John Ralston Saul’s coming to town

By Salima Bhanji

His Excellency John Ralston Saul will be awarded an honourary degree in what he considers his fourth hometown.

He will receive his degree from the University of Calgary Mon., Nov. 10 at the fall convocation ceremony. As part of this honour, Saul will address 768 graduating students.

Born in Ottawa in 1947, novelist and husband to the Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, Mr. Saul is the author of five novels where he melds social, political and philosophical thought into provoking literary works, his latest of which includes On Equilibrium. With a PhD in Economics and Political Science, Mr. Saul has already been conferred with a dozen or so honourary degrees but seems genuinely excited about the award from the U of C.

"I came to the university a few months ago and I think you can gather from the speech I made how I felt about the university," said Mr. Saul.

Mr. Saul spent a portion of his youth in Calgary.

"I was christened in Calgary, started school in Calgary… where I played the triangle in the school band very badly," he explained. "Then I came back to Calgary to help set up Petro-Canada."

Mr. Saul, who had previously worked in a European investment firm, was Petro-Canada’s second employee.

"I arrived on the first day of operations, it was a room on the twenty-second floor of the International Hotel," Mr. Saul remembered. "When I checked in, I doubled the size of the national oil company."

During this time, Mr. Saul published his first novel, Birds of Prey.

"I have this ongoing relationship with Calgary," explained Mr. Saul. "I identify a lot with the town, I have a lot of friends in Calgary… I always treat Calgary as one of my four hometowns."

Despite this, Mr. Saul’s busy schedule only allows him a quick stint in Calgary this time to attend the convocation ceremony. This will be his second address at the university this year as he also presented in March on the topic of public education and civil society.

"I don’t really like repeating myself, so I’m not going to give the same speech," said Mr. Saul. "I’m going to try and talk about the community and what it means to be a member of the community. When people are graduating, there is the issue of how you fit into Canadian society, how you see the country in realistic terms and how you see yourself as part of it.

"We are supposed to have these linear careers where we go from A to B to C to D. I haven’t done that and I never did. It’s got to be possible to do more than one thing at once. If you do something that isn’t in the same line, maybe you’re just becoming more complicated, just growing up."

Mr. Saul’s avid interest in Canada’s Arctic will also have a place in his address.

"I’m going to talk about the North, which is not one of the first things that comes to people’s minds when they’re graduating," said Mr. Saul. "I think Calgary and Calgarians have a role to play in the way we conceive the North of the country. The city has a local, regional, national and international destiny and it’s important to be conscious of that when you’re graduating from university."

After a pause, Mr. Saul rethought his address topic.

"What do you think I should speak about?" he asked.

Honourary degree recipients at the U of C, are selected on the basis of nominations and references from the community.

"The nominations are submitted to the honorary degree committee of the senate for evaluation," explained U of C Chancellor Bill Warren.

The files are assessed and advanced to the President and the Chancellor, who make the final decision.

"We are trying to expand interest in the nominations," said Warren. "It’s not restricted to anyone. If students believe there is someone that should be nominated, we’d only be happy to hear it."

Typically, the U of C awards nine honourary degrees each year.

"It is an important thing for a university to recognize people who are accomplished," Warren ex- plained. "It brings credit to the university and it builds links between the university and the discipline the recipient represents. The only mandatory criteria is that the recipient has achieved something that sets them apart from other people."

Warren stressed the importance choosing someone who will impart a powerful address on the convocation.

"I think John Ralston Saul will be very good and the students will remember what he has said," smiled Warren. "He is a very good speaker, he is an intellect."

However, Mr. Saul’s stance on a number of issues may be considered to be somewhat radical in contrast to current post-secondary education policies and practices in Canada.

"I think he has a very powerful message to deliver about public education," said Warren. "He brings a perspective that I think is valuable to the debate. We don’t have to necessarily agree with what he says."

While Warren is hesitant to concur with Saul’s opinions regarding student financial debt, he definitely relates to Saul’s concerns with the narrow, meritocratic approach of our current post-secondary education system.

"Just because you came first in your class doesn’t mean you are going to make a better lawyer," admitted Warren, a practicing lawyer. "But our society is designed so that there are objective criteria."

Warren acknowledges there is a deficiency in our education system, but he is not sure how to remedy it.

"I had a debate with my father 25 years ago about the same thing, and the debate is still going on," he said.

Another issue of recent debate relates to the Governor General’s spending.

"I don’t have any second thoughts about having brought his name forward," said Warren. "John Ralston Saul is not in government. He’s a national figure, at the moment a controversial national figure, but I think he has an outstanding message."

When pressed on the issue of spending, Mr. Saul very calmly described the Foreign Affairs strategy.

"Other countries have a long history of being able to project themselves internationally," said Mr. Saul. "They sell their goods, ideas, leadership. Foreign Affairs said, ‘Is there some way we can project ourselves abroad?’"

Mr. Saul explained how recent delegations consisted of a cross-section of Canadian experts, artists and professionals who provide a voice for Canada in different areas.

"Instead of it just being the Governor General or the Governor General’s spouse who goes out, suddenly you’re taking this broad range of Canadians," explained Mr. Saul. "It’s really revolutionizing and democratizing the state visit.

"What’s fascinating is the quantity of press that was received for the state visits is unprecedented. A number of the countries where we have been have said they are going to start doing the same thing," he added. "It’s wonderful to see Canada on the cutting edge."

As husband to the Governor General, Mr. Saul hasn’t been able to dedicate as much time to his writing recently.

"This is a full-time volunteer job I’m doing," said Saul. "I’m seeing so many Canadians and communities–it’s an astonishing education."

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