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York University speech

Mr. Chancellor, members of the Governing Council, professors,

parents, partners, family members, friends and fellow learners. Its an

unforgettable honor to be here today.

In many ways, York University is like a second home to my family.

My wife, Amira, earned her PhD in social and political thought from York,

and one of our children was practically born here. When it came time for

Amiras thesis defense, she was already 8 months pregnant with our

second child and having the occasional contraction. So, as she was being

grilled by her thesis committee, I had the pleasure of wandering around

York Lanes for several hours, worryingnot so much about Amira passing

her defense, as about her passing a baby. Fortunately for everyone, she

passed both, with flying colors, about a month apart, each on their

respective due dates.

Amira, I dont often get a chance to say this publicly in front of 2,000

people, but thank you for your love, patience, support, and wise counsel

over the years. You inspired, and critiqued, and helped fashion everything

in my life that Im proudest of.

I also wish to acknowledge and thank my father, Leslie Dan, who also

holds an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from York University. Dad, you

taught your children about philanthropy by example, and you empowered

us to follow in your footsteps. This is something that we hope to pass on to

our own children one day.

And finally, I would like to acknowledge that this is the holy month of

Ramadan, and wish all who observe it, Ramadan Mubarak. Where else in

the world, but Canada, do you get an acknowledgement of traditional

Indigenous territory and Ramadan at a university graduation ceremony?

To those who are about to graduate, tomorrow marks your first full

day as York University alumni. And it also happens to be National

Aboriginal Day. One of the most important teachings I have received from

Indigenous people is that everything is ceremony, and the ceremony you

are about to participate inthe act of walking across the stage in front of

two thousand people, academic gown swishing in the air, collecting a piece

of paper with your name on it, perhaps snapping a selfie with the

Chancellorthis ceremony is infused with deep cosmic significance.

People who study these things know that graduating from university will

add anywhere from 4 to 7 years to your lifespan.

So if it took you 4 to 7 years to complete your undergraduate

degreepoof! You will now get all of those years back. Your student

loans, unfortunately, will still be around.

In addition to being better informed and making better health choices

throughout their lives, university graduates live longer because of the

improved social status that comes with a university degree. And social

status is an important social determinant of health.

So to the graduating class of 2017, if you do anything at all today,

please take a moment to properly thank your parents, your partners, your

friends, your close and distant relatives, and even the high school teachers

whom youre still in touch with, because they literally gave you the gift of


Another important teaching that I have received from Indigenous

people is that we must always think ahead to the seventh generation.

Seven generations ago, nobody in my family had the opportunity to go to

university. Even two generations ago, there were members of my family

who grew up in Canada and who didnt complete high school, let alone

attend university, because they had to work on the family farm.

Things are quite different today, and in March of this year, the

magazine U.S. News and World Report, ranked Canada #1 in the world for

quality of life and #1 for education. Those are amazing accomplishments

for a country thats only 150 years old. And I can assure you that in 1867,

nobody at Oxford, or Cambridge, would have ever imagined that an

underpopulated British colony in North America, with an alcoholic for a

prime minister, would eventually boast the best educational system in the

world. But rather than get all smug about our achievements, we Canadians

should pause and think about all of those members of our society who

continue to be systematically excluded from sharing in our great social


Historically, Indigenous people in Canada have had some of the

worst educational experiences imaginable. The system of residential

schools, invented by Settlers and imposed on them by Settlers, lasted from

1830 to 1996. And even today, Indigenous people in Canada, whether

living in urban-based or remote reserves, dont have the same, rich

educational experiences and opportunities as other Canadians. So theres

a paradox at the heart of the greatest educational system in the world: an

entire segment of society continues to be left behind, much to everyones

detriment. These problems wont get better by themselves, yet in

December, 2016, the Parliamentary Budget Officer released a report that

makes clear that inequities in First Nations education remain, even after

accounting for the new investments in Budget 2016.

No university education means less opportunity to improve your

social status, and no extra 4 to 7 years of life. Not surprisingly, the average

lifespan of First Nations in Canada is about 7 years shorter than the

national average. And among the Inuit, the difference is more like 15


Thinking ahead to the seventh generation, its important to recognize

that Indigenous people are now the fastest growing, poorest, and most

marginalized people in Canada. One in four children in First Nations

communities live in poverty. In Nunavut, 70% of preschoolers experience

food insecurity. The rate of TB among the Inuit is 185 times the Canadian

average, and the HIV rate among First Nations in northern Saskatchewan

is higher than in Nigeria.

First Nations children end up in foster care 12x more frequently than

non-Indigenous children, and 25% of our federal prison population is

Indigenous. As Pam Palmeter likes to point out, it costs $100,000 per year

to keep someone in prison. Thats roughly the same cost as an

undergraduate degree. Today, a typical First Nations youth is more likely

to end up in jail than to graduate from high school, let alone attend


But heres the good news: when Indigenous people are given the

chance to attend university, they graduate and find jobs just like everyone

elseperhaps even at a higher rate than everyone else. They move back

to their communities as teachers, nurses, doctors, and as entrepreneurs,

and create economic activity on their reserves. It might take another seven

generations to reverse the effects of colonization and residential schools,

but we have to begin today. Which means that it will be up to you,

graduating class of 2017, to do your share of the heavy lifting. Consider

this your last homework assignment. Your professors will check on you in

50 years time, when Canada celebrates its bicentennial, to make sure that

youve closed all the social and economic gaps between Indigenous

peoples and Settler Canadians. When the opportunities and outcomes are

the same for both groups, then we will have achieved reconciliation.

There are two more Indigenous teachings that I would like to share

with you. Nothing about us without us is a phrase that you will often hear,

and it resonates with the theme of the Two Row Wampum treatythe

oldest treaty between Indigenous peoples and Europeans. The Two Row

Wampum is a peace and friendship treaty, originally negotiated between

the Haudenosaunee and the Dutch in 1613. Its represented by a wampum

belt with three white lines and two purple lines, all running parallel to each

other. The purple lines represent the Indigenous canoe and the Settler

ship, forever travelling down the river of life together, neither touching nor

interfering with each other. The three white lines represent the principles of

peace, friendship, and respect.

When we mark Canada 150 in a few days time, its important to

remember that long before there was Confederation, two sovereign

peoples from two different continents met here and agreed to share this

space and to coexist peacefully, as equals and as friends. Nothing about

us without us is a gentle reminder of how friends are supposed to treat

their friends.

I want to close by exploring one last Indigenous teaching: the

meaning of the phrase all my relations. In the Indigenous world view, all

the two-legged ones are connected to each other, as well as to the natural

world: to animals, plants, mother earth, the four waters, and the sky,

including the spirit worldwhere our lifes journey begins and ends. All my

relations goes on forever, and we are all on this journey together,

connected now by ceremony.

Tentanda via. Let us try the way. Let us all travel the river of life

together, and make the most of those extra 4 to 7 years, building an even

stronger, more equitable, and more inclusive Canada; so that our seventh

generation will continue to inherit the best quality of life and the best

educational system in the world.

With all my relations. Thank you. Miigwech.