskin Prize for his contribution to labour law. From 2004 to 2006, he served as commissioner reviewing Canada’s labour standards legislation and is currently commissioner reviewing Ontario’s pension legislation. He is the author of Without the Law: Administrative Justice and Legal Pluralism in Nineteenth-Century England (University of Toronto Press, 1985) and is a long-time labour mediator and arbitrator. Since retiring in 2005, he has continued to contribute as president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and director of the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development..

Right: York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri (right) congratulates Harry Arthurs

He credits Osgoode Hall Law School with reinventing itself once it became formally affiliated with York and with recognizing that law was an intellectual discipline, a social institution and a profession. "The values we embraced, the questions we asked, the changes we made, were soon being embraced, asked and made in law schools across this country, and they still are."

He told the graduands that in the 1960s, "it was accepted that everything my students and I needed to read as lawyers could be found in legal treatises and law reports. The wider body of learning in the humanities and the social sciences supposedly had nothing to tell us. All of that changed when we became a Faculty at York University. Coming to York gave us the critical distance from the profession that we needed to see ourselves, to be ourselves and to reinvent ourselves. For that opportunity, the law school community should be and will be forever grateful to York University".

But Arthurs reminded graduands that the work is not finished. In 1983, a committee on legal education and scholarship chaired by Arthurs concluded in its report, Law and Learning, that the great revolution in legal education, which Osgoode had launched, hadn’t actually accomplished all it hoped to. "New ideas, new strategies, new energies were needed to carry the work forward. That report turned out to be pretty influential," he said.

The message, said Arthurs,  is "you should never ever succumb to your own propaganda, you should never ever become so attached to your own good ideas that you stop looking for even better ones."

Arthurs had one more message. He told graduands to go out and get smitten, or if they were already smitten, to stay smitten. "I was smitten…and it changed my life wholly for the better."

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