While COVID-19 made it impossible to hold in-person Convocation ceremonies this spring, McGill’s Virtual Convocation has attracted some notable Canadians to help celebrate the Class of 2020. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (BA’94), Premier François Legault and Super Bowl champ Dr. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (MDCM ’18) are helping send-off graduating students in style.
The first of five pre-recorded ceremonies were broadcast online today and the remaining five will be aired tomorrow.
The virtual ceremonies incorporate different elements of in-person Convocation, complete with a lone Black Watch piper playing in front of the McCall MacBain Arts Building and the singing of the University song, Hail! Alma Mater. The latter is a beautiful choral arrangement by Professor Francis Choinière and performed by members of the Schulich Singers under the direction of Professor Jean-Sébastien Vallée.
Chancellor Michael A. Meighen opened the festivities in a speech that set the tone for the ceremony. Acknowledging the disappointment of not being able to celebrate the Class of 2020 in person, Meighen praised McGill students and graduates for their ability to overcome adversity and meet to the challenge of COVID-19.
“We are all living lives constrained by the impact of the coronavirus. Our focus tends to be on the things that we cannot do: the friends we cannot meet, the places we cannot go, the events we cannot attend,” he said. “But graduates like you remind me of all the things we can do.”
“Everywhere I look I see McGill students and graduates applying their creativity and energy in diverse ways,” continued Meighen. “They are providing grocery services and meals for healthcare workers, volunteering at hospitals and care facilities, sharing their music and creative talents, supporting research into vaccines and treatments, innovating technology to track the virus, raising funds for workers in need – and much more.
“No matter where you are, this is a great day for you and for McGill. It is a day which recognizes all your hard work, commitment, sacrifice, and success,” said the Chancellor. “That is something that started well before the pandemic and will endure much longer.”
Principal Suzanne Fortier spoke about the difficulty of navigating the uncharted waters of COVID-19. “We all wish that we could have a GPS to guide us through the many twists and turns of life, particularly in a storm like the COVID one,” said the Principal.
As no such tool exists the Principal suggested the Class of 2020 look toward three McGillians whose wisdom and experiences might serve as headlights to illuminate the path ahead.
“A particularly bright light at McGill is Neurology professor Brenda Milner,” said Fortier. “Brenda is 101 years old and certainly knows a lot about adapting to a world that presents unanticipated challenges. Her motto through her very accomplished life? ‘Don’t be afraid of change, and keep a sense of humour.’
Next, the Principal spoke of Professor emeritus Charles Taylor, “who has been called one of the world’s greatest thinkers.”
“Reflecting on the growing inequalities in the world, made even more obvious in this pandemic, [Taylor] shared the following thought: ‘Is it too much to hope we might react when the pandemic is over, not just with relief…but with a determination to address these inadequacies? The optimist in me thinks there is a good chance we can rise to the occasion.’”
Finally, the Principal quoted Amelie Fabian, a Rwandan refugee who recently graduated from McGill. “Amelie said, ‘When you’re a refugee, the feeling that never leaves you is that you’ve lost everything. But when it comes to education, it’s not something they can take away from you.’”
“You, graduates of the Class of 2020, know what it means to rise to the occasion. And with all you have learned in reaching this important milestone, do bring along with you the confidence that you’ve gained that when you are called again to rise to the occasion either for yourself, for your community or for all the people in the world who face inequities, you will be there,” said Fortier in closing. “You can do it. You have what it takes to be headlights in our world.”
François Legault, Premier of Quebec, was next to address graduating students. Congratulating them on achieving this milestone, he also had praise for their diligence in combatting the pandemic.
“I know this is not how you imagined this moment or this year. We do not decide of the challenges we face, but we do get to choose in what way we respond to those challenges. And I’m proud of all how Quebecers have responded to the challenge we face,” he said. “We will need this determination of yours in the coming years. We will need young researchers, young entrepreneurs, young workers in health care and technology and in a lot of other domains.”
Telling the Class of 2020 to be bold and ambitious, the Premier reminded them that the world “will need you and your audacity to get through this crisis and to build a better future together.”
In his address, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau harkened back to his days as a McGill student. “I remember how it felt to finally get to this moment, because behind this moment are many sleepless nights cramming for midterms at the McLennan. Lots of coffee and plenty of classes,” he said. “And while we may not be celebrating on lower field this year, I’m glad we still get a chance to come together and recognize this incredible achievement.”
“For almost 200 years, McGill has stood as a beacon of excellence, bringing together some of the best and brightest minds in the world,” continued the Prime Minister. “That same standard of excellence is found in this group graduating today. Your class is filled with passionate people who are always willing to learn, who are eager to give back, and who strive to make this country and this world a better place.”
Trudeau spoke of the difficulties society is facing, including the COVID-19 pandemic and protests against racism and police brutality. “Whether you’ve studied the arts, medicine, management or science, I know that you are ready for this new chapter but you’ve finished your studies in a period of great change – and that creates a lot of uncertainty,” said Trudeau. “We need people who are not afraid to change the way we do things to build a better future. People like you.”
The final address belonged to a person who, despite needing no introduction, began by introducing himself.
“Hi, my name is Laurent Duvernay-Tardif,” said the man who has made headlines across North America in recent years for earning a medical degree from McGill while playing professional football in the NFL. LDT’s incredible journey peaked in February when his Kansas City Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV 31-20 over the San Francisco 49ers, making him the first doctor to ever win the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
“It’s really a pleasure for me to be here today, but it’s kind of weird at the same time, because two years ago I was in your shoes,” said a smiling Duvernay-Tardif. “And you can say that a lot has happened over the last two years with the Super Bowl run and everything. But at the end of the day, I’m not even 30, so I don’t know exactly what can I say in terms of advice.”
Listing graduating from McGill while playing pro football as “one of my biggest accomplishments,” Duvernay-Tardif said not all the lessons he learned at the University were in the classroom.
“If there was one thing that McGill taught me, it was that it is possible to accomplish great things, and that you shouldn’t be afraid to dream and to have ambition.”
“You do have a diploma from one of the top universities in the country and you worked hard for it,” said Duvernay-Tardif. “So, take the time to celebrate with your family and friends. Enjoy the moment. And tomorrow, let’s get right back at it with even more grit and vision, because we have a responsibility towards society. And right now, more than ever, society needs us.”
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