Hey valedictorian, watch the soapbox - Macleans.ca

Hey valedictorian, watch the soapbox

UWinnipeg valedictorian should have left her protest against an honourary degree for Vic Toews outside


The convocation ceremony at the University of Winnipeg this past Sunday became more than just an educational rite of passage when valedictorian Erin Larson took to the podium. “While I’m immensely proud to be an alumnus of the University of Winnipeg and extremely honoured to have been selected valedictorian,” Larson began, “I have to admit I’m not proud to share the stage with everyone who is on it today.”

Behind Larson sat Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, who was being awarded an honourary degree by the University of Winnipeg. Toews, who is staunchly opposed to gay marriage, abortion, and other positions sure to reckon him unpopular at a university, stared at his program while Larson continued her valedictorian address.

“I feel the University of Winnipeg has recently suffered a profound loss of integrity due to the actions of the administration,” Lawson continued. “The decision to give an honorary law degree to someone who is best known to my generation of students as being a vocal opponent of expanding human rights is questionable at best.”

The decision was indeed a dubious one for the liberally-reputed University of Winnipeg. Some students, in fact, chose to forgo their walk across the stage in favour of a protest outside the university, where about 40 people gathered holding placards condemning the university’s bestowment of the honorary doctor of laws degree on Toews. It was inside, however, in front of hundreds of alumni, students, family and friends, where Larson chose to make her beliefs known.

She had every right to do so, of course. As valedictorian, those few minutes were her own, to do with whatever she pleased. Though just because we have the right, say, to wave an aluminum rod around amid a lightning storm, it doesn’t mean the idea is suddenly a good one. Larson began her speech commenting on her desire to properly reflect the sentiments of the graduating body, yet continued by expressing her own profound disappointment with the university’s honourary degree decision. Was she speaking on behalf of the student body? Or momentarily abandoning her pledge to do so?

In any case, a valedictory address should not be a political soapbox. While it could be said that granting an honourary degree to a cabinet minister is a political statement in itself, the valedictorian’s speech is not the time to initiate forthright political debate, particularly in front of friends and family who have come to watch their graduate cross the stage.

Larson’s approach simply comes off as crass. She could have joined the group of protestors outside the convocation, or declined her role as valedictorian, a move that would have sent the same point without hijacking the event to tout her ideological message. While holding your breath and plugging your ears is sometimes championed as valiant political activism amid the cozy walls of the university campus, the real world expects some tact when trying to make a political statement. (Well, except in the House of Commons.)

Larson made a point of mentioning the university’s mission statement while drilling home her position, reading that it strives to “Offer a community which appreciates, fosters and promotes values of human dignity, equality, nondiscrimination and appreciation of diversity.” Yet Larson, trying to emphasize that the university has forfeited its integrity by bestowing an honour on a man who doesn’t represent its mission statement, inadvertently forfeits her own by resorting to a tactless, ill-timed public statement. Whether or not you agree with Toews politically, subjecting him to public humiliation certainly does not further any efforts to promote “human dignity.” Though compassion and tolerance for ideological diversity–maybe that’s something one picks up in post-grad.


Hey valedictorian, watch the soapbox

  1. Well, speaking as a gay person who was subject to Toews assaults on my dignity for years, I say good for Erin.

    People like Toews and the school administrators who decided to give him the degree in the first place rely on social rules like tact and decorum to get away with the unthinkable.

    No social movement has ever progressed by kowtowing to what those with the power to oppress considered respectable.

  2. I’m a University of Winnipeg student and I completely agree. Erin has the right to voice her opinion, but not as the valedictorian. She insulted many people who’ve done no crime except hold different political beliefs – myself included.

  3. The one thing I absolutely abhor about modern social politics is the idea of human rights and free speech. Support is given to those who agree with everything, but God forbid anyone disagrees with anything anymore. I don’t think that homophobia is okay, but should it be disallowed for people to hold personal opinions anymore? I think media and society are leaning towards “yes” to answer that question.

    I think it’s pathetic that no one is allowed to have personal opintions anymore. What happened to our backbones? What happened to our morals?

    I DON’T support homosexuality. But I would never say anything bad against someone who was homosexual or who did support it. I have many friends who are homosexual, and I love them dearly. My own mother is a homosexual, married now, and I love her as I always have. But that doesn’t mean I’m required to support their lifestyle choices; I don’t have to like it to be a loving daughter or friend.

    My point is, I’m tired of people putting the spotlight on personal morals and values which have a right to exist. Not supporting homosexuality, or any other social issue, is not an infringment of human rights. I think that not letting people have their opinions and feelings – no matter what they are – is an infringement on human rights! Yes, Erin had every right to voice her opinion, but Mr. Vic Toews has just as much right to voice his own opinions, too.

    I wish people could just learn to have open minds. It’s okay to disagree with other people. We don’t have to keep getting so offended all the time. We should be focusing on the beauty of the differences amongst us rather than trying to get society to assimilate into one large opinionless group of spineless nobodies.

  4. I think Erin Larson’s comments were in very poor taste and reflect poorly on her understanding of human rights in this country.

    The last I heard, the Canadina Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrined both the right to free speech and freedom of religion. Vic Toews, like any other Canadian, has the right to oppose abortion and to say so and Erin has the right to support it, and say so. It is her personal attack on Toews which I object to.

    Similarly, on gay rights, they are now enshrined in law. There are many people who believe that the gay lifestyle is wrong and most of those people also believe that sex outside of marriage is wrong, based on their religious beliefs. They have the right to their opinions and the right to say so.

    I remember well the abortion debates of the 1970s and 1980s when the majority opposing abortion always tried to shut down the voices of those who who supported abortion. Now, it appears, the opposite is happening.

    In a free and democratic country, there is rook for all opinions and all religious beliefs. We are called upon not just to tolerate those beliefs but to respect that others have different views. This is called dialogue.

    I don’t support disparaging any ethnic, religious or gender-defined group nor do I support disparaging the opinions of any of those groups.

    Ms. Larson, as a new graduate, showed a serious disregard for the rights of Mr. Toews. Whether she agrees with him, or whether I agree with him, is not the issue here. People with different takes on life are worthy of recognition for their contributions to society, particularly through public service, regardless of their beliefs.

    It seems that some Canadians, such as Ms. Larson, would like to shut down the right to free speech unless she agrees with what is said. Her university education waas clearly lacking.

  5. Speaking as a Canadian who believes in academic freedom, free speech and democracy, I applaud Erin Larson. She does us proud. A lot of people missed the truth about Vic Toews, who has quite a few personal problems that I won`t go into.

    Now that the media have mentioned him in the context of Eerin`s Valedictory Address (Erin herself did not name him), we`ve had the chance to research his background a bit.

    Vic Toews is homophobic, he is prejudiced against our national healthcare system and he lack some of the human decency we expect in our leaders, including womens`rights. He is also – in my opinion – anti-union and anti-labour.

    He is in favour of building american-style prisons and took a leading role in closing down Canada`s very successful prison farm system.

    I say bravo Erin!!

  6. Robyn, I am not sure where you think a person gets the right “to wave an aluminum rod around amid a lightning storm”. It is something one can choose to do (or not do), but it is not a right. People do not have the right to be an idiot; it is something one just is. Though fervently practiced by some, idiocy is not a religion.
    Likewise, one does not have the right to an opinion; it is something one simply holds on one’s own. (Assuming one had the right to an opinion, and that right was unjustly taken away, it seems that individual would still have opinions). What Canadians do have, as someone pointed out, is the right to voice an opinion—that is, the right to the expression of that opinion.
    Freedom of expression and freedom of speech are commonly misunderstood as including not only what is said, but what is done. Given certain contexts and parameters, Toews and Larson can say what they want. Outside those contexts, when the words have real world results, the actions and resulting consequences are not guaranteed freedoms. Think of it writing a term paper: you can write whatever you want, but only certain responses will be accepted as passable by the institution (stray too far from the norms of acceptability and you will be excised from the institution).
    Larson was chosen as valedictorian because she excelled at demonstrating the actions that a degree recipient must perform in the course of securing a degree. That is, she responded to prompts and examinations not by expressing her opinion, but by providing evidence based responses that were both arguable, supported and institutionally accepted—and she paid her tuition and performed in her own name. In bestowing Toews with an honorary degree, the university failed to hold him to the standard it held Larson and the other granduands—though I’m sure Toews paid his “tuition”.
    If payment is the only thing that Toews and Larson and the now-graduates have in common, then the entire ritual of the convocation is cheapened. This, it would seem, is where the animosity towards Larson comes from: people do not like having the meaninglessness of their rituals pointed out to them. Whether it’s the VMAs and Kanye West or the NBA Hall of Fame induction and Michael Jordan, ceremonies that deviate from the acceptable script piss the hell out of our conservative rites. If we do not have faith that the convocation ceremony stands for something specific and meaningful, then we’re all just a bunch of idiots in gowns shaking hands and grinning at each other.
    By definition, a graduation ceremony cannot stand for equality as its purpose is to initiate one class of individuals (graduands) into another (graduates). Historically, initiations often involve humiliation, so if Toews was humiliated, that seems appropriate. Same goes for Larson. This is, after all, not the story of two individuals with conflicting political opinions; it is the story of a student realizing that the universities are not centers of liberty and understanding, compassion and tolerance, but business centers with strong political allies, then being thrust into the center of it all and asked to speak as a student. I would have been pissed off to have been on that stage, too.

  7. She was wrong to “hijack” commencement with her political agenda.

  8. Pingback: Hey valedictorian, watch the soapbox | Robyn Urback

  9. Great comments by B. Boldin.

    Why should we be spineless? Will we ever live in a world where nobody will ever be offended?

    Might as well get used to it; people will always get on each others’ nerves. Call it part of growing up, facing the ‘real world’, or whatever you will – it’s certainly part of life and comes with living in a vast, evolving society. Better than living as a drone!

    Since when is a university the cornerstone of good morals? In my experiences, academia is full of extreme personalities, obstructive politics, and bureaucratic inefficiencies. The fact that Toews inflicts animosity only puts him with other university figures of the same ilk!

    Although I don’t agree with the author’s main points, I do respect the underlying bias and emotion in the article. Refreshing! Proper debate is a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, the ‘leaders’ of our society have reduced the art to infantile babbling to simply see who’s vocal chords are superior!

    As for Larson’s decision? I’m still undecided if it was right or wrong. But sometimes it’s a good thing to make people uncomfortable in an otherwise austere and pompous setting. Larson’s comments certainly brought this issue to the forefront, so in that regard she made a good decision!

  10. Being valedictorian is automatically a soapbox opportunity no matter what. That’s what it is. Good for her.

  11. The idea that a graduating student, given the podium, should not voice her opinion on an issue or about an action is contrary to the very institution she is graduating from. Good for you- tell that jerk what most of us think of him. A self serving, arrogant, small minded, simple person.

  12. And the people agreeing with the valedictorian’s public rudeness would feel exactly the same way if a student with different political views dressed down the university for giving an honorary degree to the leftists they usually favor…not. This was a shabby stealth attack launched in a forum where Ms. Larson ironically was relying on Mr. Toews not to use his minutes to answer in kind, thereby demonstrating better manners than she did. This young woman is the perfect example of what our universities are producing today, a close minded graduate with a vast sense of entitlement and smugness not for achievement at her young age, but simply for holding “the right” ideas. She has imbibed the illusion that the ideas she espouses are the only ones of value and that other opinions and people who hold them must be denigrated. She lacks simple manners and has no understanding of true/classic liberalism. In summary, a no class performance by someone supposedly representing her class.

  13. I don’t know where Robyn gets her ideas about what a valedictorian’s speech “should” be about, but Larsen’s words were entirely appropriate and the university’s action in selecting Toews for an honourary degree entirely inappropriate, not for his thoroughly discriminatory beliefs, but for misusing his ironic position as “Justice” Minister to try to enshrine those beliefs into discriminatory, unjust, and unconstitutional law. Shame on U of W.

  14. Shabby is the right term. This was small-minded and ugly. There are elegant, clever and respectful ways to make a point which inspire thoughtful reflection. This was not one of them. Whether or not one, in addition, disagrees with Mr. Toews’ actions in office, is simply not the issue.

  15. There are more professional ways to present an opposing view. Is this how you want to represent your BRAND?

    Prospective employers may view this rant as an indicator of your level of professionalism (read maturity.) You may wish to prepare some answers for likely questions at your job interviews.