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.