University of Winnipeg valedictorian Erin Larson made good on her pledge to use her speech at the graduation ceremony on Oct 17 to criticize the school’s decision to award an honorary law degree to federal Conservative minister Vic Toews.
“I have to admit I am not proud to share the stage with everybody that is on it today,” Larson said at the top of her speech. “I feel that the University of Winnipeg has suffered a profound loss of integrity due to the actions of the administration.”
Noting that the university offers a degree program in human rights, Larson told her classmates “the decision to give an honorary law degree to someone who is best known to my generation of students as being a vocal opponent of expanding human rights is questionable at best.”
Before turning to conventional convocation speech topics like lifelong education and contributing to society, Larson delivered a parting blow to the administration.
“If diversity is just a commodity to this administration, I may think twice before I donate alumni funds to this organization and instead rededicate those funds to organizations that fight for equality,” she said.
While her denunciation was punctuated at times with applause, a few boos and at least one order to “sit down” from the audience, Larson was given a standing ovation and loud cheers at the end of her speech.
A small organization called the Coalition for Integrity in Academic Accolades picketed outside the ceremony, telling attendees about Toews’ record opposing gay rights, opposing abortion and making comments some have called racist. Some of the picketers were allowed inside to watch the ceremony without their pickets.
Larson says she has had no communication with the university administration since her speech, although she read in the media that university president Lloyd Axworthy criticized her for bringing up politics during her speech.
“I think that was the unfortunate part, that [the valedictory address] was used as a way to make a political statement, not a statement on behalf of the graduates,” Axworthy told the Winnipeg Sun.
“I understand that a common criticism has been that I hijacked the ceremony,” Larson responds, “but I only dedicated a small portion of my speech to an issue that was important to the students there.”
Several faculty members and staff have told Larson they support her speech, she says. The University of Winnipeg Students’ Association has also criticized the school’s decision to honour Toews.
“The administration didn’t listen to faculty or students who questioned the decision. They cannot choose to ignore the students in their decisions,” Larson says.