Address to Graduating Class 2013 of the Toronto French School

Dr. Walter Dorn, Toronto French School, 31 May 2013

Monsieur le directeur géneral John Godfrey, directeurs, faculté, les familles fières et tous les élèves finissants.
To those graduating students, I say, this is your day! Congratulations and well done! [Ad lib: And thank you for caring! Hearing these eloquent descriptions of your achievements makes me super proud. Now I’ll have to watch the film “Superpowers”!] Today we celebrate your achievement and rejoice in your intellectual maturation. Today you are moving from students of the Toronto French School to my fellow TFS alumni. And I am thrilled to spend this special moment with you … a proud moment for you, your family and our school.

The year after I entered the TFS, 1975, the school graduated its first class: 13 graduates. There are now over 3,000 alumni and today we will be made stronger with your presence.


In my own graduation ceremony in 1979 the graduation address was given by Dr. Robert McClure, born in the year 1900, a Canadian physician, medical missionary, and former Moderator of the United Church of Canada. He offered a powerful analogy to the graduating class, one which have not forgotten over the decades and I`d like to share that same theme with you.

Each of you has constructed your life-ship. Today we are christening it. The champagne bottle is ready to be struck against the bow. You have made a sturdy hull to keep the ship afloat on the seas ahead, be they calm or stormy. Your teachers have taught you the controls but yours is the freedom to chart your own course. In the helm, your mind has many options for places to go and new lands to see. There will be rough waters as you travel the high seas but as you are buffeted by the waves of life, you can remain confident that you have been well prepared. Your teachers, your family, your friends have helped shape your life-craft. They have instructed you and provided valuable feedback, both positive and negative— you can see all of it as useful. The school has put you to test, including with some tough exams. Most importantly, you learned good study and work habits. The teachers and leaders have encouraged and inspired you and also overseen some of the trial runs of your life-ship. They trained your faculties (body, emotions and mind) for the great voyage. Because of the testing you`re stronger. And [after hearing about the award recipients] I know the teachers and families deserve to be proud of their graduates.

As you set off from the TFS dock yard, and your boat goes into the open waters, you have a marvellous adventure ahead of you, with every day moving you to new waters. You can marvel at the vastness of the glistening sea and maybe feel some natural apprehension but you can take heart. You`ve been well prepared. Your life-boat now contains the essential parts. The engine is your life-force and the crew are your faculties. The mind-captain is on the ship`s helm, trained through many courses for many explorations and situations, and guided by the strength of your conscience. Above the night sky can guide you. Those are your spiritual principles. But your surest guide is within you—your own heart. Your own calling to the uncharted seas.


Principal Godfrey has asked me to share experiences in my own life journey.

Now he`s given me the one subject where I can truly claim to be the world’s foremost expert – that is, me! I will do so with modesty, knowing how many flaws I have. But I can tell you that my life boat has travelled to places I could not have conceived of at graduation.

I remember a fellow TFS student, Jaffna Cox, saying before graduation that he was planning to study the humanities in university and if that didn`t work out he would do an “about face” and take the sciences route. My own travel was the opposite.

I did better in the sciences than the humanities in TFS. In fact, I remember my first mark in history after I had arrived from Montreal at TFS. It was 40%. (So take heart, if you bombed a course yourself.)

I entered university thinking I would pursue a combination of life and physical sciences, namely biophysics and biochemistry, because I marvelled at life and yet was more comfortable with the tools of physics. Equations and diagrams can be beautiful and powerful things.

In my first year biology exam I studied the wrong material and did poorly in the final exam so I shifted to physical chemistry and computer science. (Incidentally, we were doing our computer programs on 80-column punch cards that we had to physically insert into a hopper each time we would run the programme. Technology has come so far since then!)

Despite my sciences focus, I kept an active interest in history and international affairs. When in the early 1980s, with the Cold War running high, we feared the possible end of the world as we knew it through a nuclear exchange. So I joined a new organization which physicists and chemists had created, called “Science for Peace.”

Now Science for Peace had applied to the United Nations in New York for associate status as a non-governmental organization. I happened to be in New York taking a tour of the United Nations. So I made a phone call from within the building to inquire about the status of the SfP application. The UN official on the other end said: `We`re so sorry, we had summer help and they misfiled the application so we haven`t gotten back to the organization but we`ll get right on to it!” When I came back to Toronto I attended a meeting of 40 or so professors. At the time I was a starry-eyed undergraduate student who thought all professors were gods – I certainly know better now! But to my surprise I became a kind of hero for getting the application on track. A year later they asked me if I’d accept the volunteer job of the organization’s Representative to the UN. I said I knew almost nothing about the world organization but I’d give my time to learn and I reluctantly accepted.

I went on to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Toronto. But four years into my Ph.D. work in chemistry I realized I was in the wrong field. Science was fascinating but I was becoming so specialized. We say that in Ph.D. studies you know more and more about less and less, that in the end you know everything about nothing. If you want to know the definition of eternity, it’s how I felt then, trying over the years to work to finish. I needed something more meaningful. The international affairs work was not only fascinating but also offered a more immediate opportunity to work on things that changed people’s lives. I explored a switch to political science but I was too far along, so I started to look at how science could be used for arms control. Specifically, how sensors could detect chemical and biological warfare agents. Soon I became involved in a treaty to ban chemical weapons and I was hooked. I still had to finish my Ph.D. but it now had both intrigue and meaning.

I finally finished the Ph.D. and immediately switched to international relations, while still trying to use my science background. In fact, this week I was in Washington, DC, speaking about how monitoring technologies can be used in UN peace operations.


From the half century experience in my life-boat, I could draw some lessons that might be helpful to you:

Take initiatives, even if they are just small and seemingly helpful only to others. If I had not made that phone call on behalf of Science for Peace, my career would probably have been very different.

– Keep up your interests. They may become your future employment! Most people experience several careers in their lives so don’t feel that you’ll be locked into only one. Be curious. Stay intellectually engaged because you have a wonderful opportunity for life-long learning. Your intellectual adventure certainly does not end with high school. It only begins there.

– The Liberal arts, as taught at TFS, provides a great way to initiate your interests and educate you for different careers. It teaches people how to think, how to approach problems and solve them. Your linguistic diversity will also help you to understand different cultures and different ways of thinking, feeling and expressing.

– Appreciate that “connaissance est force.” The TFS motto is true! In our knowledge-based economy information is key—the right information in the right hands. It is not a coincidence that my current employer, the Canadian Forces College, where we teach officers in command and staff work, has the same motto as TFS, except in Latin: “Scientia Potestas Est.”

– Seek to serve a cause, whether it be in your work or in your spare time. Placing service above self is in the end the best way to serve yourself. Altruism is merely enlightened self-interest. In this world of crying needs, there are an infinite number of opportunities for service and altruism. Find a cause and serve it; find a hurt and heal it. We do live in a suffering world but, precisely because of that, it’s also a world of opportunity. You can freely and generously express your skills, your empathy and your help. You can express your much-valued Canadian citizenship in so many ways, including at the ballot box. You can express your world citizenship by remembering your humanity and working in some way for humanity. Just do one-seven billionth of the work. Doing more than that is doing more than your share of the world population.

Finally, appreciate what’s around you. It’s easy to see how imperfect the world it. But there is also much to praise all around, especially in this blessed land we call Canada. We have so much to be grateful for, including each other.

So on this special day, we rejoice in your achievement and you can also rejoice in your opportunities and appreciate those who helped you get to this day. It’s easy to take for granted the hard work and toil of your parents and teachers. One of my own regrets in life is that I didn’t thank my father enough before he passed away. He is the one who sent me to the Toronto French School to get such a solid basis in my life. And now I can only thank him in spirit. You have an opportunity in coming hours and days to express your appreciation to your parents, teachers and your school. It is up to you. Carpe diem, seize the day!