Honorary doctorate recipient Anne Cools speaks about what sets Canada apart

The Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies honoured Canadian senator and social justice advocate Anne C. Cools with an honorary doctor of laws degree during convocation ceremonies on Wednesday, June 19.

York honorary doctorate recipient Anne Cools

“Whenever I attend university events, I am always inspired because universities are vital to the lives, intelligence and prosperity of Canadians and Canada,” she said.

A long-serving senator, she told graduands that she would proudly display her degree on her wall along with the other honours received over a lifetime of selfless service to Canada.

“I feel very proud, yet humbled, to be invited to join this event,” she said. “I shall have it framed and will put it on my wall with my other honours. I feel eternal gratitude and pride. Thank you.”

Cools was appointed to the Senate of Canada in 1984 on the recommendation Pierre Trudeau, former prime minister of Canada. She became the first Black member of the Senate of Canada and the first Black female senator in North America. Cools retired in August 2018 after almost 35 years as a senator. Born and raised in Barbados, Cools came to Canada at age 13. Involved in social activism as a university student in Montreal, she protested in support of civil rights and against racism. As a social worker, she was a pioneer in the protection of women from domestic abuse and founded one of the first women’s shelters in Canada.

In her convocation address to graduands, Cools spoke about her passion for Canadian history and the country’s legislative might. She discussed her lifelong quest to understand slavery, domestic abuse and other societal ills, and her deep reading of associated federal laws and acts and how this legislative action had forged a different kind of country that was distinct, compassionate and separate from its neighbour to the south. “Canada is the story of some great and judicious leaders’ deep and lasting commitment to government by the law and principles that are known to and agreed upon by the Canadian people,” she said.

From left: Chancellor Greg Sorbara, Anne Cools and York President and Vice-Chancellor Rhonda L. Lenton

In the 1990s, Cools helped to create and served on the Senate/House of Commons Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access, where she became a strong advocate for children’s rights to have continuing relationships with both parents after divorce.

Throughout her service as a senator, Cools brought together practice and academic research to build a solid foundation for policy and legislation. She has visited York University to share with students her life experience as an activist and champion of social justice. Cools also agreed to donate to the Clara Thomas Archives of York University Libraries her correspondence, reference files, speeches, photographs, and sound and moving image recordings, documenting the period from 1973 to the present.