2016 Graduation Address by Dr. Catherine Ng, considering Aberdeen graduate the Hon. Bertha Wilson

On Monday 13 June 2016 the University of Aberdeen LLB “class of 2016” graduated. This is the text of the Graduation Address by Dr. Catherine W. Ng at that occasion.

Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen:

We are gathered here today to mark a very important milestone in the lives of our graduates. This is a good moment to take stock before we all march onto the beautiful lawn outside and enjoy some well-deserved celebrations with friends and families. I imagine that is the immediate short term plan for almost all our graduates here.

What then of the medium and long term plans? Many of you will be entering careers that you have prepared for at least in part during your time here at Aberdeen. Above all, my hope is that you will fulfil your potential as individuals unhindered by any preconceptions that you or others may hold about you. I hope that by keeping an open and inquiring mind, and by constantly challenging preconceptions, you will also see possibilities in others, and that you will help them to reach their potential too.

Reading law does train us to challenge preconceptions. When we study case law, statutes, and treaties and their applications and implications, we try to overcome preconceptions and figuratively step into the shoes of each of the parties in a litigious dispute, or the parties negotiating a piece of legislation or a treaty in order to appreciate their perspectives. We do this to try to understand their concerns and interests at stake, and to assess the way the law seeks to resolve their differences. It is important to look beyond the law to the communities, the individuals, and the lives that the law touches. These exposures through the law let us glimpse a vast and diverse range of human experiences and conditions.

It is also important to view these experiences and conditions with a sense of compassion, empathy, and an open and learning mind. Your experiences here at Aberdeen may illustrate the point. At the start of your time here, you all arrived from different backgrounds, stages and walks of life. Most of you had a common cause which I hope was to study law. Along the way, you made friends and supported one another through both happy times and challenging times. You celebrated one another’s birthdays away from home, and you comforted one another through essay deadlines and examination nerves. With compassion and empathy, you formed common bonds to help one another to step closer to achieving each individual’s potential. In time, some of your preconceptions and initial impressions of differences melted away as barriers. Rather often apparent differences became points of interest that broadened your horizons. Some of you may have already visited one another in your home towns or countries, or learned something about them from one another. Keeping an open mind and not shying away from differences let you broaden your perspectives to be open to new ideas and to adapt to new circumstances in our globalised world.

Laws too change because of new ideas and new circumstances. Above all, laws advance because of individuals who can realise their potential to effect change. Let me give you an example of how putting aside perceptions and preconceptions has allowed one of your predecessors to realise her potential. Back in 1944, a 20 year-old raised here in Old Aberdeen graduated with an MA degree from the University of Aberdeen. She married a clergyman and they moved to Canada in 1949. When she looked to apply for Law School admission in Canada in 1954, she was told instead to consider crocheting because law was a tough subject and not for dilettantes.[1] Now there is nothing wrong with crocheting.  It is worthwhile and honourable work. Hospitals appeal for crochet hats and blankets to keep premature and sick babies warm, to help save lives. My point here is simply about how perceptions and preconceptions could have limited potential. This Aberdeen graduate’s opportunity to read law could have been limited because of another’s perception of her as a clergyman’s wife who happened to have had some time on her hands at that point. This Aberdeen graduate’s vision for herself could have been limited because she was then that rarity as a woman applying to study law, and moreover as a mature student seeking to re-enter mainstream education at age 31. Undeterred, she applied, was accepted, and completed her LLB degree three years later.

Fast forward to 1982: this Aberdeen graduate, now the Hon. Bertha Wilson, was appointed as the first woman judge to serve on Canada’s highest court, the Supreme Court of Canada.  Also in 1982, the Canadian Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms was enacted. She and her fellow judges were setting ground-breaking constitutional precedents on human rights issues. As a pioneering woman judge, she was pressed on the questions of how far she as a judge was or should be representing the voice of Canadian women. She responded by challenging the perception of the impartiality of judges as individuals and raised the question of whether men and women with their broadly diverse experiences would bring different perspectives to certain legal issues.[2] Still challenging perceptions, you see?!  Bertha Wilson served on the Supreme Court of Canada until her retirement in 1991.[3]  The University of Aberdeen recognised her achievements and awarded her the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, in 1989. Whether or not one agrees with her views, by her having shattered some of the stereotypes about the role of women, the late Bertha Wilson opened the vision for other Canadians to realise their potential.

Today in 2016, at the University of Aberdeen, our graduates are awarded their MA (Arts and Social Sciences), PhD, and LLB degrees. Seeing others take steps to realise their potential is one of the most gratifying experiences that life offers. We are on stage now to help highlight the achievements of our graduates. Graduates, it is indeed an extraordinary privilege to see you walk across the stage to mark these achievements. Later, as we join you on the beautiful lawn outside, I hope we can meet each other on that proverbial ‘even playing field’. Life is never even among individuals. We all carry with us different backgrounds and experiences. Life is unpredictable, and not all of it within our control.  Each one of us will be different tomorrow from today in our own individual ways. But what may allow individuals to be even is in the way we keep our minds open to be compassionate and to learn from one another, to be informed by diversity and not to prejudge differences, to be edified by the past and yet never be defined by it, and so to pioneer – take chances on ourselves and on others too.

I hope that during your time at Aberdeen, you have not only gained knowledge and understanding of the law, but also perspectives, life experiences, and friendships which you will cherish for the rest of your lives, which will help you realise your potential, and which you will in turn use to help others to realise theirs. I hope that you will lead fulfilling lives, and that you will continue to challenge perceptions and preconceptions.

On behalf of us all, our warmest congratulations to you, our graduates. Please do keep in touch with us through our alumni networks, and do keep us broadening one another’s horizons.

Thank you.

LLB Graduation 2016
Students on the aforementioned beautiful lawn enjoying some well-deserved celebrations with friends and families.

References

[1] Ellen Anderson, Judging Bertha Wilson – law as large as life (U Toronto Press 2001) 3 – 38

[2] Bertha Wilson, ‘Will Women Judges Really Make a Difference?’ (1990) 28(3) Osgoode Hall LJ 507

[3] Supreme Court of Canada, ‘The Honourable Bertha Wilson’ <http://www.scc-csc.ca/court-cour/judges-juges/bio-eng.aspx?id=bertha-wilson>  accessed 4 August 2016

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