CONVOCATION ADDRESS - VANCOUVER ISLAND UNIVERSITY - 2016
Madam Chancellor, President, distinguished guests, faculty, families and friends, it is an honour to address you today as this new generation of graduates receives their degrees and, by doing so, begins a new world.
On an early morning just before Christmas back in 2000 I walked across a parking lot at an addiction treatment centre here in Nanaimo not far from this University, stopped, looked up at the the last stars and said, “I quit.” At that moment I began a new life, leaving behind me fifty years of alcohol and drugs. I was then and still am an alcoholic even though I haven’t had a drink these past sixteen years. A month after I was released I wrote a brief afterword to a collection of essays on addiction. It describes a few moments by a Christmas tree one December night at the treatment centre. I read the piece to you now because the girl I describe at the end of the essay died six months later of an overdose, her body found in a shabby room in East End Vancouver:
"The world calls us drunks and addicts. The doctors call us chemically dependent. The counsellors tell us we have a disease. What we call ourselves is mostly unspeakable. The woman next to me, a sweet nineteen-year-old, is an anorexic heroin addict who has been hooking on the street since she was thirteen. Beside her is a young man who started dealing crack cocaine and amphetamines in grade eight to pay for his habit. He was on the street a few years later, selling his body for a hundred or fifty or sometimes twenty quick bucks and beaten too a hundred times in rooms and alleys.
Tonight we are all standing around a twenty-foot Christmas tree singing carols, something we didn't do when we were lying in our lonely rooms with a bottle, a pipe, or a needle. We’re here for seven or eight weeks or longer. Some of us will stay for a year or more. We're singing Christmas carols as loud as we can and drinking pop or water, coffee or tea, as we stare at the tree, that old pagan image of the solstice. Some of us will be dead in six weeks or six months and some of us will live a while longer. It's Christmas in treatment and the only family we have is us, our shared disease, this addiction that has driven us past despair to a place of compassion and confrontation.
We sing Jingle Bells and follow it with the First Noel. Most of us have lived on the street at one time or another, but here, in this season of apprehended joy, there is just a hope there might be something more than what we've got. Around us are the whispers of the past, families and loved ones, some of whom still care and some who can’t anymore. But the season here isn’t sad. We're too frightened to be sad, too frightened to be lonely.
We sing as hard as we can. The tree glistens with lights. There is a strange, surreal happiness in the room. It is a time for song and no one thinks of the night to come, the stunned tears in the dark, the fear that moves hidden among us. A young woman hiding behind a post sings softly, shyly, with her eyes half closed. She is someone's daughter, someone's lover. I would take her hand if I could. I would tell her everything will be alright. But I can't do that. The odds are things won’t be okay ever again. She's only a step away from a room of bottles, crack pipes and seizures, or wrapped around a toilet with a needle hanging from her arm. She's only a step away from being clean, too, but that's a big step, and I don't know if she'll take it.
It's Christmas. There is a tree and many lights and people singing. Some of us will make it, some of us won't, but we sing our hearts out anyway. We sing as hard as we can."
What I have given you is a story from my life for where else but from a life can a story come? And what has this to do with a day of celebration, a day when you receive your degrees after years of hard work? What I promise you is that a day or night will come when you will be faced with a struggle for your life. It can be a struggle much like my own or it can take a different form. What matters is that it will come and when it does you will have to make a choice between a life and a death, your own or another’s. What I want to ask of you is courage. I want you to act upon the humility and compassion you share with all living things, whether it be for a refugee child drowning off the coast of Lesbos in Greece, or a grizzly bear having its head and paws chopped off with an axe by a trophy hunter in the Great Bear Rainforest.
No matter the honours you have earned and the knowledge you have accumulated, a day will come when much will be asked of you and when it does I want you to believe in yourselves, to believe in each other. You are a generation who have earned your chance at a new life in a damaged world. Today you receive your degrees. It is a moment of immense change for each of you, a moment to be proud of, for your families to be proud of. But today is merely an hour. I ask that you never be afraid for a time may come when you will have to sing your hearts out, and when that happens I want you to sing as hard as you can.