Thank you, Northern Lights College, for this great personal and professional honour today where we have primarily gathered to commend and applaud the hard work and sacrifices of the graduates and their families. Thank you for the generosity and enduring patience of the Treaty 8 First Nations and the Kelly Lake Cree Nation on whose territory the beautiful buildings, the classrooms, labs and workshops of this College are built in the key cities of the North and South Peace region.
When I attended the two-and later three-room Transpine School in Cecil Lake, I did not read about our own rivers, lakes or our own wide sky or about the First Nations who have lived here for at least ten thousand years or the European immigrants, like my parents from Holland and Wales, who toiled as homesteaders on this northern prairie. I devoured the books that came in the Bookmobile two or three times a year with pioneer librarian Howard Overend at the wheel of what was to me, a truly Magic Bus, a bus that Mr. Overend named Parnassus, for the sacred mountain peak in Greece, the mythical home of poetry and literature.
I knew in my child's heart and mind that our rural lives were every bit as interesting, and as important to read about as the stories of children in England and America and, somewhere along the line, as I wrote songs and plays for my school friends and I to perform, I resolved to write books about our forgotten lives in this often-overlooked part of the world, then proudly claimed as Canada’s most northerly agricultural breadbasket and now treated as some industrial sacrifice zone for the rest of this province.
When I was a high school student and wrote a weekly news column for the Alaska Highway News for two years, I learned the three golden rules of journalism: spell everyone's name correctly, get the facts straight from the original source, find a second source with expertise in the subject to corroborate if my BS radar is waggling wildly, and always be inclusive and generous because every individual, every club and team and every issue of concern in the community matters deeply to someone and people deserve a fair and even-handed account. I learned to apply more nuance, more depth, and more edges too when faced with wily subjects and when writing in other forms than the “just the facts, ma’am” reportage bashed out on a typewriter in the Office Practices classroom every Wednesday by this Girl Reporter on the Loose. Later still, at the University of British Columbia far from home where I went for my post-secondary education long before these first-class facilities were built in the Peace, I learned not to be afraid to question Authority or anyone else. And to back up my curiosity with solid research, in other words, do my homework and consult with others because as the brilliant Canadian Joni Mitchell sings, Two Heads Are Better Than One, and I’d add that six are even better than two. The truth is out there, after all, and it lives inside our own hearts and minds too. Add solitude and wilderness to your lives as often as possible, to stay inspired. And never forget where clean water and healthy food comes from and where your waste materials go either, to stay grounded.
Writing as an occupation is as hard or worse than farming as our products are both subject to the vagaries of markets and mere opinions beyond our control, of urban trends and technological change that is inexorable wherein what may have worked once will not work as well ever again, so we must be humble and alert to the signs and change our ways. Adapt. Albert Einstein said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” (Just sayin') Einstein didn't say that. I did but his honest statement excites and drives forward the innovators among us in all fields! What if? Let’s try this! Great science and great art spring from experiment, from trying the so-called impossible. His wise words can also be interpreted to mean: Listen, observe, ask questions, be open-minded and tolerant of other points of view en route to creating a better world together.
If we choose to work at what we love, we will love our work for the rest of our lives with no regrets, learning from our mistakes, accepting them, working smarter, moving forward. That’s my strategy and I’m sticking to it. This is not to say that I don’t wish all of you a steady and substantial income for your talents rather than the minor feast and famine situation I’ve gotten myself into, don’t get me wrong! But if you have to leave your heart at home to earn cold, hard cash in a workplace where you feel unsafe and devalued, where you are paid to do work you find ethically reprehensible, find a way to work with others to organize change for the better, not just for yourself but for everyone else too, especially those more vulnerable than you are. Be open to the possibilities and the choices you have in every situation, always.
Becoming a writer, after trying out a good number of white, pink and blue collar jobs, has allowed me to ask questions and ponder answers, large and small, to research history, psychology, oceanography and countless other subjects, to wonder Why Not? and to imagine What If? Writing for me is an act of synthesis and of empathy, of imaginatively putting myself into another person’s shoes and walking their walk, in order to attempt to understand what motivates or torments or heals them. Writing is about reaching in and handing out what I’ve arrived at in understanding or gained as insight about this human condition thing we all struggle with. It’s why I write. It’s why I read.
No matter whether we choose, or are born to be, absolutely original artists like Ben Heppner or Brian Jungen or Roy Forbes, to cite three great ones whose company as honourees of Northern Lights College I must now strive to stand alongside, or if we offer the world our talents as administrators of ground-breaking social or medical programs to benefit humanity, as inventors of better technology to clean industrial waste water, as explorers, entertainers or veterinarians, it is really about becoming more evolved human beings, about being as kind and non-judgmental to each other as possible for we are all, despite outward appearances, carrying burdens in our hearts or minds or bodies. This is the inevitable truth of the human condition. We may start out “invincible, infertile and immortal” but we soon learn, unless we are chronically oblivious to cues from the real world, in which case learning is delayed -but still inevitable- that we are “fallible, frail and often foolish” in the Life decision-making department. In other words, we are each and everyone of us flawed yet potentially fabulous human beings, fodder for every writer and actor. To quote Marilyn Monroe, “we are all of us stars, and we deserve to twinkle”. I see a lot of twinkling from the seats here today and so you should. Gleam away all you grads, you proud families and yes, the instructors and professors who pushed and inspired the grads to get here today, too!
Finally, no matter where I've lived and worked in this world since first leaving to attend university, this landscape, this climate, the wild and the domestic realities of survival here in the Peace still resonate the most with me. I think we bond like ducks, to the earth and the water and the voices of the people we were surrounded by when we were very young and all the world was new. So spread your wings, fly high and wide, be of good cheer, it does get better, always do your best, be courageous and be kind. Don’t forget to call home, or your mothers will worry, and carry the Peace in your hearts forever. Thank you and congratulations to us all!
Caroline Woodward for Northern Lights College Commencement Address June 3, 2016, Dawson Creek where an Honorary Associate of Arts Degree was conferred upon yours truly for my "contributions to Peace River, Canadian and international literature."
Feel free to share freely but please do not quote or reproduce in part or entirely without acknowledging or asking permission from the source, i.e., Caroline Woodward, as I have done with quotes from Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe and Joni Mitchell.