Honorary degrees awarded to three aboriginal leaders

Lloyd Axworthy and Elijah Harper reflect on U of W’s fall convocation

Elijah Harper was one of three aboriginal leaders to receive an honorary degree during convocation on Oct. 16. Harper, along with Murray Sinclair and Tobasonakwut Kinew, were chosen to highlight “strong aboriginal leadership.” Supplied

Bringing to light the exceptional achievements of three prominent aboriginal leaders, the University of Winnipeg awarded three honorary degrees during this year’s fall convocation.

Recipients included Elijah Harper, Justice Murray Sinclair and Tobasonakwut Kinew, each of whom received their degrees on Oct. 16.

Honorary degree recipients are chosen on a basis of merit, said university president Lloyd Axworthy.

“We try to find people that would be very strong examples for students,” he said.

Honorary degree recipient nominations can be made by virtually anyone, including students, alumni, professors and other staff, Axworthy said. Once nominations are made, a committee made of students and faculty staff decides who the ideal recipients would be.

“It struck us that three distinguished leaders from the aboriginal community had been nominated,” said Axworthy. “We thought it would be a great opportunity to bring them together, to offer examples of what very strong aboriginal leadership looks like.” 

With a 24 per cent application increase from aboriginal students, Axworthy believes the university needs to highlight the communal work of aboriginal leaders.

“I think it’s part of our mission to help us better understand the achievements aboriginals have made to the community,” said Axworthy. “Convocation is part of expressing university diversity.”

Elijah Harper, an aboriginal politician, called the experience “very honoring.”

“Honorary degrees offer a sort of prestige and recognize real practical experience,” he said. 

The event made note of Harper’s work in the legislative assembly, charitable work in Africa, his implementation of aboriginal traditional governance and a wealth of other philanthropic contributions.

As of late, Harper has been heavily involved in public speaking events, Corrections Canada and the renewable resource company Next Alternative Inc (NAI).

NAI researches methods for creating renewable energy resources and is currently involved in the development of longer lasting batteries and emulsion fuel, a biofuel made of oil and water.

“We are trying to build batteries that will store energy more efficiently than lithium through nano-tube technology,” he said. “We are also working on emulsion fuel - a safer, greener alternative to pure diesel.”

Harper believes education is a deterrent to poverty and has been a vocal supporter of universities. 

“It is important to get an education and I have always told aboriginal students that it is the way to lead you out of poverty,” he said. “An uneducated society is less progressive and harder to govern than an educated society.”

However, Harper notes that lack of income and funding dissuades many students from pursuing degrees.

“We have more students than ever, but there seems to be a lack of funding from the federal government,” he said. “U of W is doing a great job in attracting aboriginal students and setting up programs - I hope that will continue.”

Justice Murray Sinclair, a sociology graduate from University of Winnipeg and the first aboriginal judge in Manitoba, was chosen for the degree based on both his affiliation with the school and his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which works to educate the public on the atrocities associated with residential schools.

Tobasonakwut Kinew, a member of U of W’s faculty of indigenous studies, was selected for his role as an educator and role model within the faculty.

Published in Volume 66, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 2, 2011)

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