Address on receiving the Old Boy of Distinction Award from Upper Canada College
February 12, 2018
The Hon. Michael Wilson, P.C., C.C., B.Com., LL.D.
Chancellor of the University of Toronto
Thank you Alexander, for that very generous introduction. And of course a very big thank-you to the selection committee for recognizing me in this way. It is a huge honour and truly humbling to receive this award.
There are many deserving Old Boys with an outstanding record of achievement who could be standing here this evening. And I suppose that is a mark of a great school. We all got an excellent start here, and I know we are all grateful for it and look back fondly on our days at Upper Canada College. And my congratulations to Max Bruce and Jill Adolphe for their very well-deserved awards.
I want to focus tonight on the importance of service – a key part of my life which I am sure was a factor in the decision to honour me with this award.
The importance of service was instilled in me from the start, by my parents. Shortly after I started at the Prep, age 12 or 13, the boys were all assembled to hear a guest speaker who had been quite involved in the launch in Toronto of what we now know as the United Way. And what a surprise to me to see that the speaker was my father! He was also a founder of what is now the Heart and Stroke Foundation. And somewhat later when the old upper school building had to be replaced, he was the Chairman of the UCC board and led the fundraising.
My mother was also involved in community organizations such as the CNIB and the Red Cross and our church. All this to say, I was exposed to the importance of community service from an early age. In fact, it was more than exposure. Around that time, my mother said to me, very sternly, “Michael, I hope that you will do as much for your community as your father has!” That direction has never left me.
So the importance of service goes back a long way within this old body! And as we have heard from Principal McKinney, it is one of the five UCC values. To quote, “UCC inspires boys to become service-oriented leaders…. to recognize their ability to positively influence change…. and to make a difference in our local and global communities.” A number of years after I left UCC, this activity assumed an increasingly more prominent position in student activities.
It is very impressive to see how that ethos is being brought to life. UCC’s requirements for co-curricular activities help ensure that our boys today develop a broad outlook on the needs of others. I am amazed at the range of activities – from underprivileged communities and peoples here in Toronto, hospital volunteers, volunteer tutoring and Me to We are a few examples.
There are many major global issues which, as individuals we may not be able to do much about – intractable problems such as those posed by North Korea, ISIS, and Brexit, and incredibly complex files such as relations with China. But we can have an impact on building strong communities here at home. The basic strength of our country is our communities. And in many ways this is where the volunteer service of our boys can have its greatest or most immediate impact.
But whether at home or abroad, these co-curricular experiences will expose our boys to a world that is very different from the one in which many of them have grown up. It is a privilege to attend UCC. For some, exposure to the world outside that somewhat protected environment can be a life-changing experience. And for all, it will leave a lasting impression of the importance of service to your community and encourage our boys to continue this work as part of their own career development after they leave.
Of course, I also learned about the value of service through another key chapter in my life – my 14 years as a Member of Parliament. It is no exaggeration to say that this was the most broadening experience of my whole life and in particular working with my constituents and charitable groups within my riding. My political career began after 20 years in the investment business, and the world that I saw through my political life was quite different from Bay Street.
A large part of my time was spent dealing with problems. Some were at a very high level – the deficit, the GST, NAFTA – and for the most part, that was my public face. And that would be the same for most MPs. But what was important for me was to know the impacts of these policies on people across Canada, especially people in small, remote and disadvantaged communities. I travelled from coast to coast, talking with people at all income levels and hearing what they were concerned about. It gave me crucial insights on how we could adjust a given policy to mitigate any unintended impact, so that, on balance, it would benefit the whole country.
And I recall meetings with Brian Mulroney when we discussed some very difficult issues that I was proposing. As we would come to a decision point, he would say, “Mike, you and I can always leave this place and get a good job with more money than we make here, but that is not what brought us here. We are here to make a difference – so let’s get on with it!”
My experience in politics led me to understand the importance of making volunteer work a key part of our lives. My most important volunteer work – some say that it has been more important than my work in government – has been in the mental health field. I had my first exposure to this as an MP where I encountered colleagues facing personal tragedies. And in my everyday work as an MP, constituents would confide in me, sharing mental illness challenges in their families. So I began to understand the impact of mental illness in a personal way.
Prior to politics, I had volunteered for the Canadian Cancer Society, and at that time in Ontario, I was one of 45,000 people volunteering for the Society. But I knew no one who was a volunteer in the mental illness field. So I decided that that is where I should volunteer.
Within two years, our son became quite ill with a form of depression, and ultimately this, compounded by the burden of the stigma surrounding mental illness, lead him to take his own life. I saw the impact of stigma on Cameron as well as in my volunteer work and as MP, and I knew that I had to speak out about it.
The reaction was something I did not anticipate. It was like a door waiting to be pushed open. People would come to me, in confidence, and share their own stories. I was asked to make speeches and become directly involved in some mental health organizations, such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. And as you heard, I am the Chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada, so I am still very active in this field.
Volunteer work should also be part of the business world. Over the years I have taken part as a volunteer in investment industry associations and specific projects, to help promote the good functioning of financial markets. In my current position at Barclays, I have seen terrific things come out of our program of job-interview coaching, where our younger staff participate in mock interviews with high school students from needy communities who might otherwise be unlikely to receive such help.
Beyond these specific activities, business itself can benefit from making this form of service an integral part of their activities. Certainly businesspeople are far more effective if they are engaged in their communities and aware of the challenges and aspirations of those around them. By being directly involved they bring their own experience and expertise as well as access to their networks to provide practical support and ideas to volunteer organizations. And thinking this way can help people in business simply be better citizens. This is a reward in itself.
This brings me to my final thought tonight. (Once when I was at this point in a political speech here at UCC, I was given a direct reminder of this. I happened to look down from the podium to see my father like this, wondering will this ever come to an end?!)
Service to your community is a very fulfilling experience. The positive sentiment of giving back is powerful. It is a way of broadening your life. It is a way of meeting a broad range of new friends. And it is a powerful way to strengthen our communities. The organizations that benefit are helped immensely. There is no way that they could do what they need to do without volunteer support from the business community.
My volunteer work has been a profoundly important part of my life, especially in recent years. I sometimes wonder what a void there would be in my life without it. But apart from my personal growth and satisfaction, I know that our communities and our country would not be as strong without the efforts of millions of Canadians providing volunteer service in so many ways.
So let me close by thanking Upper Canada College for the priority that you have placed on service by making it one of your five values, and in that way improving the lives of our boys by instilling this value in them at this very formative stage in their development.
Thank you again for the honour you have bestowed on me – I shall never forget this evening. And thank you all for being here tonight.