“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” These days, Charles Dickens’ words might apply to Toronto’s Massey College. While its alumna Julie Payette was installed as Canada’s Governor General, distinguished senior member Professor Emeritus Michael Marrus was being pushed out the college door.
As a graduate student in computer engineering, Payette entered Massey College in 1988 with sparkling eyes, remarkable energy, and delightful eagerness to serve on the social committee and to converse with everyone around the dining room table. She lent her clear soprano voice to college events and quietly advanced academically in ways that would prepare her to later soar into space in 1999.
Before Payette arrived at Massey, Marrus was already a Senior Fellow and had recently published a book with Oxford University Press titled The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century.
Now this distinguished historian is a refugee himself. His community of Massey scholars is driving him out after he made a single tactless and remarkably insensitive reference to slavery to a Black graduate student.
The irony is great. On October 2, Payette spoke to the packed audience in Parliament’s Senate Chamber about how Canada is “rich in values, openness, tolerance, mutual cooperation, and compassion.” But there is little tolerance or compassion for Marrus, who has unreservedly accepted responsibility for his remark, denounced it as wrong, and attempted to apologize. The victim of the offensive remark is apparently unwilling to meet with Marrus to receive his apology.
By what code of conduct is this banishment appropriate? The Hebrew Scriptures tell the story of Jacob, who wronged his brother, Esau. Esau’s willingness to receive Jacob restored life to his penitent brother. The encounter prompted Jacob to declare, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favourably.”
What code of conduct permits a person to refuse to receive favourably a community member who wishes to apologize? The New Testament speaks of the duty to offer forgiveness to the repentant — Matthew 18:21–22 reads, “Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.’”
The young scholars who reside at Massey College represent some of the best of their generation. Smart, industrious, knowledgeable, and diverse, they will change the academic enterprise to benefit us all. But they must be fair, and they should develop wisdom.
If these students are fortunate, then they, too, will grow old. If they are lucky, then they will live in a community where the young protect the elderly against the merciless advance of age that can cause disinhibition. If they are blessed, then they will spend their last years among people who are kind.
In her years at Massey College, Payette lived the adage she recited in Parliament: “We can always do better together than on our own. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The obvious task of Massey College members is to put the parts back together. The very inscription on the college wall challenges the students to “make of worth the fellowship to which they belong,” inviting them to be the change they wish to see.
The road back to collegiality will not be easy; it might best be guided by a university chaplain. But all who value the collegiate enterprise must embark on that journey. Who among us is so unworthy as not to be forgiven?
Perhaps one day, great Canadians will gather again in the Senate Chamber to welcome another Massey College alumna — a new Black female Governor General. She might speak of her difficult challenge in moving from hurt to forgiveness. She might say that the day Payette became Governor General was a great day, but the day Massey College chose compassion and generosity was its finest hour.
Juliet Guichon is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine. She served as Massey College’s Don of Hall from 1989–1990 while Julie Payette served as a college Fellow.