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From the riverboat to the Brenda Wallace Reading Room

When I was in my teens in the 1960s, I used to steal away from Don Mills, Canada’s first completely planned and boring community, and go downtown to Yorkville in Toronto where something really seemed to be happening.
Michael Atkins, President, Northern Ontario Business,

When I was in my teens in the 1960s, I used to steal away from Don Mills, Canada’s first completely planned and boring community, and go downtown to Yorkville in Toronto where something really seemed to be happening.

Instead of a doughnut at the Don Mills Shopping Centre, there were coffeehouses, music clubs, go-go girls at the Mynah Bird, Gordon Lightfoot at the Riverboat, Carly Simon and Buffy Sainte-Marie at the Purple Onion. Over at Chez Monique were the Sparrows, who were to become Steppenwolf, the Paupers, Ian and Sylvia, Mandala, Luke and the Apostles, and a host of musicians that were central to the explosion of Canadian musical talent in those days.

One night, I was sitting in the Riverboat listening to John Lee Hooker, and I had an aha moment. I was going to be a blues singer. Yep. True.

Scroll forward 50 years and I find myself having lunch in the Brenda Wallace Reading Room at Laurentian University, tasked with the delightful duty of introducing three honorary degree recipients: Blaine Nicholls, a local community activist and champion of our new School of Architecture; Masha Krupp, a Laurentian alumnus and builder of Canada’s largest and most successful privately held translation management firm; and Bruce Cockburn, winner of a Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award, 13 Juno Awards and a creative genius who has released more than 30 albums in the last 40 years. The week before we had the pleasure of hosting Michaëlle Jean, our former Governor General, at our Barrie campus.

I have been chair of the Board of Governors of Laurentian University for a year now, and these disparate themes of community engagement, political activism and achievement (music, design, language and civic leadership) are all part of the celebration of graduating our students.

There is a special magic in the air at convocation time. The innocence and excitement of graduation, the anticipation of what will come next, the pride of family and friends and, if we are lucky, a moment or two of reflection on what is important in life through the experience of others.

This is not easily done in a world where brands are more iconic and well known than leaders — spiritual or otherwise — and where technology empowers us for instant action, but saps us of both time and the habit of contemplation.

Convocation is about inspiration. The inspiration to act with integrity, courage and purpose, and without fear of failure — the greatest teacher of all.

Our honorary degree recipients, the purveyors of that moment of contemplation, were outstanding.

Michaëlle Jean spoke of her journey to this country from the poverty and violence of her native Haiti to the promise and challenge of her new homeland. She challenged our students not to lose their souls in the quest for success and to be ready to act with compassion and generosity. In what other country could such a dynamic soul rise to be our commander in chief?

Masha Krupp spoke of the lasting impact of the hard work of her father, a farmer from Markstay who, when the hay wagon broke while harvesting their crops, cut down a poplar tree to replace the wagon and dragged it into place to finish the work. This seemed normal to her growing up, and so building a very successful company from scratch with more than 100 employees seemed normal, too.

Blaine Nicholls is patient and thoughtful and generous and, oh my goodness, determined and tough as nails. He, along with our own iconic professor, David Robinson, willed our new Laurentian School of Architecture into being when, frankly, it was mission impossible.

And then, of course, Bruce Cockburn, a famous singer and songwriter, but a man with very strong opinions about who we are and what we should be concerning ourselves with, from the environment to political leadership.

This troubadour and his fellow travellers, from Joni Mitchell to Gordon Lightfoot, helped define a time and a nation.

I remember when they got started. It was a pleasure taking a moment to think about what they have done since last seen at the Riverboat in the 1960s, or bringing in the hay in the 1980s.

Convocation is about remembering and dreaming.