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A prime minister's message to the future

By Sean Chase, The Daily Observer


The Right Honourable Paul Martin implored Algonquin College graduates Friday to do their part to tackle today's great social challenges with the same spirit and sense of purpose as his late father did.

Addressing the Class of 2017 during the college's convocation ceremonies at the Pembroke Memorial Centre, the former prime minister said that too many of the world's most powerful nations are turning inward and ignoring the pressing issues of climate change, African famine, pandemic disease, and the environmental catastrophe facing the planet's oceans.

In a stirring speech delivered after receiving an honourary degree on behalf of his late father, Martin recounted how the people of Pembroke helped his father recovered from a terrible bout of polio when he was a young man, at a time when there was no universal healthcare to assist him. While the disease left him half paralysed for two years and permanently blind in one eye, it didn't stop Paul Martin Sr. from graduating university, setting up a law practice, winning election to the House of Commons and becoming a consequential cabinet minister who fought for innovative legislation, such as health care, welfare, old age security and hospital insurance.

“That is why this honorary degree from Pembroke’s Algonquin College means so much to me and to those listening in up there,” said Martin. “Yes, my dad made history. But he never could have done it had the people of Pembroke not been there for him.”

Although his father passed away in 1992 at the age of 89, Martin said he and his mother, Nell, were with him on this proud day in spirit. He added he was deeply touched to be accepting this degree – the first one posthumously for his father. During his speech, he reflected on three key issues – citizenship, healthcare and globalisation.

The trials and tribulations of Paul Martin Sr.'s time, such as the creation of the United Nations and the creation of a Canadian healthcare system, are as relevant today as they were when his father led the charge for such changes as both health minister and secretary of external affairs. Martin added that he worries that some of the world’s governments fail to understand that the national interest cannot be met if the global interest is ignored. Citizenship and the rights of immigrants and refugees are a critical part of building a stronger Canada, he added, however better healthcare, better education for all, and a secure safety net are imperative, if we are to successfully counter the free market’s greatest social risk, namely rising inequality, and a widespread lack of hope.

“We are not captive to the inevitable. We can change the future,” said Canada's 21st prime minister. “You can change the future. A young man afflicted with polio, born to a poor family in this city demonstrated that many years ago. And he did so because of the values he drew from Pembroke and from the people who live here. They are the values that Algonquin College stands for. And they are the values you must stand for.”

This is a special year for Algonquin College as it celebrates its 50th anniversary. Congratulating the campus, Martin added 2017 also marks seven decades since his father passed his first piece of legislation, the 1947 Citizenship Act, a bill that no longer defined Canadians as British subjects but as Canadians in their own right. For his father, it was important to bring new Canadians to this country so they could find a new way of life and hope for the future.

“That was my father’s message 70 years ago. It is a message that is every bit as important today, when so many countries around the world are closing their borders to immigrants and refugees,” remarked Martin. “Canada would not be the country we are today had we not opened our borders after World War II. It was the right thing to do then and if he were here today, my Dad would tell us it is the right thing to do now.”

Following a resounding standing ovation from the graduates, their families and dignitaries, Martin received the degree scroll from College president Cheryl Jensen. The former prime minister's appearance and words added a special atmosphere to the occasion. In her valedictory address, personal support worker Holly Mortensen said it was a privilege to hear from one of our nation's six surviving prime ministers. Along with her classmates, Mortensen seemed ready to answer Martin's call to make Canada a better place – the mission of both father and son.

“It's unlikely any of us will become a prime minister but you never know,” Mortensen said to the laughter of the audience. “What I do know is that we will achieve great things. We've worked hard and we are ready to make our contributions to this country of Canada.” 

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