Take risks, pursue the path less travelled, says former MP

photo of Barbara Jean McDougall Zimmerman

Barbara Jean McDougall Zimmerman dreamed of being an architect. Her mother encouraged her; her teachers discouraged her – because she was a girl, not because she couldn’t draw. She ended up studying political science and economics – and holding cabinet posts in Brian Mulroney’s government.

“Thus marked the first of my occasional failures,” the York honorary degree recipient told graduating students in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies at convocation last week. “I couldn’t be an photo of Barbara Jean McDougall Zimmermanarchitect, but I discovered a whole new world of all-night discussions about Jean-Paul Sartre, a world of art lovers and earnest philosophers. So instead of going in a straight line I had flown skyward in a hundred directions. I wouldn’t have missed that experience in school for anything.”

Barbara Jean McDougall Zimmerman

It taught her the value of taking risks – of choosing the path less travelled and pursuing the next challenge, whether prepared or not. Risk requires courage, she said. Courage is something you learn by taking the extra chance, reaching higher than you can grasp, picking yourself up after humiliating setbacks.

When she graduated in the early 1960s, the world was very different, she said. The cold war dominated world politics; the capacity of nuclear destruction was very real. “The Soviet Union had recently launched Sputnik, the first spaceship, sending a cloud of despondency over Western policy makers,” she remembered. People had faith in the United Nations to achieve stability and maintain world peace. Peacekeeping had just been invented by Canadian Lester B. Pearson, and had proved its worth by preventing war in the Middle East at Suez.

“Today, you look ahead and abroad from an entirely different perspective,” she said. “You have a lagging world economy and a world of terrorism to deal with. The cold war has been gone for 20 years. Peacekeeping is no more the state of the art international strategy and the UN is looking a little tattered around edges.”

In 1960, Canada had yet to introduce universal health care, Aboriginals had just been granted the vote and the first woman in Canada’s 93-year history had been appointed to cabinet.

Many things will change in your lifetime, she told her young audience. Not long ago there was no Facebook, Twitter or iPads. “No doubt, you look upon these as the pillars you lean on to learn, communicate and analyze, but these too shall pass just as the fax machine and space shuttle have come and gone over my career.”

You will be continually faced with new technology, new ways of thinking, new challenges. Attempting to meet them “can mean a rush of adrenalin as you head off into the unknown, but it can also mean conquering a fear,” said McDougall, who later pursued a career in international policy promoting growth, development and solutions to conflict.

York’s Spring Convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived online. To view McDougall Zimmerman’s address, visit the Convocation website.