Alberta Politics
Jason Kenney in a familiar pose during his tenure as Canada’s immigration minister (Photo: Government of Canada).

Embarrassing honorary degree stories: ‘Did no one warn them?’

Posted on April 26, 2018, 1:50 am
6 mins

You have to ask why universities bother handing out honorary degrees like bonbons when you think about all the trouble it can cause them.

Consider the embarrassing 2012 case of the Israeli university that came up with a scheme to give an honorary degree to an unsavoury right-wing foreign politician “in appreciation of his revered leadership.”

Environmentalist and scientist David Suzuki speaking at the University of British Columbia (Photo: Mike Wu, Creative Commons).

Before the University of Haifa knew it, the place was roiled by controversy. Twenty-three members of the university’s faculty had signed a letter of protest. Media half a world away in North America wrote uncomfortable stories about how the university planned to honour a senior cabinet minister in a right-wing government whose immigration policies were denying basic health care to refugees from persecution in their home country.

The protesters didn’t manage to keep the right-wing foreign politician from getting the honorary Doctorate of Philosophy, but I’m sure it made the University of Haifa think twice about giving meaningless sheepskins to his ilk ever again.

The offensive politician, of course, was a guy from Canada named Jason Kenney.

Mr. Kenney was Canada’s minister of citizenship, immigration and culture at the time. He was involved in an effort, highly controversial in this country, to make it difficult for Roma people who suffered discrimination and worse from right-wingers Hungary to immigrate to Canada.

The “old stock Canadian” inclined government of prime minister Stephen Harper, in which Mr. Kenney served, went so far as to buy billboards in a Hungarian city where many Roma lived telling them they weren’t welcome in Canada.

Ezra Levant back in the day as a commentator for Sun News Network.

“This is going to lead to more public discrimination by local Hungarians against the Roma because they know we have no place to go, not even to Canada,” a resident of the town told the Toronto Star’s immigration reporter.

It was embarrassing. So embarrassing, indeed, a strong case can be made Harper Government immigration policies like that one were a major contributing factor to the defeat of the Conservatives by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals three years later.

At the time, Mr. Kenney was being egged on by Ezra Levant, then an on-air commentator for the now defunct Sun News Network. In November 2012, the same month Canadians learned of the University of Haifa’s honorary degree for Mr. Kenney, Mr. Levant gave an on-air rant in which he called the Roma “a culture synonymous with swindlers … one of the central characteristics of that culture is that their chief economy is theft and begging.”

A leader of the Canadian Roma community called the rant “nearly nine minutes of on-air racist hate-speech targeting our community.”

Mr. Levant eventually apologized, after waiting six months, and thereupon interviewed his boss, Sun News vice-president and former Harper Government communications director Kory Teneycke, who said the network never should have aired the commentary, which he admitted “crossed the line.”

How could the University of Haifa have waded into such an embarrassing situation? It’s possible, one supposes, that the fact its “tribute team” included Mr. Levant may have had something to do with it.

That tidbit comes from the indispensable Heather Mallick, who writes Canada’s funniest newspaper column for the Toronto Star. Of the Haifa university’s honour, Ms. Mallick asked before skewering Mr. Kenney: “Did no one warn them?”

“Kenney graduated from Athol Murray College of Notre Dame, a private Catholic high school in Wilcox, Sask., pop. 262,” she wrote, cruelly. “He dropped out of university, so his previous brush with formal education must rest on old CNN footage of a young plump Kenney agitating to silence a pro-choice group at the University of San Francisco, despite the Catholic institution firmly disagreeing and publicly backing free speech.”

It’s strange, she added, “to see him as a campus non-hipster of yore in a jacket and tie working assiduously to alienate eloquent, attractive female students.”

By accepting the degree, she averred, Mr. Kenney was making a fool of himself – “and worse, of us.”

Hmmmm. No wonder Mr. Kenney, now the leader of Alberta’s Opposition United Conservative Party, is so furious about the University of Alberta giving an honorary degree to environmentalist David Suzuki, who’s already been given 29 of the things and, outside Alberta, seems to get nothing but accolades.

Mr. Kenney received his only honorary degree from the University of Haifa in a ceremony in Toronto, at the Royal York Hotel. In his acceptance speech, he described Bob Rae as “a great Canadian.” I didn’t make that up.

7 Comments to: Embarrassing honorary degree stories: ‘Did no one warn them?’

  1. April 26th, 2018

    Is this the same Kory Teneycke that Doug Ford named as his campaign manager for the divisive campaign he plans to run as he leads the Progressive Conservative Party into the Ontario election in June?

    Small world.

  2. Albertan

    April 26th, 2018

    Pure gold! 🙂 And, in consideration of right wing christian politics, there is the matter of Matthew 7:3-5:
    “…mote in brother’s eye…beam in thine own eye…..”

  3. David

    April 26th, 2018

    Yes, I am sure Universities do occasionally regret those honorary degrees. The people who decide these things are somewhat academic and probably removed from nasty partisan politics. They do give serious consideration to who should get them, but probably do not always consider or realize the political backlash. For instance, Suzuki is a well regarded scientist and has been recognized by a number of other Canadian Universities for his good work in educational programs on science and nature. I am sure by that criteria he would be considered quite worthy of an honorary degree. Is he perfect? No, but sadly Mother Teresa is not available any more and we are talking an honorary degree, not sainthood here. The recipients are also not bestowed with a great financial reward or any real powers. Its really just a nice way to say thank you or provide some recognition for academic or public service.

    Hey, if Kenney even got one, it’s probably fair to say Universities give them away fairly freely and they are perhaps less prestigious than they might initially seem. Now, I can understand if the Faculty has some strong opinions about the recipients, and perhaps students sometimes to and even occasionally alumni. However, I think Kenney’s recent video rant is stretching things to absurdity or beyond. He is now trying to make an issue of giving an honorary degree, by an institution he never attended, to a former leader of New Zealand, which is probably a country he has little or no connection with. I don’t even know if he actually ever met the recipient, but he seems to have an issue with her party (which I doubt has any strong Canadian affiliation) perhaps for being too liberal or something. Well former leaders become statesmen and often go around getting honorary degrees and are generally more well regarded than politicians currently in office or running for office. If Kenney doesn’t like that or finds it unfair, he can always retire too, so perhaps he can go around to get a few more honorary degrees than that one controversial one he somehow managed to snag.

    Honorary degrees are really not generally intended to be some sort of political comment, nor is there a quota for every liberal, one conservative must get one too. I suspect most recipients are not actually involved in partisan politics at all, but in education or community service. I hope we do not go down the path the US sometimes follows of turning almost everything into a nasty partisan debate. I think Canadians are nicer than that and realize that it doesn’t achieve anything but anger,dispute and chaos in society. Perhaps there are some angry, bitter and petty people who revel in that sort of thing, but I think it turns off most Canadians and many Albertans too. I really don’t care what party honorary degree recipients belong too, nor do I expect them to be perfect, just to have done something worthy or good.

  4. Simon Renouf

    April 27th, 2018

    I guess he had to play nice with Bob Rae since Rae had received an honorary degree from the same institution 2 years earlier.

  5. Andrew

    April 27th, 2018

    You really buried the lede there David. I tease – great column.

  6. Murphy

    April 29th, 2018

    I admire our Premier’s stance, referring to Suzuki as “polarizing”. Clearly the Premier’s cooler head perceives that there are two sides to every story, and the twain should meet, and soon. Perhaps next we could have a more unifying debate that airs both sides of the issue of slavery.


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