Actor and former senator Viola Léger combined Acadian wit and wisdom in her remarks to graduates of York’s Glendon College Saturday – but what else would you expect when you give an honorary degree to La Sagouine (the washerwoman)?
Known during her stage career for playing the title character of author Antonine Maillet’s series of monologues that became a Canadian classic, Léger alternated between English and French as she offered her views on cultural identity and the importance of the arts, and shared insights from her four years in Canada’s upper house of Parliament.
Right: Viola Léger
Addressing some of the audience members as “venerable honourees – I just felt they needed an adjective” – Léger, 79, said, “what an honour and what a privilege it is to become a member of the Glendon College, York University family. Thank you for sharing your renowned liberal arts education, the social sciences and humanities, and sharing your commitment to diversity, equity and social justice, the core of human life.”
In her remarks on bilingualism and multiculturalism, Léger talked about her identity as a woman born in Massachusetts who moved to New Brunswick when she was 18, and who played on stages around the world – “from Moncton to Monaco” – and across Canada. “I speak French and, as you see, I speak English too,” said Léger. “I was a senator in the government of Canada but my real identity, like yours, goes far beyond words. It transcends the language we speak. It is the product of life: both rich and sad experiences, searching, questioning and discovering. And this is how we find one another, recognize one another, understand one another.
“The link is cross-cultural and this…is a source of hope because no more do we line up our cultures to admire or analyze them and no more do we melt them in a great cauldron, striving to fit our soul and creations into one mould. Cross-cultural reality is light years away from the melting pot. Neither culture suffocates the other; they nurture one another. From the cross-cultural spring new perceptions of life and this, it seems to me, is what happens with art."
Léger called her four years as a senator for L’Acadie a privilege and an apprenticeship in understanding “this immensely complex and large country…. In the upper house, I rubbed shoulders with a large number of distinguished, devoted and eminently qualified people. I was particularly impressed by the committees and the personnel of Senate who represent their country with integrity and professionalism. Four years in the Senate provoked continual reflection and constructive, internal debate, curiosity and a relevant search, which in the end define democracy.”
Left: from left, York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri and Chancellor Roy McMurtry present Léger with her honorary degree
“Et les arts! The function of artistic work is to bring people together and stimulate dialogue. The arts play an indispensible role in mutual understanding," said Léger. "Artistic creations raise our consciousness. They are a source of meditation, aspiration, reflection and of comfort. The arts contribute to the equilibrium of individuals and to elevating the soul. They permit us to live and breathe. Without beauty, without laughter and tears, we couldn’t live. Above all, the arts define us and help us to understand what it is to be Canadian and where we are as a society.
“Canadian culture stems from the union of different cultures and traditions, each one just as rich as the other. Our distinctive traits are enriched by the contribution of native cultures and many other cultural influences that were gradually added into the mix. Our way of life is Western, North American and at the same time it is native, it’s Ukrainian, Pakistani, Senegalese, Acadian, Irish and much, much more.
“We are a northern country of extreme cold and many seasons. Our intellectual milieu takes it power from the extraordinary synergy of men and women who come from everywhere to participate in the grand collective project that is Canada. Uniformity is not what characterizes us, we are diversity itself, but we have in common our attachment to values which are an important dimension of our culture.
“John Ralston Saul was not mistaken when he underlined that only Canadian culture could express the singularity of our bilingual, multicultural country, profoundly marked by indigenous roots, the North, the oceans and its clean immensity. We are therefore a new humanity – a humanity born from the meeting of diverse peoples.
“Much of my life has been built around my work as an actor performing La Sagouine…but…to keep my senses sharp, alive and acute, I have always had to live in the present. If I wanted to succeed as an interpreter of my characters, I had to live my present, my now, at each moment. I couldn’t allow myself to live in a past that no longer existed nor a future that is a mystery.
“Venerable honourees, honourable graduates – congratulations, this is your present, and in more simple words but not less profound I would like to conclude with two of my favourite quotations from La Sagouine: “It’s not having a thing that makes a person happy, it’s knowing you’re going to get it.
“And the last one, well, a person’s gotta take himself for what he is and not try to talk and walk like other folks, no, no, no, no – a person’s gotta look like the land that made him and fed him.”