NOTES FOR REMARKS BY SENATOR JIM MUNSON AT THE 2004 ALGONQUIN COLLEGE CONVOCATION CEREMONY
Graduates, faculty, friends,
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak to you today. It is indeed an honour. It is privilege to share this moment with you, graduates. You are at an exciting time of your lives. You are at a meeting place of great endings and great beginnings. We are here to celebrate your accomplishments, but I am here to urge you to do still more.
But before I begin, I would like to share with you a story about my beginnings. I started out in Campbellton, New Brunswick and the first teacher I had was my father, the Reverend J.E. Munson. The lessons I learned from him have to do with the meaning of community, of generosity, and of caring. When he took me with him to deliver hampers at Christmastime to families in need he opened my eyes to the world beyond our comfortable home. He taught me that we can all make a difference in our communities and that we all have a duty to do so. He taught me that we all have a responsibility to contribute to the common good.
My father had very high expectations when it came to schoolwork. “No son of mine will finish second in the province of New Brunswick,” he roared. So I didn’t. I didn’t finish first, or second, or third, or fourth. But I did finish! My father also loved politics. And he took me with him to meet the trains of Lester B. Pearson and John Diefenbaker when they came campaigning in our town.
I listened to the speeches of the candidates, but I was also intrigued by the gang of journalists that surrounded them. I fell in love with idea of becoming a foreign correspondent, the guy with the trench coat, the press pass, and the deep voice. That became my dream. And so I followed my dream and managed to land a job for a radio station in Bathurst, New Brunswick. For $32 a week.
I’m too old and I don’t have enough time to share with you all the ins and outs of my career path, except to say that it hasn’t been a career path, it’s been a dream path. A dream that has taken me from Bathurst, New Brunswick to Montreal, where there was a certain FLQ crisis to report on. My dream took me on several federal election campaigns. It took me to Belfast, Beirut, and to Beijing. My dream has made me a witness and the story teller of historic events of the last thirty years both in Canada and in countries far from here.
Journalism is a very rewarding career. For me, there has been travel and adventure. There has been the opportunity to meet world leaders. But being a witness and a story teller can have its drawbacks. It was fifteen years ago in Tiananmen Square in Beijing when students your age were asking for basic human rights and were killed for it. I was there as a journalist. I saw the evidence. Your parents probably remember the images of crushed bicycles on the evening news. It’s times like that when you ask yourself: How can I do more?” That was a story halfway around globe, but there are stories closer to home when you ask the same question.
One story I covered had to do with a community centre in Whitney Pier, a small town in Nova Scotia. This community centre had a breakfast program, a fitness room, and lots of things for youth to do. Most important, it was a place for kids, teenagers, to hang out. Well, budget cuts meant that the community centre had to close its doors. I did my job as a journalist and told the story on the evening news. Then I discovered that I was part of something bigger. An entrepreneur in Toronto saw the 30 second story on the evening news and decided to do something. He offered to donate $50,000 and his donation was matched by the government of Nova Scotia which meant that the community centre stayed open. The breakfast program carried on, the fitness room stayed open, and the teenagers of Whitney Pier had a place hang out. My story, in the end, made a difference. I had been able to do more.
I tell this story because as you all start your careers – as you continue on your dream paths – you should always be looking for ways to do more. And you should also be ready for odd shifts along the way. I left journalism a couple of years ago to work with former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien as his Director of Communications. It was something completely different. All of a sudden journalists were asking me questions. And my journalist friends looked at me in a new way. “How is it?” they asked, “to work on the dark side?” And I answered very truthfully when I said, “I am enlightened.”
So stay open. Stay ready to change and accept new challenges. Remember to challenge yourself and others. Remember when somebody says “there is no precedent for that” it doesn’t mean something is impossible or wrong. It means it’s up to you to set a new precedent.
The faces I see here today remind me of the halls of Parliament Hill. Whether it be the faces of the Senate pages, or of young journalists writing their first big stories or even of the Parliamentary staff getting their first taste of political life.
My own executive assistant is presently attending his own convocation ceremony at Carleton University. He transferred out of the Engineering program at Carleton into Political Science, took a job in the Privy Council Office mailroom. This job put him in contact with the Prime Minister’s Office staff, who would eventually hire him. When I became Director of Communications, I asked him to become part of my team. For the next year he traveled the country and the world with the Prime Minister of Canada. Today, he continues to broaden his political experience in the Senate.
This young man of 24 years of age learned a valuable lesson. He followed the path of his dream. He looked past the lure of money or of a career in a high growth sector to follow what he felt was more of a vocation. This would be a path that he could love.
My old boss, the former Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien had a similar message for graduates of Queen’s University. He said, “Stretch yourselves. Be positive and optimistic. I know nothing great that was accomplished with faint hope and cynicism. Critics have a role to play but doers are really important. Be self-reliant. Be ambitious. But always remember that we are part of a larger community. Be generous. Contribute to it. Try to make it better. Try to make it as progressive as possible, extending more opportunities to more people both at home and abroad.”
If you remember that, you will be a success.
By the way, after giving his speech Mr. Chrétien asked me, as he often did when I was his Director of Communications, “How did I do?” I answered, “It’s not always about you, Sir.” And to his credit, he roared with laughter.
So remember that too. Live your dreams, but remember that it’s not always about you. It’s about how you live your lives and how you contribute to your community and to your family. Your job now is to live your dream and find your unique way to contribute to the Common Good. No one can tell you how to do that.
But I am going to tell you two things that you must do. The first thing is to vote. Only 25% of 18 to 24 year olds voted in the last federal election. This is your country. Have your say and vote. The students in Tiananmen Square fifteen years ago died for the right to vote. It is your responsibility as citizens of one of the greatest democracies in the world. On June 28, no matter what else you do, vote. It is an essential contribution – one of many – as you make your way along your dream path.
The second thing you must do is to take a moment now, and remember always, the people who have helped you so far. The people who are sharing your success today: your parents, your grandparents, your teachers, brothers and sisters.
Thank you once again for having me here today. It’s been a great pleasure. I wish you all well and I wish you much success and happiness.