One of the University of Winnipeg's smartest students says the school's decision to award Public Safety Minister Vic Toews an honorary degree amounts to a "profound loss of integrity."
Amid a few boos and a few more hoots of approval, Erin Larson said she was proud to have been chosen valedictorian for Sunday's student fall convocation, but she was not proud to be sharing the stage with Toews, Manitoba's senior minister.
She said Toews' record is at odds with the U of W pledge to foster respect for diversity, social inclusion and human rights.
"The decision to give an honorary doctorate to someone who is best known among my generation of students as a vocal opponent of the expansion to human rights is questionable at best," said Larson, who earned an honours degree in psychology.
Toews sat solemnly a few feet away from Larson at the podium and glanced at his program during her speech. He ducked out the side door immediately after the ceremony.
Before the convocation began, a group of about 50 students staged a polite protest outside, carrying signs quoting Toews' past opposition to gay marriage, his defence of the $1 billion spent on the recent G-20 summit in Toronto and his support for new tough-on-crime measures that will require the construction of new prisons.
"Vic Toews stands for everything a university shouldn't," said demonstration organizer Rob McGregor, who earned his bachelor of arts from the U of W last year. "His rhetoric and bigotry don't represent the views of Canadians."
The protesters lined up neatly against the Duckworth Centre's walls and didn't try to speak to graduates and families as they filed in.
"That was a very respectful way of doing it. I wouldn't quite say the same for the valedictorian," said U of W president Lloyd Axworthy. "The ceremony is really for the students and their families and friends... It's not a place to use as a political platform."
But Axworthy said a university offers a place to express differing views, and, in his years in politics, he's heard much tougher words.
Axworthy also defended the decision to award Toews an honorary degree, saying recipients are nominated, then vetted, by a committee that includes faculty and students. Nominees are then approved by the university senate, the highest academic authority, which approved Toews' degree unanimously.
In the stands to watch Toews get his honorary doctorate of laws were Tory Sen. Don Plett, Tory MPs Steven Fletcher and James Bezan, Canad Inns president and CEO Leo Ledohowski and Toews' 92-year-old mother.
In his speech, Toews paid tribute to the vigour of youth and said he is humbled by the honorary doctorate. He avoided politics, except to note wryly that some disagreed with the award. "I don't deserve this honour, but I am losing my hair and I don't deserve that either," he quipped.
Toews also paid tribute to Axworthy's approach to developing an inner-city campus that sparks neighbourhood development.
After the ceremony, Fletcher said Toews represents the views of his constituents and the beauty of a democracy is that there are ways to disagree.
"I think today should be a positive day focusing on the success of the students. Today's not for politics," he said.
Larson's speech divided the crowd. She earned some hoots and sustained applause by many, but many others sat with their arms crossed or refused to clap when she finished.
Afterward, she said she was speaking for students and some faculty who boycotted the convocation because they disagreed with the decision to honour Toews. "The University of Winnipeg has a reputation for having a social conscience. We are known as the liberal college," said Larson, 22. "You go to the U of M to be the man and you go to the U of W to fight the man and I wanted to uphold that on behalf of my student body."
Opinions split on students' actions
Free Press readers reacted almost instantly to events Sunday afternoon at the University of Winnipeg, polarized between those lauding Vic Toews and those supporting protesting students. Here are some of the comments posted at winnipegfreepress.com:
-- Shame on the U of W students who think that once again, everyone should be left-leaning robots who all believe in the same nonsense that their professors teach.
-- Wow! So, they claim the university prides itself on inclusiveness. To show this inclusiveness, the students don't want anybody to have an honorary degree if the individual's views are different from theirs. Wow. Hypocrisy at its finest.
-- This man is a highly accomplished alumnus whose work on Treasury Board has helped bring massive renovations to this university. These students need to get their heads out of the sand and stop biting the hand that feeds them.
-- Totally agree with the students on this one. Someone with views so opposed to the majority of Canada's views on abortion, gay rights, etc. has no right to get acknowledged by the university. It's like rewarding the dog with a treat after (defecating) on the carpet.
-- Shame on you U of W.
-- I usually consider the U of W to be pretty much reality-challenged but this protest is bang on. Is Axworthy hoping for some extra government cash?
-- What hypocrites! They only want equal rights and freedom of speech if it helps their cause.
-- I for one thank God that we still have men like Vic Toews in this country. A voice of reason in this increasingly immoral land.
-- The U of W has a reputation of supporting inclusiveness and equal rights. Toews has gone out of his way to fight against these principles.
-- The man stands up for the rights of those who are slowly having their freedoms taken away by lawlessness and perversiveness.
-- This gives me so much hope! The next generation is thinking more effectively than the current generation, who have led us to our current state of affairs.
-- Absolutely not the appropriate venue for the valedictorian to be making that kind of statement.
-- Today is graduation day for the students -- it's THEIR day. That only lends MORE legitimacy to their right to protest what they see as an act that dishonours their university and tarnishes THEIR day.
-- Erin Larson rocks! Speaking truth to power is our only hope for a better future.
-- It's one thing to not agree with a person's politics and/or decisions while in power, but to go out of your way to embarrass that person during a public ceremony in which he is taking part? How classless.