Today’s grads will lead Canada out of the recession, says Ontario’s vice-regal

David Onley often wonders what would have happened had there not been an admissions computer glitch that rejected, along with many others, his first-choice application to York University more than 20 years ago. The glitch, which was discovered and fixed, was followed by a flurry of admission letters sent to deserving high school applicants. By that time however, Onley had already enrolled in another university. Now more than two decades later, Onley squared the circle by coming to York to accept an honorary degree during Spring Convocation ceremonies for graduates of the Faculty of Arts.

Left: David Onley

“It is a reminder that in the pursuit of learning, no effort is wasted and no setback is permanent and I am thrilled to be here to get my degree. Thank you!” said Onley, who is now The Right Honourable David Onley, lieutenant-governor of Ontario. 

A television journalist for more than 22 years, Onley specialized in science and technology reporting and worked for Citytv as a science and technology reporter. He was also an anchor for the 24-hour news station CablePulse 24 and hosted “Home Page”, a weekly technology television series. Onley is also an advocate for those with disabilities – a survivor of polio, he was one of Canada’s first television personalities with a visible disability.

On Friday, June 26, York honoured Onley with an honorary degree in recognition of his work as a champion of disability rights in Canada. Onley has used his influence to highlight the need for improved accessiblity and to help remove barriers to employment and housing for Ontario’s 1.5 million people with disabilities.

Onley’s message to graduands was one of hope, saying that even though they are graduating in difficult economic times, they had an important role to play in leading Canada out of the global economic recession. “Eighty years ago, and throughout the 1930s, one graduating class after another emerged into appalling economic conditions, far worse than today’s,” said Onley. “Given that it takes anywhere from 15 to 20 years to fully build a career, it is instructive to note that the boom times of the 1950s and 1960s, considered to be the most prosperous two decades of the 20th century, were effectively managed and developed by the same students who graduated during the Great Depression.

“The world required a new way of thinking and a new way of doing things and that generation of students came through and I have absolutely no doubt that you will too,” said Onley.

From the suffering of the Great Depression, a fair and compassionate society emerged, said Onley. Canada became a prosperous and industrialized nation that was pluralistic and one in which individuals from many different countries are able to live side-by-side and in harmony. “We achieved all this without the upheaval and bloodshed that all too often accompanies social change in other parts of the world,” he said. “I believe that as we work through this global recession, new and innovative ways of teaching, doing business and running government and enhancing culture, can and will be developed by your generation. And with these innovations, you too will put your imprint on our society, and it will be for the better.”

Above: From left, David Onley, York’s Chancellor Roy McMurtry and President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri

Onley cautioned those present to avoid the kind of “group-think” which he believes will jeopardize the degree of freedom of speech and thought needed to embrace new ideas. He asked graduands to guard against the ease of subtle intolerance of alternative views, which even if they do not like, are still worthy of respect and examination.

“All too often, serious public discourse is replaced by little more than a kind of booing and cheering from the fans in the crowd. It takes the place of what is actually respecting what is being said by other people,” said Onley. “We must always remember that the minority is not always wrong and the majority is not always right. Alternate views should not be considered as a threat, but as an intellectual challenge.

“When we confuse conjecture with rigorous scientific theory, or choose astrology over astronomy, we are ignoring the deeper things of nature,” he said. “When we ignore the knowledge of our elders while experts assure us that all is well, we deny the weight of experience. When we block our ears so that we may not hear the ideas of others, when we view people of different faiths with suspicion, then the whole tenor of public debate is threatened by our refusal to give things not commonly believed a fair hearing.”

He challenged graduands to pursue a lifetime of intellectual rigour to guard against conjecture and ignorance. “Your future success will not so much depend on what you have learned here or how well you can follow orders, but on the best in your own character, your creativity, your intellectual curiosity, your very humanity,” he said.

To hear an archived video of this speech, click here.