Law scholar urges grads to understand that we are tenants on Earth




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Humankind is a vulnerable tenant of Earth and we would be wise to remember this fact and understand what lies beneath our existence, observed lawyer and constitutional scholar John D. Whyte in his remarks to graduands at Fall Convocation ceremonies for the Faculties of Education, Environmental Studies, Fine Arts, and Science; Lassonde School of Engineering; Schulich School of Business; Glendon College; and Osgoode Law School on Wednesday Oct. 16.

whyteJohn D. Whyte

Whyte, who is currently a policy Fellow at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Regina, was at York University’s convocation ceremonies to receive an honorary doctor of laws degree in recognition to his work in constitutional law, rights discourse and rights recognition in democratic states. He is an expert in Aboriginal rights, minority rights the judicial process, theories of social inclusion and social development. He has made enormous contributions to public life and held the various positions in the Saskatchewan government, including constitutional coordinator and director of the Constitutional Law Branch, Department of the Attorney General; director of the Constitutional Branch, Department of Intergovernmental Affairs; senior policy analyst for the Executive Council; and deputy minister and deputy attorney general for the Department of Justice. 

Whyte urged graduands to embrace this vulnerability and understand that their very existence is connected to the most humble of creatures. “We depend on everything there is – cockroaches and snakes, bees and birds, clean water and frozen tundra.  We know this is so because poets have told us – and so have scientists,” he said.

“This earth that we inhabit should serve all of humankind – and all of creation. As it happens, humans have no intelligence about what parts of creation are dispensable, no intelligence for taking over the re-design of the natural order and, it seems, a poor sense of the limits of resilience,” he said.

“Beneath our practices of use, exploitation and dominion there sits a deeper truth lit by an obscure moon: humankind is a vulnerable tenant whose vulnerability is created by, and perfectly matches, our human conceit. Our skills of observation, separation and classification can fill us with the wonder and appreciation of our natural home.  Nevertheless, we are blinded to what our most basic needs as inhabitants of the earth depend on.”

whyte2From left, York Chancellor Roy McMurtry, Whyte, and York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri

In our world we note and explore and theorize the differences among humankind – differences in origin, belief, history, experience and race, said Whyte, noting that we are all the same, needing love, feeling vulnerable, experiencing frustration, anger and hoping for joy.

“With such universality of emotion, need and value how can we explain humankind’s saddest reality – the relentless murder by humans of each other – this century as in previous centuries, this year as every year? How is it that the glory of the diversity in humanity’s response to our common human condition has been, so often, vanquished by our resentments over differences?”

He urged graduates to continue to study and seek the connections that explain their place and that of others in the world and work for the “good state”.

“When we study and enquire, as you have done, we are doing nothing so much as seeking the connections that explain our world, shape our lives and give us purpose,” he said. “Surely, the search for this connection, for this wholeness, is the goal – and hope – of university education. Let it be carried into your lives beyond this place.  Let this university’s moral aspirations for you – and for the society that you inhabit – continue to guide your purposes – and your lives.”

As a constitutional lawyer, Whyte tries to understand the allocations of political power in the state– and the restraints that those powers are made subject to. But following the bare words of the constitution is not the true condition for the good state, he said.

“That condition is the wanting of a good and stable society and the recognition that this can only be achieved through an understanding of what lies beneath constitutional text– and what it is that animates our statecraft,” he said. “What lies beneath the structures of public order are these things: a commitment to lawful government, the exercise of political restraint and the spirit of sharing power, refusal to seek anyone’s or any group’s disempowerment, the knowledge that strength lies in openness, not secrecy, speaking the truth, a commitment to evidence, not bias, in setting policy, acceptance of political losses with grace and courage, not cravenness.”