Tackling the AIDS crisis in Africa is one of Lewis' many goals.
Paul Baker/the Gauntlet

Lewis brings issues closer to home

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University of Calgary frosh were treated Tuesday to a keynote address from a Canadian icon who testified with Alicia Keys, accompanied Oprah Winfrey to Zambia and said he wants to "physically assault" World Bank and International Monetary Fund officials. Despite having 28 honourary degrees, a knighthood from Lesotho and attending four post-secondary institutions, Stephen Lewis never actually finished his undergraduate degree.

The former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations helped kick off U of C 101 with a speech urging students to take opportunities to get involved with issues of our time, including the environment, the AIDS crisis and global poverty.

Lewis said the upcoming federal election offered a chance for students to discuss all these issues on a national level, as well as the war in Afghanistan and the slowing economy, which the class of 2012 will emerge into once finished school.

He became passionate about social justice during his university career in the late '50s when he drove down to Little Rock, Arkansas at the height of the civil rights movement to support the end to segregation in United States' public schools.

"One of the most memorable moments in my life, which I have never forgotten to this day and influenced me hugely at the age of 18 or 19, was standing on the line outside Little Rock high school when . . . the first young African American student crossed the line and went into the school," he said. "It's important to understand that the world opens for you."

Lewis was the leader of the New Democratic Party when they were the official opposition in Ontario and then went on to become the leader of the UN special envoy for HIV-AIDS in Africa. He urged students to get involved outside of class, whether that be joining a club to end violence in Darfur or with a non-governmental organization.

"Nothing will give you more pleasure in life than to be part of a broader international community which makes you feel, at some point in your careers, like a global citizen," said Lewis. "I'm not here to tell you what you should do, I'm here only to say that the opportunities which are open to you now are vast. I've often thought that the only reason we're on this earth is to achieve a greater degree of social justice and equality. There are no objectives more noble, there is nothing that makes greater sense of a university education."

Lewis, a social sciences professor who teaches about climate change at McMaster University, was visibly angry when talking about carbon emissions. He said the environment had special meaning here in Alberta where the "world-influencing" oil sands are and where the province's universities come together to research energy, offering students the chance to directly participate in an issue that has become the centrepiece of global political debate.

He argued that, like the young activists of the '60s and '70s, students are starting to feel it is "less important to make a living and more important to make a contribution."

"It isn't one particular discipline that makes your life authentic, it's the degree to which you care, to which the feelings of compassion and commitment and principle coarse through your veins," he said. "Therefore, the knowledge you gather and the discipline you choose gives you the kind of intellectual depth that is required and allows you to develop the skills and the self discipline that make a life productive."

Lewis, author of Race Against Time, spoke of the UN's Millennium Development Goals, which include universal education, environmental sustainability and gender equality. Lewis said feminism, which he described simply as "equality," was close to his heart.

"There isn't a country in the world where there is genuine equality, where women have an equal number of representatives in parliament or where they have an equal number of posts on a corporate board. Women, even in Canada, make between 75 and 80 cents on the male dollar in exactly the same occupation."

Lewis said pay discrepancies also exist in university posts. Even considering length of tenure and disciplines, female professors are paid less than male ones.

Another Millennium Development Goal was global partnerships between the developing and developed world.

"All the [developing world] wants is some guarantee of assistance and the promises have been made and the promises are always dishonoured," he said. "They're always betrayed. They're never delivered. . . . There's a lot to be done."