Honorary Address - H. Sanford Riley

Spring Convocation 2009

I want to start by thanking John Bulman for his very kind words about me.

I also want to thank the Senate of the University of Winnipeg for bestowing this honour upon me. During my nine years as Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg, I have shaken hands with more than 10,000 students and it is a very gratifying feeling to know that I have now joined them as a graduate of this University.

It is Really All About You

But today is not about me - nor is about your parents or your teachers – although it’s a great day for all of us. It is really all about you, the graduating class of 2009. Your work here at the University is done and you are celebrating one of your most significant personal milestones. As importantly, you  are about to embark upon the most productive and challenging period of your lives and  I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to offer you some words of advice and encouragement on this very special day.

I hope you will find my comments to be of some use to you, but I was reminded as I prepared these remarks of my own graduation from Queens University nearly 40 years ago with a BA in Politics and History. The recipient of an honorary degree that day was a famous Canadian actor – Lorne Greene – you won’t remember him, but your parents might and your grandparents certainly will. I remember vividly what he said to my graduating class in 1971 – “I don’t really know what to say that will resonate with each of you because you will all be following  different paths and be pursuing different ambitions and be headed in different directions – except perhaps to suggest that you should invest in a really good bed because you will be spending a third of your life in it.” Now,  while I am sympathetic to Dr. Greene’s dilemma, I think that I can do a better job than he did.

Shape Your piece of the World

My advice to you – my expectation of you – is that, armed as you now are with the power to think for yourself and the confidence to stand behind your own convictions, you will be able to shape your piece of the world – no matter how large or small – into something better – into something that fits what you think it should be like. Your education and your personal capabilities create wonderful opportunities for you to achieve personal and financial success, but they also establish serious obligations to give back. As the old saying goes “to whom much is given, much is expected”.

Starting tomorrow, you will fan around this country, and possibly,  the world to pursue your dreams and ambitions. Some of you will be educators, some of you may become doctors or lawyers, some of you will work for governments, some of you will make your mark in community service, some of you will be involved in making our environment more sustainable and, hopefully,  some of you may even go into business.

Each of you has talents that can make a positive contribution to the communities in which you live and it’s very important that you not shirk the responsibilities that come with the success that you have already achieved and which you will achieve in the future. All of you must use your talents to help make the communities in which you live more vibrant, more interesting and more accepting places to live.

Come Together With a Common Sense of Purpose

Winnipeg is a great example of what can happen when people, just like you, come together with a common sense of purpose to build a community that is satisfying and rewarding to live in. This city does not exist because its sits at the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, or because it’s at the geographic centre of Canada.  In fact, its hard to explain why our city is what it is, given our climate and isolation - something we are all reminded of by friends from afar who just don’t get it.

Winnipeg exists because of the collective will of our forebearers who wanted this to be a great place to live, work and play. They, not government, were the ones who recognized the need for the community to come together and build the amenities that make our lives so much more meaningful and enjoyable – and they acted. We all know how special this community is and how well it works for those of us that call it home. Because of the foresight and tenacity of our parents, our grandparents, and in my case, great grandparents Winnipeg punches well above its weight when it comes to the quality of the life we enjoy.

Commitment of Individual Citizens

Organizations like the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, the Winnipeg Foundation, the United Way and the University of Winnipeg only exist because of people who came before us who wanted them to be here. Winnipeg is the way it is because of the collective commitment of individual citizens and if we do not continue to support these organizations, they will wither and our community will be diminished.

Your obligation, your opportunity, is to help shape the future of those community organizations that matter to you and to create new organizations that meet needs that you believe are important for the community in which you live.

Take on Challenges

One word of caution. As you move through life, you are going to be confronted frequently by naysayers who will have all sorts of reasons why things can’t happen, why things won’t work, why you can’t achieve objectives you set for yourself or for your community.

If there is one thing of which I am proud about in the way I have lived my life it is that I have never been afraid to take on challenges and  I have never shied away from trying to do something that others said could not be done if I believed in it. 

I was told, by some, that a person based on a lake that was frozen seven months of the year  couldn’t make Canada’s Olympic sailing team –  but I did. We were told that Winnipeg couldn’t host a financially viable and successful Pan American Games – but we did. We were told that we couldn’t build a leading wealth management firm from a Winnipeg base from a standing start – but we did. We were told that Winnipeg couldn’t afford to support a new downtown arena – but we did. And, we were told that the University of Winnipeg couldn’t succeed in a major campaign to revitalize its position in the centre of the City – but we have.

Accept the Odd Failure

Now, I have had plenty of disappointments along the way but  I learned to get over them pretty quickly. I learned that the ability to accept the odd failure was essential if you wanted to be able to achieve real success because success involves taking on risk and risk, by definition, means that you will fail sometimes. I also learned to appreciate the effort, as much as the results; to enjoy the friendships that I’ve  made along the way working side by side with many, many people who shared the same can-do spirit that I have, and to take satisfaction from what we were able to achieve, not to obsess about what might have been.

So, don’t let yourself become one of those that always looks for reasons for why things can’t be done or who backs  away from a challenge because of what others might say.  Appreciate that, no matter what the  risk of failure, if you keep trying you will be amazed at how much can be achieved as a result of your efforts and your will. Recognize that even if you don’t succeed, you will have gained so much from the relationships and the experiences that can be used in future projects, that in the end, it will not seem like a failure to you, but simply another learning experience that can be built upon in years ahead.

Senator Edward Kennedy

In preparing these remarks, I was reminded of the eulogy that Senator Edward Kennedy delivered at the funeral of his brother, Robert F. Kennedy who was assassinated in 1968. Senator Kennedy quoted a speech in which his brother said the following:

“It’s a revolutionary world we live in – and this generation at home and around the world has had thrust upon it a greater burden of responsibility than any generation that has ever lived. Some believe that there is nothing that one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills – yet many of the world’s great movements of thought and action have flowed from the work of a single man or woman. A young monk began the Protestant Reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the Earth, a young woman reclaimed the territory of France and it was the 32 year old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that “all men are created equal”.

These people moved the world and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.”

Each of your, in your own way, will have many opportunities during your lifetime to shape the communities in which you live. It doesn’t need to be something earth shattering, it just needs to be something that will improve the lives of your family and your friends. It doesn’t have to be some grand gesture of selflessness or nobility. If you simply do the little things that make the community in which you live a better and more resilient place in the face of the changes that are coming, you will have made a difference and discharged your obligations to your fellow citizens.

Why Not?

At the end of his eulogy, Senator Kennedy reminded the audience of a phrase that his brother used many times to describe his approach to life. They are words  that have echoed to me throughout my entire adult life. While grand in their tone, they can, I think  be applied to the way in which we live our lives each and every day. I hope they will resonate with you as they have with me. “Some men see things as they are and say why, I dream things that never were and say why not?”

I want to again congratulate all of you and  tell you how proud we are to have you as graduates of this University and to wish you all the very best of luck in the years ahead. We will be watching your progress with enormous interest because we expect you to make a real difference.

Thank you.