Glendon’s bilingual campus is a gem in a unilingual sea, says David Collenette

David Collenette
David Collenette
David Collenette
David Collenette

One of York University’s most illustrious alumni from Glendon, David Collenette (BA ’69, MA ’04) was a member of the Canadian House of Commons for more than 20 years. Serving under former prime ministers Pierre Trudeau, John Turner and Jean Chrétien, he was minister of state for multiculturalism, national defense, veterans affairs, transport and crown corporations. Among many of his accomplishments, he authored a major policy paper that charted a course for Canadian transportation policy over a decade, initiated legislative changes and oversaw Canada’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States.

On Saturday, June 20, York University conferred an honorary doctor of laws degree on Collenette for his lifetime of public service. Collenette, a politician, strategic adviser, distinguished fellow, delivered the commencement address to Glendon College graduates.

“I firmly believe that how and where you learn is almost as important as what you learn,” said Collenette. “The lessons learned from discussion, reflection and debate on campus make for a well-rounded scholar. In that case you have been lucky to have been able to be part of a unique learning experiment, Glendon College, a bilingual gem in a unilingual sea. The ability to speak more than one language adds a special dimension to any individual’s life experience but in Canada, to be able to communicate in both official languages is more than being both a unique asset and a privilege, it is a key to continuing the great partnership between French- and English-speaking Canada.”

Collenette told grads that 50 years earlier, when he had enrolled at Glendon, he was the first in his family to attend university. “York had only just began operations in 1960 at this beautiful site, the former Wood estate, when the Ontario government realized the need for university places would require a massive facility in the suburbs to accommodate a rapidly growing population. But what would happen to Glendon?  The genius of founding President Murray Ross was evident in repositioning Glendon as a semi-autonomous college within the University and selecting Rhodes Scholar and former diplomat Escott Reid as principal.”

Reid set out to create a unique and intimate place of learning, one that would be fully residential, and offered a small but demanding curriculum: a liberal arts college in the Oxford tradition. Reid did not stop there and decided that Glendon would offer more and be grounded by the twin pillars of bilingualism and public service, said Collenette. “That sounded like a good fit for me so I chose Glendon.”

He said that he experienced an education, both formally in the classroom and informally elsewhere on the campus, that was bilingual and bicultural, something that Collenette said reflected Canada’s unique position in the world.

Above: From left, York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri, David Collenette, and York Chancellor Gregory Sorbara
Above: From left, York President and Vice-Chancellor Mamdouh Shoukri, David Collenette, and York Chancellor Gregory Sorbara

“I firmly believe that our linguistic duality makes Canada a beacon for civility and tolerance in an often dysfunctional world,” Collenette told graduands. “Understanding Canada’s linguistic heritage also helps to give us an appreciation of other races, cultures, languages and religions.”

These qualities are extremely important he said because the forces of globalization and technology through the Internet and social media have torn down the borders that have constrained understanding over the centuries. “Today as I look at this impressive array of graduates I see the face of the world,” he said. “Glendon embraces that world of pluralism in every respect.”

Many of the graduands taking part in the convocation ceremonies had, observed Collenette, come to Glendon with a career goal focused in the public service. This has been a consistent focus over the course of his own and the college’s history.

“I had never seriously thought that my public service would come through elected office but I never regretted it for a moment.  In the 21 years that I served, over a 30-year period, I was privileged to meet many world leaders and play a role in many important battles and crises including the abolition of capital punishment in 1976; Patriation of the Constitution with entrenchment of the Charter of Rights in 1982; two Quebec referenda in 1980 and 1995; and the tragic events of September 11, 2001,” he said. “Like all people who serve in political life I was an ordinary person charged with extraordinary responsibilities for a short period of time.

“Look around you, the Class of 2015, and such is the genius of the country in which we live that it could be any of you who are called upon to serve your fellow citizens in elected office,” he said.

He ended his address with a quote from one of the 21st century’s most memorable convocation addresses. “In searching out notable convocation speeches, I believe one of the best exhortations was given in 2005 by the late Steve Jobs, founder of Apple Computers: ‘Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.  Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, and most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.'”

Collenette then issued a challenge to the Class of 2015 to seize every opportunity that would come their way and to focus on how to achieve the greater good.

York’s 2015 spring convocation ceremonies are streamed live and then archived online. Collenette’s convocation address will be archived at the conclusion of spring convocation ceremonies. To view his address, visit the Convocation webcast archive.