There is wisdom in our shared humanity, says LaForme

Deeply spiritual and humble, Justice Harry LaForme (LLB ‘77) addressed graduates of York’s Faculty of Graduate Studies, Faculty of Environmental Studies, Faculty of Health, Osgoode Hall Law School, Schulich School of Business and the Faculty of Science & Engineering on Saturday afternoon. Delivering a captivating address, LaForme spoke softly and with authority about his life growing up on a reservation just west of Toronto, of his First Nations identity and of Ubuntu, the African concept of shared humanity.

Left: Harry LaForme

"I am humbled deeply by the honour being bestowed on me by you as representatives of York University, a tremendous symbol of learning, knowledge and social justice," LaForme told the graduates.

He then introduced himself by his Anishinaabe traditional name, which translates as "powerful lightning". He explained that he was an Ojibwa man, a member of the Eagle Clan and a member of the Mississauga of New Credit First Nation in Hagersville, Ont.

"To borrow from a friend of mine, Ms. Bev Jacobs, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, my ‘GST name’ is Harry LaForme," he said.

"I was born and raised on my reserve. I have a photograph of me as a child, standing on the mud floor of the kitchen of our home, a refurbished granary, that had no running water, electricity, or indoor facilities," said LaForme.

He described growing up Monday to Friday in Buffalo, New York, and on the reserve in Hagersville on the weekends, describing how his father had to move the family to the US to find work because no one would hire him. He spoke of his early experience of poverty, violence, racism and the many social injustices experienced by First Nations people. He said he drew solace and strength from his family and the reservation, paying tribute to his grandfather: "He continues to guide and watch over me today."

Above: From left, Justice Harry LaForme, York Chancellor Roy McMurtry and York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri

"There is a traditional philosophy of humanism held by some South African people called Ubuntu," said LaForme, describing how he learned about it from Antjie Krog’s book about the South African truth and reconciliation experience – Country of My Skull (2000). "Ubuntu emphasizes the link between the individual and the collective. A person is human precisely in being enveloped in a community of other human beings, in being caught up in the bundle of human life. To be is to participate."

As a child on a reserve, LaForme said he dreamed of becoming many things in life. However, becoming a lawyer and justice on the Ontario Court of Appeal was not one of those dreams, he said, calling that a dream for others.

Referring to the mud-floor kitchen photo, he said, "I keep that photograph on my refrigerator door in order to never forget from where I came from. Not because it is a grim a reminder of hard times, but because it reminds me of who I really am and where I truly come from. Little did I know then that my family, friends and events would influence my path and significantly alter my dreams, because of that, I have a responsibility to my family, my community, my people, my ancestors and to my Canada.

"I am part of them and they are part of me. Ubuntu," said LaForme. "I am just one of the four races of man placed on this earth by the creator. Each race given special knowledge and wisdom to share with the others toward the betterment of Mother Earth. Ubuntu.

"Just as I am a custodian of Mother Earth and the living beings placed upon her, so too are you," said LaForme. "Just as my achievements are the achievements of many who went with me and before me, so too are yours.

"Just as I am called, so too are you. You are called to be dedicated, hardworking, steadfast women and men," he said. "I ask that as you go forward, take your life experiences, your traditions, beliefs and values with you and apply them in your life and your life’s work. They matter greatly as you matter greatly. They are worth celebrating as you are worth celebrating."

About Harry LaForme

Justice Harry LaForme was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2004 – the first Aboriginal person to be appointed to sit on any appellate court in the history of Canada. LaForme graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in 1977 and was called to the Ontario Bar in 1979. He soon commenced his own practice, specializing in Aboriginal law and focusing on matters involving the constitution and the Charter of Rights & Freedoms.

He has appeared before each level of court, travelled extensively throughout Canada and represented Canadian Aboriginal interests in Switzerland, New Zealand and to the British Parliament. He was a member of the Osgoode Alumni Board of Directors for almost 20 years.