Trent’s highest honour

Originally published in Arthur Newspaper

Clouds roll peacefully by overhead. The sun shines down on the amassed collection of graduates, faculty, staff, and parents. They sit and listen to the advice and wisdom of the orators who have just received their honorary degrees from Trent University.

It’s Convocation 2014 and 1732 former Trent students are reaching the finish line of their degrees and graduating. Each convocation ceremony, five in total, hears from a different honorary degree holder who offers singular advice to graduates on this occasion.

Each year, Trent University gives honorary degrees to those individuals who have contributed to the life of the university, the Peterborough area, or to society as a whole. This year’s convocations featured a diverse range of individuals who represent many of the university’s core values.

Arthur had the immense privilege of sitting down with each honorary degree recipient for an interview to discuss their work, their honorary degree, and their connection to Trent. Continue reading for excerpts of these interviews and a brief biography of each individual.

Joseph Boyden

Author and novelist, Joseph Boyden received an Honorary Doctor of Letters (DLit.) for his impact on the international literary scene. His nomination cited the effect of his works on deepening the understanding of the complexities of Canadian culture.

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“I’ve been involved with Trent University for a number of years. I’ve had friends who went here when I was an undergrad at York University and I always felt very envious of them coming to this campus, especially while I was going to York. It’s such a beautiful campus and you can tell that the professors are really amazing. It’s great the close relationships so many of [the professors] have with the student body.

“Then, professionally, when Three Day Road was published, I was chosen as Trent’s inaugural ‘One Book One Community’ event for incoming students, and that was my first real introduction. That was 2007 or 2008 and I just fell in love with the campus and the people even more.

“People say sometimes my books act as a bridge between cultures that otherwise might not necessarily always see eye to eye. It’s kind of a role I’ve adopted in my life, and has been given to me actually by elders. So that’s really important. Trent’s philosophy and my philosophy really dovetail together. Our worldviews are very similar.”

Do you have any advice for anyone who is struggling to graduate?

“Stick with it. I took an extra year, five years to graduate for my undergrad and there were times when I really struggled. But I knew that as tough as it gets you have to look beyond the course that’s tough or the time that is tough. You have to know that it gets better and it gets easier eventually and it’s really important to not give up. As cliché as that sounds, you can’t give up. Failure is not an option in that case. It’s a tough thing but look today with all the graduates and how proud they all were. You have to look forward to that day.”

Wade Davis

Independent anthropologist, explorer and activist Dr. Wade Davis received a Hon. DLit. for his passionate and interdisciplinary approach to such issues as indigenous and environmental rights.

“To come around at my age—I just turned sixty—and to be recognized by the academic world with an honorary degree is affirming. If you know how they’re chosen, how could you not think of it as a high honour? It has to go through the faculty and the senate and the president so I really do consider it an honour. I consider it an honour to speak at the convocation too. Who doesn’t love convocation anyway?

“I went through the academic training and I got my own Ph.D. But at that time in my life I never really wanted to be a professor. And that’s one of things I always say to young people who are considering graduate school is don’t worry about going to graduate school as if you have got to get a job right out of grad school in your field. In a way, the PhD that I actually got became a calling card, which gave me a lot of inherent credibility when it came to what I was doing as an independent scholar and journalist.

“Education is liberation and that’s why I’m such a big fan of it. I say to any student, “when in doubt go to school.” Even if they don’t know what to do in life, get in there and get the structure around yourself and start poking around. A smorgasbord of knowledge is to be found in the education system. You can learn much from the wild—it’s a different kind of learning, but one should never use that attraction to shift oneself from actually learning through scholarship, I think. Education made my life. 100%.

“I’ve always described myself as a storyteller. I became a storyteller because I couldn’t imagine becoming an academic who specialized in a narrow subject—in anthropology it’s an indigenous society or one issue. I felt that the stories of culture and of ethnobotany, I was looking at the two biggest problems of our time which is the erosion of culture and ecology. It was very clear to me from a young age that the forces that were eroding one were affecting the other. And Anthropology is essentially pointless if we weren’t prepared to speak out for the rights of the people anthropologists had traditionally studied. I felt story telling was the way to do this.”

Shelagh Grant

Retired scholar of Canadian studies and the polar North, Dr. Shelagh Grant received her honorary degree as recognition for her long-standing service to Trent University and the Peterborough community.

“I started university at the University of Western Ontario that was a BSc in Nursing and when I got into the hospital of my choice, it was great—but I was a square peg in a round hole.

“When my husband and I moved to Peterborough—I love Peterborough, and I hated Toronto—but I was so restless and initially I had wanted to do a degree in International Affairs at Glendon College [at York University]. They took me with open arms but I would have to do my TA-ing in Toronto.

“I was playing bridge one night and talking about going to Glendon. I heard there was going to be an exciting professor at Trent University, which is how I ended up in Prof. John Wadling’s Canadian Studies 200 course. I think he inspired everyone about Canada. What I got out of that one class was to think critically and to compare and to think in interdisciplinary ways—in other words, to look beyond the written words for the answers.

“The second class I took was Hodgins’ ‘The North’ course. And that turned my head due North. It’s been arctic research and arctic life since.”

What do you find to be the most rewarding part of your work?

“I was the inveterate Curious George. Doing research, not just at Trent, but when you have a question and you find the answer, it’s great but then you find five more questions. [laughs] It’s a bit like a rat race, but each answer was like a shot in the arm for me.”

What has it been like to watch Trent evolve over the years?

“It was 1975 I guess when I started and there was just one convocation. It’s amazing. Watching professors come and go. But what’s really incredible is the way in which the student population has multiplied—times 100. It’s extraordinary. I used to really sweat getting the names right in my classes. I don’t know I would ever get them right now.

“Trent means a lot to me. There’s no question about it. It’s a great university. For me, the students were what made the university.”

Richard Johnston

A member of the founding class at Trent University, Dr. Richard Johnston received an Hon. DLit. in recognition for his involvement with the university for over fifty years. Dr. Johnston has worked in politics, activism and currently operates a vineyard.

“I was always talked about as being the first student registered for Trent, but really I was the second. The Peterborough Examiner wanted a photo of the registrar with two students from Peterborough. They had no problem getting a photo of the female. But none of the boys would come in. None of them wanted to do it they all had their heads down. So my mum was in the registrar’s office and she said to me, “You! In!” So I went and I had a scowl on my face. I really did not appreciate the importance of that moment as the beginning of the university.

“It was partly a mistake [that brought me to Trent]. We lived in the area, just outside of Warsaw. I had a flock of sheep in high school and so I sold them when I went to university. And with the money I had the choice of going to Trinity College at University of Toronto or I could go travel the world and then stay in the area and go to Trent. I’ve always thought of that decision as representative of who I am. [laughs]

“Because we were so small, just 105-106 of us [in the inaugural class] we got to know each other really well. It was really a great time. It’s been wonderful to see the changes [of the university over time] but it’s also sometimes hard to see the compromises to the initial visions of the university as a small collegiate institution were just not practical.”

David Patterson

Also a member of Trent’s inaugural class, Dr. David Patterson received an Hon. DLit. Currently, he is the CEO and founder of Northwater Capital Management Inc.

“I’m quite honoured by the university and a bit embarrassed by it. There were so many incredible people that were getting honorary degrees and then there’s me! But I’m delighted to be a part of it.

“There was a twenty year or so period when I wasn’t in touch with the university. I was in the 1966 starting class and then I was out of touch with the university. Then some people came by and said it’s time to get back in to the university. It’s really nice to come back to the university and be back here.

“My first year, I majored in English. My second year, I majored in Philosophy. My third year, I majored in Politics. And in my fourth year I majored in Political Philosophy. You may not be able to get away with that today, but I was able to.

“I pulled out of my fourth year to become an activist for the Nigeria-Biafra War. Some of us thought it could be stopped with enough pressure. So we organized a group of people in Peterborough and across the country. Right from early on engendered in the university, there was a sense of responsibility for the world around us and that was have a capability of doing something about it.

“I think I would have been lost in a large university. This was a more human-scale university. The ethic of the university was just something that I very much related to.

“My life would have turned out totally differently if I hadn’t come to this school. It was great the attention that professors gave to individual students and Trent still has that aspect to it.

“It was a great time to be at Trent, but it sounds like its still a great place to be.”

via Trent’s highest honour.

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