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Chancellor Wilson receives lifetime achievement award

Chancellor Michael Wilson addresses the Canadian Club

The Honourable Michael Wilson, Chancellor of the University of Toronto, is the recipient of the Canadian Club of Toronto’s 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award.

In presenting the award May 29, Dany Assaf, chair of the club’s awards committee, noted some of Wilson’s most famous accomplishments in his tenure as Canada’s Minister of Finance, and his outstanding volunteer work in the advancement of mental health.

Wilson has demonstrated “the true essence of leadership” throughout his career, Assaf said, adding “he has reached the pinnacles of success in politics, in business, and in the social-charitable components of our society.”

In his address on accepting the award, the chancellor spoke of what he has learned through crucial events in his life and career.

On his party’s loss of government in the 1980 federal election, he explained that the time in opposition turned out to be an invaluable period of consultation and policy development. This in turn led to the integrated economic strategy he spearheaded when returned to government in 1984 – changes which would “transform the makeup of the Canadian economy,” he said.

The chancellor also spoke movingly of the loss of his son Cameron to mental illness, in 1995, and how the experience led him to a new level of involvement in the cause of mental health.

He described the power of speaking out from personal experience, to help reduce the burden of stigma, and thus to encourage others to seek help and support. Noting that significant challenges remain, he said that great progress has been made in recent decades.

“We can [now] imagine a day when we can prevent a young person from developing a psychotic illness altogether,” he said. “New discoveries, improved treatment and supports, and more awareness are leading us to a future where no one will believe that life is not worth living.”

The chancellor also offered a fascinating account of his long relationship with people who immigrated to Canada from countries in Eastern Europe, to escape the rule of the former Soviet Union.

He recounted his “momentous trip” to the region as Canada’s representative, in August 1991 – in which he met with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and the late Russian president Boris Yeltsin, on the very day legislation was passed to dissolve the USSR – and the “electrifying” experience of speaking days later back in Canada, to a huge crowd of people whose homelands had just been liberated.

In conclusion, the chancellor said, the common thread in these experiences is the importance of freedom – freedom from social stigma, freedom from political oppression, and freedom of choice for future generations through sound fiscal and economic policies.

“The desire for freedom in its many forms is a powerful ingredient in much of what we do,” he said. “And it has had a powerful impact on my life.”

(Watch a video or listen to a podcast of the address.)