2015 JD McLean Lecture

Hello, everyone. I am thankful to Dalhousie’s Faculty of Dentistry for the invitation to take part in this year’s J.D. McLean lecture. From what I’ve heard, Dr. McLean was a man of extraordinary determination and dedication to the profession of dentistry. A man of social conscience, he devised and introduced ways to bring dental care to people in remote areas of Nova Scotia. He was a man of vision! He was a man who “gave” to his community and to society! And that’s I will be talking about today – the act of giving.

To address all of you at this event in the name of an individual like Dr. McLean is an honour and a pleasure.

One of the truly great gifts of a democracy is the freedom to make choices: to have a narrow vision of one’s world, or to develop a personal vision of what we want to do with our life. Another choice is to concentrate on a narrow professional focus, or to want to make a difference in the world.

The other aspect of freedom has to do with values because they are the fundamental ideas that guide us. The most powerful tool that helps us define our values is curiosity. More on that later.

People depend on your knowledge and expertise in areas of oral health, including prevention and maintenance.

My own relationship with dentists goes way back. It began soon after I held my first hockey stick. On the ice or with a group of neighborhood kids playing road hockey in Campbellton, New Brunswick, where I grew up- you know the kind of outdoor rink I am talking about –little outdoor lights -30…and let’s just say I did a little damage to my teeth. Though I’m proud to say my tally of broken teeth isn’t nearly as high as my goal record, I did find myself in my dentist’s examination room often enough. As a child, a dentist’s office in the 50’s was a scary place.

But that was then, this is now.

I am grateful that your profession accommodates extra kindnesses to those needing extra care. In the final years of my mother’s life, she lived nearby our home in Ottawa. She was in a seniors home. It was sometimes difficult to get her to appointments, so our dentist would come to her. This was hugely helpful to us and to my mother. Imagine a home visit. Imagine what that meant to a 95 year old woman. Imagine what it meant to us.

One day, your patients might well describe you in the same way. That you are as much a professional as a dentist with values. That your approach incorporates a human and social dimension.

Life is replete with choices. There are opportunities to contribute, a sort of social added-value, if you will. A social dimension!

For more than 30 years, I was a reporter. I covered horrible and remarkable events in countries throughout the world: the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989 – students your age who were killed because they believed in an ideal; the assassination of Indira Gandi; lesser-known tragedies that happened right here in Canada, including some remote First Nations communities such as the gas sniffing incident in Davis Inlet in Labrador.

In 2001, I left journalism and became director of communications for former Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien – a rare opportunity to learn about the machinations of power and elements of true leadership.
I was in the room when Mr. Chretien made the decision not to go to war in Iraq. It wasn’t easy but it was about leadership.

In 2003, I was appointed as a senator. Though my former reporters colleagues chided me for stepping into the dark side – an institution I too had strongly criticized – I came to appreciate the purpose of the Senate, the opportunities to make a difference, as well as the exceptional abilities and qualities of many colleagues.

Who knows where my career will go next? Based on the path I have taken to date, I expect it will involve yet another radical twist.

Despite my circuitous journey, I have discovered a pattern in the choices I have made. Curiosity is one of them.

The components of that pattern are invaluable to me and might well be useful for you to recognize and trust in as you make your own way in life and into the complex, interconnected world we share. I hope so.


If there is a single characteristic that defines my actions and has shaped the course of my life, it is curiosity. I have always been curious. I am driven by the urge to discover what waits down the road. Around the corner. Over that hill.

As a very small boy, my wise babysitter in Woodstock, New Brunswick, Alice Tilley gave me the gift of a wonderful book titled “Jimmy Why”. I guess it had some influence!

No wonder I became a journalist. Always curious- always questioning.

While working here in Nova Scotia, my crew and I would travel to spots in and around the province. Often, heading back to town from a shoot, I would see a road sign or a high point in the landscape and practically hear it beckoning me. Travelling with a group of like-minded colleagues, it never took much convincing. ‘Hey, where do you think that leads?’ ‘What’s on the other side of that rise?’ ‘What’s down that road?’ Abrupt turns and twisting detours. They are worth whatever experience waits for us at the summit of our wondering. When you follow your instincts to know more and do more, you find something that makes you a better person in some way. You learn. You witness a spectacular scene or enjoy a poignant moment. You get a story that, even if it’s insignificant to you – might be helpful to someone else.

All of you here are or have been students. Your field is one requiring research, study and keeping up to date with advancements. You are curious too. What’s down your road?

Curiosity is rewarding and enriching. Psychologists suggest that we shape our identities through the knowledge, information and attitudes we gain from being curious. Curiosity makes us grow! Not to mention the impact of being inquisitive on the wellness of the brain.

I encourage each of you to recognize this trait for all its positive potential. It will serve you well, especially as your lives and professional interests evolve. Despite the best-made plans, none of us can predict exactly where we will be even one year from now.

Right now, I can’t help but think of the millions of Syrian refugees. In particular, the ones who will be coming to Canada. Who will look after their dental needs .Who will be in their corner. Our neighbors are not just down the street. They are everywhere. I found that out at foreign correspondent.

As a reporter stationed in China in the 1980s, I encountered situations that could never take place here. Because I was president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club – which the Chinese referred to as an “outlawed organization” – the foreign ministry periodically called me on the carpet for my own stories, as well as those produced by my American colleagues.

My stories were frequently about political dissidents – but they were hardly a threat to the Chinese government. Chinese citizens never actually saw any of these stories, even though they were accounts of events and issues impacting them directly. I was allowed to send my work outside Chinese borders, but nobody in China ever saw them.

Against resistance like that of China’s ruling government, curiosity cannot be quelled. It intensifies.

I asked questions. Lots of questions- I was curious. Like many of my counterparts from international news outlets, I simply couldn’t back down. One particular representative of the Chinese foreign ministry thought he could subdue us by responding to us dismissively. He said . “ you must seek truth through facts ” Our question – to ourselves – was, “yes, but who is creating these so-called facts?”

Ten years later, I would run into the same individual- this time at a higher level. He was China’s Foreign Minister. I was director of communications for Prime Minister Chretien.

Being in the Room

It’s 2002 and China is a world away, and I am no longer a journalist. I am attending an international summit with my boss Jean Chrétien. The Prime Minister was having a bilateral meeting with the Chinese President. Mr. Hu.

The Foreign Minister recognized me and approached to ask: “How did you get in this room?” It was Prime Minister Chrétien who stepped in and answered as only he could, making very clear to him that I had every right to be in that room.

Needless to say, it was a satisfying moment – not only because this man’s expression was priceless, but also because I learned from it the significance of being “in the room”.

‘The room’ signifies where your curiosity and abilities can take you. It’s wherever you have to be to be heard and to make the greatest impact.

At least the foreign minister had a sense of humour this time. He said, Mr. Munson we have another Chinese proverb besides the Confucius ones: “It is much better to be in the room than outside the room”.

In this room today, I wonder how many of you have time to even think of much outside your studies and workload. It’s Friday, so maybe you’re most pressing concern is what pub to go to or show to see tonight. You’re hard-workers, right? So it’s’ only normal to give yourselves a break now and then.

Whatever your preoccupations today, I’m guessing they don’t include how you’re one day going to acquire the authority and influence necessary to bring changes to the techniques within or the policies affecting your field. There is plenty of time for that, which is an advantage. You need time to learn and discover what motivates and matters to you.

Applying Your Abilities to Causes

As a reporter, I witnessed some of humanity’s most dire situations of inequality, injustice and abuse. The stories I told were stories of people struggling in the wake of brutal events, stuck and helpless in the muck of poverty, prejudice and suppression.

I was in Cambodia in 1991, covering a number of troubling war related events, when once again what was down that road, what was down that street in Phnom Penh. And there it was an orphanage run by Canadian woman named Naomi Bernstein. She was a children’s aid worker and a humanitarian who had made it her life’s work to protect and ensure the safety of thousands of vulnerable children in some of the harshest corners of the world.

Most of the babies at this orphanage were so severely disabled that they would certainly never have survived without the shelter and care provided by Naomi and the volunteers who worked there.

First laying eyes on these babies, getting to know them and learning what that place and the people who cared for them represented in their lives – there were moments when I was completely overcome with emotion – sadness and compassion for their helplessness. These were babies left abandoned in alley ways – in city trash cans on the streets of Phnom Penh.

Can you imagine that? At that moment in my life it was tough just being a reporter. It changed me forever and would motivate me to do more after my journalistic career.

I was amazed at the love that Naomi and the volunteers had for these vulnerable little people. The poignancy of all this seized me. I realized that I could help these and other children who, due to circumstances of injustice and misfortune, were acutely vulnerable to discrimination and hate.

The greatest gift a journalist can give to those in jeopardy is a voice, a way to bring attention to their struggles and possibly awaken a social desire to lend a hand. This is what I set out to do.

I reported the story and I would like to think today that perhaps through one voice, I helped save lives. But what also struck me was the act of giving by Naomi Bronstien. She gave up a comfortable Montreal life. She cared. She was curious what was down that road and did something about it. I sincerely hope you will take time to give in some way – in any way.

My guess is there are advocates among you here today. Throughout the centuries, there had to have been others devoted to achieving advancements within the dental profession. Especially when you think about early forms of dentistry, you appreciate right away that things have come a long way.

Preparing for today’s presentation, I looked into some interesting aspects of dentistry and was surprised to learn that as early as the Middle Ages and until the 1800s, people turned to their barbers to pull painful teeth and lance abscesses. But, of course, only after they finished trimming your hair.

Dentistry has evolved from being looked on more as a trade than a profession. Fortunately, procedures are considerably more hygienic, safe and humane than what I can imagine a barber would have done in the 17th century.

When you consider where dentistry should be positioned among social policies, however, it is evident there is still more work to be done. Despite it being an integral part of general health and wellbeing, oral health is one of the most neglected areas in national and international policies and politics. In your careers, this will definitely be a challenge to address.

The good news is the effort required to overcome challenges like this makes us stronger.

I am sure your questioning and your own curiosity will contribute to the field you have chosen.

Rising to the Challenge

I hope what I am about to say doesn’t make anybody uncomfortable, but I feel it’s important to address the elephant in two rooms. One is the Senate and its tarnished reputation, and the other is what happened here and the damage it caused to the reputation of your school.

When you’re in the public eye and you’re hit by something like this, address it and move on.

Faced with a human rights issue, the only right response is to be self-reflective and to demonstrate a desire and a commitment to turning things around.

I was pleased to see on the faculty’s website a clearly worded plan to achieve a culture of respect for all current and future students. For everyone.

Every person has a right to be respected and safe. We believe inclusiveness is fundamental to education. We stand for equality.

We hold ourselves to a higher standard than what we’ve witnessed at our university…

We are committed to change.

(Dalhousie Faculty of Dentistry, http://www.dal.ca/cultureofrespect.html)

I know it hurts to be under tough scrutiny, because that’s the way I felt with the Senate scandal. Like the faculty here, I just try to do a good job.

Last year, the late Senator Nolin initiated an inquiry on the Senate’s guiding principles and ways to improve our practices. An inquiry is a topic for study, discussion and debate among senators. The objective of this inquiry was to “defend the important role our institution plays in the federal Parliament”. I supported it wholeheartedly, believing the exercise would help us move forward after several months of intense public criticism and shake-ups.

This has been a tough road for both our institutions and the only way to deal with it is head on; and then move on.

Reflecting on the history of the Senate and our federation was like gathering strength from the ground up.

The Senate’s guiding principles go back to the time when our parliamentary system was established.

The Supreme Court of Canada recently clarified what the founders of Confederation had in mind when they, for instance, assigned each region an equal number of seats in the Senate. In the words of the justices, “[the Senate has] served as a forum for ethnic, gender, religious, linguistic, and Aboriginal groups that did not always have a meaningful opportunity to present their views through the democratic process.”

In other words, one of the reasons the Senate exists and was created as it is was to ensure protection and respect for minority groups in this country.

Senators work to fulfill this objective. In fact, many use their public profile to advocate for special interests. Senate committees and senators also review legislation with consideration for minority groups and the distinct challenges they are subjected to. What it means to be truly vulnerable. Denied opportunities to participate and thrive within mainstream society.

The work conducted in the Senate on issues related to minority language groups provides an excellent example of what I mean. Though lacking the necessary numbers and demographics to elect adequate representation in Parliament – these groups have always been represented in the Senate.

As a result of the ongoing, meticulous work of the Senate Committee on Official Languages and the special interest activities of individual senators, the Senate is attuned to identifying weaknesses and developing ways to improve our country’s language obligations. And Canada is a better place for it.

Senator Tardiff, chair of the Senate’s Official Languages committee is a Franco-Albertan. Senator Maria Chaput, deputy chair of the committee, is a Franco-Manitoban. They are deeply appreciative of the roots and importance of official language legislation in this country.

As a result of their personal backgrounds, they also possess insights into the real experiences of minority language groups.

The majority of Senators have taken the right road and I am sure you will to.

It is about giving. It is about being engaged. That is the Senate but I am also focused on your life and your engagement.

It was only in preparing for today’s presentation that I began reflecting on access to dental care. Without coverage for care under provincial public insurance programs, Canadians have to rely on employer-based insurance and other premium-based programs, as well as public assistance, to help cover the costs of everything from standard cleanings and check-ups to dental surgery.

Last week, I read an article in The Atlantic about the impact of these gaps in insurance coverage in the United States, where neither Medicaid nor Obamacare offers adequate coverage. As a result of the outdated and senseless partition between dentistry and the rest of medicine, millions of Americans are suffering. People are foregoing or delaying necessary treatment. Taking out loans to cover dental treatments. Lining up by the thousands in hopes of being admitted into charity dental clinics set up in gymnasiums and other massive spaces.

Given the inadequacies of our public insurance plans, I wonder if the situation in Canada is all that different. Just because this is not a widely known situation does not make it any less significant or unjust. In Ottawa, I know of one dentist who is seeking donors, hygienists and other dentists to create a clinic for people who cannot afford dental care. Dental care is medical care.

You are more knowledgeable about this situation than me. This school’s excellent initiatives to engage you in giving back to your communities have no doubt attuned you to social inequities. I applaud the faculty, administrators and all of you who have seized opportunities to work with under-served populations: rotations in elementary schools; a community health clinic; Inuit communities; eldercare; sponsored care; and, emergency clinics.

I am also impressed by what I’ve learned of the “Random Acts of Kindness” community program and the steps you’re taking to sponsor a Syrian refugee family. But this is more than family – you are a family which can help more refugees.
Again we can see another act of giving.

These are all necessary and timely undertakings. You are giving and you are also receiving invaluable insights and developing a sense of social responsibility. When you have completed your studies here, please continue to nurture and act on the insights and sensitivity these initiatives have awakened in you.

Again it’s about being curious and going down that road less travelled.

Interests of the Heart

Maybe there is someone in your life who is the reason behind your goals.

My wife Ginette and I had a son named Timmy. Timmy had Down syndrome.

When you have a child with a disability and when you lose that child, your life is forever altered. Sorting out the unseen, silent enormities of grief can engulf you. What you need most is human contact. The assurance of being understood and not alone.

Take it from experience, you have no idea where life might take you 30, 20, 10 years from now.

It’s been 10 years since my eyes were first opened to autism – how difficult life can be for people affected by autism. It began with a chance encounter. As I was walking up the Hill to my office, my eyes were somehow drawn to a man who was quietly “protesting”, for lack of a better word, for support for his autistic son. I stopped to listen to what he had to say about his life:

– his son’s need for constant care. The financial costs and the pressures to meet those costs.

– the scarcity of support and resources.

– the anxiety and the isolation.

These experiences were not exclusive to this young father. I understood this. They were and are still the experiences of thousands of families affected by autism.

That encounter was yet another awakening for me. I wanted to find out more about this disorder. I wanted to help autistic children and their families.

Though in those first years public awareness about autism was generally very low, my efforts to change that were typically met with wonderful receptivity on the Hill.

The Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology responded to my insistence and undertook a lengthy, comprehensive study. In March 2007, the committee released its report on that study, Pay Now or Pay Later – Autism Families in Crisis.

Autism advocates across Canada applauded the report’s recommendations, particularly the call for the federal government to develop a national autism strategy. This goal has been a significant catalyst for Canada’s autism network to pull together to ensure their collective voice is heard – by governments, by the thousands of families weighed down by the difficult characteristics of autism, and by society at large.

Public awareness of autism has heightened manifold since those early days of my involvement. Social realities have changed and continue to change. Every year, the rate of children with an autism spectrum disorder continues to rise.

I am not an expert in any aspect of autism. I just do what I can to raise the profile of issues and guide people on the workings of government and how to present their causes to our national decision-makers. I am a communicator and a connector. I tell stories that shed light on the challenges that people face.

In addition to my involvement in the autism community, I also support a number of special interest organizations. One of these is Special Olympics Canada. This organization offers people with disabilities the opportunity to train and participate in competitions here and around the world. Without Special Olympics, thousands of Canadian would-be athletes would never know the experience of athleticism; discipline; personal growth; being a member of a team; pride in winning; pride in trying.

Jackie Barrett is a world-class weight lifter who was on the Nova Scotia Special Olympics team. Having participated in Special Olympics since 1987, he epitomizes why inclusion is a social necessity. Everyone has the right to live fully. To realize her or his potential.

At the 2007 Special Olympics World Games in Shanghai, the Russian and Chinese powerlifting teams were very strong. They were touted as the likely winners of the top medals.

I happened to see Jackie just before he and his team competed, and I asked him: “How’s it going, Jackie?” He looked at me with a feisty glint in his eyes. Competition was steep, but he wasn’t worried. He told me that weightlifters two other countries China and Russian were his main competition but he was still confident because as he put it: “What they don’t know is that Halifax is coming to town.”

As he predicted, he had a winning performance. That’s what he does. He wins. He breaks records. At the Special Olympics Canada 2014 National Summer Games, he took home gold medals in every event he competed in. And he won again at the World Games in Los Angles this past summer.

Jackie is now retired but is ready to coach others with intellectual disabilities, Jackie Barrett is giving back. It is not always about winning but winning at life.

Just moments ago in my speech, I talked about the good things happening at your school and you just heard my words about my own work in autism.

Here is another challenge and opportunity for you: Autism Nova Scotia tells me that for autistic kids, accessibility to dental care is a Hugh issue. Most often, children need 5 visits to get over their fear and get comfortable with the dentist and the dental hygienist.

Good dental hygiene being part of the whole good health picture, this population needs attention – right here in Nova Scotia. For emerging dentists, Autism Nova Scotia would collaborate to create a pilot project and a best practice to change this situation.

Final Words – Choosing Your Path

What I know from my ongoing relationship with the autism community and other special interest groups that are close to my heart is that it is empathy above all else that enables us to break down barriers. It is by way of empathy that we can grow aware and informed of the challenges and realities of others.

As I reflect on my role as a Senator and examine how I can in my position and with others influence positive and lasting change, I have been searching to understand why people have such different takes on our society, such different perspectives. And why people are in conflict. How do we open the doors to differences, how do we encourage greater understanding, how can we bring people together, other than by legislation or through the justice process?

We have trouble “having the conversation” because we are missing the heart! At the core of conflict resolution is the clash of polarized positions. The path to resolution needs to go through the steps of mutual understanding.

Evidence abounds that empathy leads to better understanding, trust, mutual respect, cooperation and collective action.

In the end, empathy is what helps understand what it feels like:

– To be the object of discrimination

– To be excluded

– To face barriers everyday

Empathy is far more than a catchphrase of our times. For many years now, it is empathy that has been my guiding force.
In this regard, I am thinking of Jimmy Carter.

From the time of his candidacy for and election as President of the United States in 1977, Jimmy Carter has been an admirable, influential presence in a long chronology of humanitarian activities throughout the world. He has carved out a human rights platform to attract public attention and compassion, and to bring about action.
In the last stage of his life, he is hoping to check off from his to-do list elimination of a painful disease affecting Africans in poor villages without clean drinking water. The disease is caused by a parasite commonly known as the guinea worm.

A strange-sounding health threat on continent thousands of kilometres away. This is where compassion has led an 89-year old humanitarian from North America. Mr. Carter himself has stated what he wants the final satisfaction of his life to be: protecting millions of people from the debilitating pain of a horrible disease.

What a road for Mr. Carter to take. I am sure as a humanitarian he was curious of what was down that road which took him to Africa.

As Mr. Carter completes his life’s mission and as I continue to pursue mine, you are starting out. This institution is one of beginnings. You stand to acquire incredible insights and expert knowledge. As well, you have arrived here already technically and social media savvy. You have at your fingertips the most powerful tools of collaboration to take collective action.

Countless journeys await. I look at all of you gathered here and I am inspired by the notion that you are at a magnificent point in your personal and professional development. Anything is possible.

I hope each of you enjoys a satisfying career and a life of continual growth and social involvement. If you position these outcomes as goals – goals that you regard as being of fundamental importance – they are that much more attainable.

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

It was Winston Churchill who said these words.

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” I invite you to reflect on their relevance to you and to the great things you will do.

My thanks to all of you for your presence and your attention.