Toope urges business grads to 'make destiny your friend'

Respected university administrator and human rights expert Stephen Toope receives honorary degree.


(Edmonton) Stephen Toope is no stranger to spring convocation. As a longtime post-secondary administrator at some of Canada’s best institutions—including posts as dean of law at McGill University, president of the University of British Columbia and current director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs—Toope has seen many graduation ceremonies.

But for the first time in a long while, Toope also received a parchment Monday, an honorary doctor of laws degree from the University of Alberta. In his address, he connected with the new graduates of the Alberta School of Business, sharing in their excitement and encouraging them to embrace fear as they become the leaders of tomorrow.

“A convocation ceremony, especially from a leading university like the U of A, marks the end of a period of great intensity: intense work, intense friendships, intense hopes, intense dreams,” he said. “Endings are a relief, and beginnings are full of promise, but also uncertainty.”

Toope encouraged the students to embrace these feelings and to use their trepidation, even their fear, to shape their leadership.

“There is nothing wrong with a little bit of fear,” he explained. “We live in a society that is utterly confused about anxiety and fear. On the one hand, extreme sports and corporate logos extol the virtue: 'no fear.' On the other hand, we live in a surveillance society.”

“Fear is a natural reaction in the face of danger, and good leaders fear the possible negative consequences of their actions and decisions even as they know that they must act and decide.”

An expert in the field of international law and human rights, Toope told his audience that, “In our complex, multicultural societies, one of the most debilitating fears is the fear of people unlike ourselves.” He encouraged graduates to share their gifts with everyone, even those whose attitudes are different from their own.

Toope has personally worked to dispel fear in hearts around the world, through international law reform in countries including the Philippines, Ukraine, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cuba, Jamaica, Sri Lanka, El Salvador and China. One of the great minds in international law, Toope has made significant contributions to the academic literature. As author or co-author of numerous books and articles on a range of issues including the use of force in international law, international human rights and security, environmental law and dispute resolution, he has spent his career working to influence policy and protect democracy.

Speaking from his experiences working as a member of the United Nations Mission to South Africa to observe the first post-apartheid elections in 1994, and as a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Toope said hope and confidence are needed to balance fear, and are essential for success in life. He noted that people need to believe that the possibilities are endless—but he cautioned that confidence must be measured.

“One needs both confidence and critical self-reflection to lead. Leadership requires us to act confidently, but also to reflect on, and sometimes correct, our course.”

“Each of us brings to our lives and our decisions, talents, experiences and anxieties,” he noted. His message for the audience was one of hope, and he shared an excerpt from the poem “An African Elegy” by Nigerian writer Ben Okri:

And they tell me that
This life is good
They tell me to live it gently
With fire, and always with hope.
There is wonder here

And there is surprise
In everything the unseen moves.
The ocean is full of songs.
The sky is not an enemy.
Destiny is our friend.

Toope concluded with his sincere wish for the business graduates of 2015 that “with confidence and humility, you will find your way through fear to leadership, and that you will make destiny your friend.”