“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” We are all familiar with this quote from Charles Dickens’ historical 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities. If you are like me, the quote raises its head every now and then. But how often do we complete the quote? In full, it actually reads, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...
I think of this passage far more frequently now than I have done before —sometimes in the context of our School, sometimes in the context of our country, and, increasingly, in the context of the chaotic world in which we live.
Scholars and historians have analyzed this passage endlessly, so far be it from me to opine about a literary treasure. But for me, this passage has always embodied the distinction between good and evil, between hope and despair, and between actions based on knowledge and those that are not.
We have all been touched by the events across the world this past year, whether it was the horrendous mass murders of innocent peoples in any one of a number of countries, or the seemingly endless horrors of civil wars and genocides. We live in the belief that it cannot happen to us, that in the “Western world,” this would never be tolerated, that we will stand up to it.
Yet, even a momentary glance south of our border shows that we are not above exclusionary rhetoric. Peoples of all races and backgrounds are being turned against one another. So, in some senses, it is a time of great darkness.
Or is it?
As Canadians, we opened our doors to 25,000 Syrian refugees this past year. And while there were issues and criticisms, it was a moment that we should, as Canadians, be intensely proud of.
Not that long ago, I listened to a CBC interview of a Syrian living in the States who noted that when the call went out to help, it was only the Canadians who opened their doors widely and without hesitation.
The Canadian response was different than the no less remarkable action of some European countries who responded to the plight of those displaced from their homes and forced to cross borders in search of a new home. The speaker noted that this response of Canadians did not go unnoticed and in time, has only served to bring emphasis of the view of Canadians worldwide as a ‘just society.’
It invoked thoughts of the role of great Canadian visionaries such as former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, retired Lieutenant-General and Senator Roméo Dallaire, and former Ambassador to the United Nations Stephen Lewis. Individuals who have been or are shining examples of what we, as Canadians, stand for.
I recently listened to Fort McMurray’s fire chief Darby Allen as he, months after the fire was out, described how no lives were lost in the fire itself, but more poignantly, how individuals fought to stop the fire home by home using whatever was available to them. How we, as Canadians, in this instance, rallied to help.
Even closer to home, we have, as a University, opened our doors to eight Syrian students to study and advance.
Is it enough? Perhaps not, but it is a start.
I have seen first-hand the impact that even a single individual can make in helping and befriending a family that has lost everything. It’s all the more reason to be a proud father. I have also seen our faculty members respond earnestly when we’ve raised the plight of a family or an individual.
What about closer to home?
I have watched in horror the dissolution of our treasured national peer review system for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. This accompanied the loss of the funding of certain MD/PhD programs—one of the proven pathways to ensuring a bright future for our academic health centres.
But out of this seeming chaos has arisen a national voice to help realign our research programs, to bring back rigorous peer review, and to reclaim a national sense of pride in our research programs.
Individuals from within our own faculty have responded by dedicating immense time and skills to improving the situation. And in this past year, I have seen innumerable colleagues dedicate themselves fully to redeveloping many of our already great programs. It is a time of unselfishness.
I have seen our University step up to the plate and continue to strive for excellence on the national stage.
So, is it a time of darkness? Perhaps. But it is also a time of great light.
I look around at what our alumni, faculty and students have achieved, of the dedication of so many to help those who are truly less fortunate, of those who are prepared to speak out against all levels of injustice—just a few of whom you will read about in Rapport. And I’m reminded of the School’s four Pillars of Professionalism —Altruism, Integrity, Responsibility and Respect. It’s then that I recall again why it is with such great pride that I get to serve as the Dean of this wonderful School in a country whose values remain first and foremost a source of inspiration across the globe.