Twists and turns part of the journey, Fraser tells grads

The twists and turns of life, the unexpected – this is sometimes where success and satisfaction can be found. So Sheila Fraser, auditor general of Canada, told graduating students of the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies on Thursday.

A chartered accountant with over 20 years of experience in public accounting in the private sector and the first woman to hold the title of auditor general of Canada, Fraser received an honorary doctorate of laws degree at York’s 2010 Fall Convocation ceremony.

Left: Sheila Fraser

Fraser joined the Office of the Auditor General in 1999 as deputy auditor general and assumed her current role in 2001. It’s a long way from a farm in rural Quebec, where she grew up, to providing parliament with the information necessary to hold the Canadian government accountable for public funds.

But as Fraser said, “Sometimes success and satisfaction take forms we don’t expect…you should expect that there will be a few twists and turns along the way and you should welcome the unexpected. Take it from me, good things can happen if you stay open and attentive to opportunities.”

After she graduated with a degree in commerce, Fraser expected to work for a major accounting firm in Montreal, but soon found herself working out of their Quebec City office and brushing up on her French.

“I grabbed the opportunity and immersed myself in the new environment. It was difficult, but I learned fast,” she said. “It turned out to be a decision that conferred many gifts—not the least of which was greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the bi-cultural nature of this country.”

Right: Sheila Fraser (left) receives an honorary doctorate of laws from York President & Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri (right) as York Chancellor Roy McMurtry looks on

Her career took another twist when she went from a quiet, anonymous life in accounting to become a public figure as auditor general, where she’s learned the importance of questioning authority. “For me, this is more than a job—it is in fact a sacred trust.” She encouraged the York graduates to take the same approach.

“So to the graduates: in your working life you may find yourself in situations where the right thing to do is to speak the truth to someone in authority—truth that may imply a good dose of criticism. If so, I encourage you to muster your courage and stand up for what you believe to be right.”

The ability to operate independently in her job impels her to communicate frankly, she said, even when that means voicing criticism.

Glancing back, she said she couldn’t have predicted the path she has followed to her current career. And she challenged the graduates to keep an open mind.

“With hindsight, I can see that the twists and turns of my career were not taking me off course—they were an integral and essential part of the journey,” said Fraser, who received the Prix Émérite in 1993, the designation “Fellow” by the Ordre des comptables agréés du Québec in 1994 and the Award of Outstanding Merit from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario in 2009.

Her final thought: “If you approach your life with the goal of remaining positive and determined, learning all you can, doing your best, holding fast to your values, and believing in your own unique gifts, you won’t have to wait to find success – you are already successful.”

York’s 2010 Fall Convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived on the Internet. To view Fraser’s convocation address, visit the Convocation website.