Paul Gross, an eminent Canadian actor, writer, director, producer, musician and arts supporter, received an honorary doctor of laws from York University on June 17 during afternoon convocation ceremonies for graduands of the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design and the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.
Gross has achieved international fame and is best known for his role as Constable Benton Fraser of the RCMP in “Due South” – the first Canadian-made television series to have a prime-time slot on a major American network. Among his many acclaimed projects is the film Passchendaele, which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in. A critical and box-office success, it was an explicit effort to raise awareness of and pride in Canadians’ heroic actions during the First World War. Gross has received two Genie Awards, five Gemini Awards and many honours, including the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012). He was named an officer of the Order of Canada in 2013 in recognition of his role in promoting Canadian culture, mentoring domestic talent, and advocating on behalf of the Canadian television and film industries.
Putting aside his many accomplishments and accolades, Gross delivered an engaging convocation address that was underscored with anecdotes about the different journeys he has taken and lessons learned. The first, fittingly, was his journey to York University’s convocation ceremonies. “It’s very impressive to look out across this vast horde of you, all graduates of an esteemed university, but I have to say I do feel a kind of … oh, I don’t know, envy. A brooding, darkling sort of envy. You see, like you, I did attend a university. But unlike you, I did not graduate,” he told graduands with a wry smile. “In the first year of a four-year theatre program at the University of Alberta, I was required to take an elective. I opted to study logic. When the midterm rolled around, I realized I didn’t even know what building it was in so, logically, I decided to drop it.”
He continued with his studies until the “Dean of Really Lousy News” informed him that he would not be among his classmates during graduation because of the missed credit. “He suggested that I attend summer school and make up the course and I could earn a degree,” he said. “I ignored the advice and went off into the world. And for a very long time I gave no thought to my non-degree.”
Years later, that unfinished business began to gnaw at him. Then a surprise call from the “Dean of Really Good News” informed him that his degree would be presented to him. “I got that diploma, had it framed and to this day it hangs in my office,” he said. “It represents my many struggles, the exhilaration of debate, my countless failures, the occasional epiphany, an enduring comradery and, above all, the opening of my creative mind.”
Continuing his theme of journeys taken, he spoke with reverence about the places and people he encountered, including the acclaimed actor Max Von Sydow in a Toronto cinema. The two spoke about acting and a shared despair over the completion of meaningful creative projects. That journey and chance meeting led him to understand the importance of cultivating his own internal criteria for judgement.
An avid traveller, Gross has criss-crossed Canada many times. “Every trip I have taken has been a marker of a kind, and each trip shares the same principal amazement at the staggering vastness of our country. It is immense and virtually empty,” he said. “You are forced to consider the immensity of our country, the gift of the country we share, consider its bounty, and your context within that and be humbled.”
Within that vastness, he said on his most recent trip, taken just two weeks ago, he turned off his cellphone, shut out the noise and focused on the changing topography of Canada, the impact of humanity on the land and the importance new Canadians. He recounted meeting a Syrian refugee named Hamid who had taken over a small gas station and hotel north of Lake Superior. That chance meeting on a journey offered an important lesson for Gross. “He was excited to talk about the country he had left and more excited to talk about the country he had arrived in. When I asked him about Canada, how he felt about living so far north, he looked me in the eye and said he loved Canada, loved it. Canada, in his words, was a miracle.”
Despite the ravages associated with climate change, political instability, the assault on truth, attacks on our essential humanity and the rise of extremism, he said he had great hope for the future. “Every day I wake up and pledge myself to resist the inertial tug of cynicism. We must daily rejoin the fight, despite the world’s seeming indifference. And the hope for all of us rests with you and with your capacity to stay engaged,” he said. “Regardless of your discipline, you are ultimately concerned with your relationship to self and your responsibility to others. More than ever, you are needed on the ramparts. We are contemporary oracles of a kind. Or, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, most people live life through a rear-view mirror; those in the arts see and live in the present. So be ruthless, be honest and be brave.”
He urged graduands to cultivate their own travelling companions of curiosity, devotion and stubbornness. “Curiosity gave me an open mind and the capacity to learn; devotion furnished me with the adherence to follow an idea to its root; stubbornness is the capacity to keep going. And if you put those three companions together, you will arrive at faith,” he said. “For those of us who work in the arts, faith is what we do. It is what we defend. It is what we celebrate. We are the chroniclers of our common humanity. And as I look out across this great horde of you, all graduates of an esteemed university, I want to say only one thing: I believe in you. OK, two things. I have faith in you. I have these things because I have a diploma hanging in my office that was obtained by subterfuge. You have a diploma that you earned honestly. I congratulate you for that.”