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Former lieutenant-governor David Onley eager to inspire students in new year

Former Lieutenant Governor and UTSC alum David Onley is looking forward to teaching about the vice regal role in Canadian politics starting in January. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Former Lieutenant Governor David Onley is hoping his experience at Queen’s Park will not only provide students a glimpse into the inner workings of government but also inspire them to get involved in the political system.

Onley, who will start his role as senior lecturer in January 2015, will teach a course on the vice regal role in Canadian politics while also working with students on research projects using personal papers from his time in office.

“The papers are in dozens and dozens of file boxes. Some of it is routine correspondence, but other materials are of greater consequence,” he says.

The material will provide an inside look at several issues that shaped Queen’s Park during his seven years as Lieutenant Governor, including the prorogation of Parliament in 2012, a Liberal minority government as well as a series of political controversies during his tenure.  It will also help Onley as he prepares to write a book about his time in office.

As UTSC alumnus, Onley fondly remembers his time as student council president, his work with the international students association and in establishing a student radio station on campus. But it’s a new set of challenges that comes along with teaching about the vice-regal role in Canadian politics that he’s looking forward to most. Many question the relevance of the vice-regal role in Canada today but Onley says Canada has a qualitatively superior system of government that is the envy of many around the world. He recalls a conversation he had with a visiting diplomat who said if the world could work the same way that Canada does it would be a more peaceable place.

“He could have complemented Canada in any number of ways; he could have commented on our beautiful landscape and wonderful people. Instead he zeroed in on our political system. Those are very inspiring words and something we tend to take for granted as Canadians,” he says. 

“Canada is a multicultural society with an amazing level of tolerance and cooperation yet a remarkably low level of dispute. Of course we have problems, but I don’t know of any other political entity on this planet that has the degree of multiculturalism, prosperity and freedom as Canada.”

For all its benefits Onley points to a number of deficiencies that need to be fixed, namely the prevalence of hyper-partisanship and also achieving full civil rights for aboriginals and people with disabilities. This is where Onley says the vice regal role has an important role to play in the resolution of issues - because of its apolitical nature there is the ability to convene and bring people together at the table to engage in discussion.

“Far from being an anachronistic position, one that some say we should simply do away with, it’s a far more significant positon than people give it credit for,” he says. “It’s a message I hope to get across to students or at the very least maybe it will lead to some great debates.”

Onley also hopes that his experience and example can inspire his students to make a difference by getting involved in politics at any level.

“Hopefully I can inspire students and help groom the next generation of leaders here at UTSC the same way a group of us were inspired some 40 years ago by our professors,” he says.

© University of Toronto Scarborough