Convocation address by Peter Robinson
November 2, 2007

Members of the board of governors, faculty, honoured guests, graduands, and friends.

I am honoured and delighted to have been elected by the Board of Governors to be the next Chair and Chancellor of Royal Roads University. In fact, the opportunity to take on such a responsibility at the moment in the University’s evolution is extraordinary. The challenges facing post-secondary institutions in this country, are numerous and growing – yet Royal Roads is uniquely placed to deal with them in terms of innovation, relevance and results. I am looking forward to working with the Board and staff to add what I hope is significant value to the future of the university.

But this appointment touches me in other ways too. I am a graduate of Royal Roads. I completed a Masters of Arts in Conflict Analysis and Management several years back. Although I enrolled in the program to help me grapple with what I was seeing on the ground during international missions with the Red Cross in Africa – in fact, the “applied” nature of the program has helped me in ways I could not have imagined back here in Canada. Conflict is endemic to organizations and communities, and positive conflict s actually beneficial to ensuring progress on important issues – but the theory and skills I obtained through Royal Roads have better helped me to understand and steer through often thorny moments that we all face in our professional lives.

Secondly, I have roots here. As it has been noted, my father was an officer cadet when Royal Roads was a military college. In fact, he was honoured as “best cadet” with a very nautical telescope that sits proudly on my mantle piece. I’ve found his very youthful face staring out of a group photo in the basement of the castle; he must have been just over 20 at the time. He looks rather roguish, and in fact – the stories he used to tell me about what cadets really did in the lagoon make any shenanigans in the Nxon Block today look tame by comparison.

Lastly, my positions at Mountain Equipment Co-op, and soon to be at the David Suzuki Foundation, have close ties and connections. Royal Roads has very much placed itself on the leading edge of the environment, leadership, business, communications, and many other programs… and my work experience often overlaps with projects back here. Many of the people I’m hiring have degrees or diplomas from the university. Many more want to study MEC or DSF as part of their research.

So, my association with Royal; Roads runs deep, as does my commitment to its future. But, what I really want to talk to you about today is this hat.

This is really only the second time that I have worn a hat in some form of official capacity.
My first hat experience was as a young park ranger in my 20’s; way back in the late 1970’s. It was my term of indentured service, similar to the one my father did with the Canadian navy back in the 1950’s.When I was growing up, I’d always dreamed of being a park ranger. We lived on the edge of the forest in North Vancouver; my playground was the carpet of wilderness that rose from Lynn Valley over the local mountains. When my parents said “go outside and play,” I quite literally headed out, often alone, to traverse streams, cliffs and forests.

My vision of a park ranger was quite wonderful. I saw myself paddling mighty rivers, trekking over mountains, skiing the back country. In my youthful imagination, my sleeves were rolled up, sweat would be dripping off my brow… it was rugged, it was exciting, it was … sexy, which is strong stuff for an adolescent boy.

So it came to pass that I became a park ranger at the age of 20, complete with a natty green uniform and a hat. A Stetson. I was very proud of that hat. I’d block it when I wasn’t wearing it so that it would retain its shape. I’d brush it to remove any tell-tale dirt. I’d wear it rakishly dipped over one eye.

My career continued. I became the superintendent of parks along the Alaska Highway, stationed at a little cabin on Munch Lake. The winter of 1979 was particularly brutal. Temperatures were consistently -40 Celcius (which, by the way, doesn’t happen any more); it went on for what seemed forever.

For the good citizens of Fort Nelson, 150 miles away, it produced the worst case of cabin fever you can imagine. I think they went a little crazy.

So imagine the relief when winter broke a couple of weeks before the May long weekend. And in a celebration of that relief, pretty well every resident of Fort Nelson decide to have a great big party at the Liard River Hotsprings Provincial Park, which had a campground and a large natural bathing pool of 40 + Celcius water.

The first I knew about this party was when my staff at the park called me to say “Peter, all hell has broken loose… get up here as quickly as you can.”

Now being in the full blush of youthful confidence – I was completely up for the challenge. I carefully dressed. My green pants, tan shirt with all the badges, sturdy work boots, a polyester clip-on tie, carefully hanging my radio and a little Swiss army knife from my belt – and lastly … the hat.

Then I drove the 30 miles to Liard, and tried to find my crew. This took some time, as they were nowhere in sight. It wasn’t until I was walking next to the storage shed that I heard subdued voices. They were hiding. When I announced myself, all they would say was “you’re not going to believe what’s happening up at the pool.”

But, again, I was supremely confident that I could deal with any situation. So I walked the quarter mile up to the pool along a narrow wooden boardwalk. There was, of course, no electrical power to the park, but I could see a dim glow in the distance… together with the rising sound of a crowd.

And then, I came around the last bend into what was a scene from Dante’s Inferno. There must have been 400 people in a pool designed for about 50. Half were completely naked, there was food floating in the water, light-sticks were draped over trees, it was completely out of control.

So picture this scene in your mind, and then imagine this solitary uniformed figure arriving in the midst of bedlam. Without skipping a beat, I strode with purpose and confidence to the edge of the pool deck and announced in a loud voice the first thing that came to my mind. “There’s no drinking allowed in this park.”

This was followed by a moment of absolute silence. Every pair of eyes had swivelled towards me. And then, a voice rose from the group “let’s throw the ranger in the pool.”

And they did.

And then I walked back down the boardwalk, squish, squish, squish.

My hat never recovered. It sits to this way, warped, in my closet. 

Of course, the embarrassing story of my hat is really a metaphor. This was a singularly defining moment for me. I learned lessons I have never forgotten. They have carried me through many places and many experiences. They include: 

    1. Be aware of the environment in which you are in. 
    2. Develop a sense of how to read situations and anticipate possible outcomes. 
    3. Know you strengths – and equally, know your limitations.     
    4. Sometimes it’s better to work in groups, going it alone often can’t achieve the 
        results you hope for. 
    5. Know the message you want to communicate before you communicate it. 
    6. And, at times you need to be pragmatic – and know when not to press an issue.

So the message I want to pass on to graduates at this convocation has to do with the application of what you’ve learned. Reflect on these past few years, which I’m sure, have also witnessed your own defining moments, and take your new skills back to your communities, your workplaces, your homes – and put them into action.

And finally, cherish the memory of this university as you go forward – as I’m sure that, like me, it will continue to have close ties that you will fondly remember.

Thank you.