An Ordinary Hero

by julia.hanigsberg | June 29th, 2011

Each June and October, Ryerson University’s convocation ceremonies remind me of my purpose as a university administrator. Lest I start to think that what I do is the university, convocation is a concrete reminder that our students, their achievements, their families’ sacrifices and their pride are the university.

Honoris causa

Convocation season is also a time to be exposed to people whose exemplary qualities have led Ryerson to honour them with our highest award – an honorary doctorate. This year, I had a remarkable experience at the June 10th Community Services convocation that celebrated the conferring of a Doctor of Laws honoris causa on Joanne H. Dallaire.

Joanne is a community elder, counselor and traditional healer. Drawing on her extensive social-services expertise, at Ryerson she provides traditional counseling and student development services in the Aboriginal Student Services office. Joanne is also a member of the university’s Advisory Council on Aboriginal Issues and Education, where she helps to ensure that future generations of Native people will have greater educational opportunities at the university.

Earlier this year, I blogged about Viola Desmond as an “accidental hero.” Joanne isn’t exactly “accidental”; rather, I might apply the adjective “ordinary” to her type of heroism.

Why? Because Joanne reaches inside herself to expose the pain of being the child of a residential school survivor; the child of a mother who didn’t know how to love her; and a woman who has suffered abuse, experienced poverty, and endured social isolation.

But, rather than turn those challenges against the world or herself, Joanne draws on them in order to be a healer. I think I speak for many who encountered Joanne at convocation for the first time that being in her presence is in and of itself healing.

Joanne’s gift

As the graduands and the stage party proceeded into the auditorium, John Wakefield’s piping gave way to a stirring drum ceremony (evoking our mothers’ and Mother Earth’s heartbeats) – a fitting aural prelude to Joanne’s speech. From the start of her address, I felt tears well up in my eyes, tears which soon began trickling down my cheeks. It was only when Joanne concluded her address and I saw that two members of the Board of Governors had also been crying that I realized how profound a gift Joanne had shared with us that day.

By giving so much of herself – through her career and in that speech – Joanne connected us emotionally to her and to each other. By speaking authentically from her values and from her experience, she allowed us to witness a profound kind of heroism.

Dr Joanne Dallaire, elder, Ryerson community member, healer, leader … hero.

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