The president of St. Francis Xavier University has apologized to those offended by a plaque in the Brian Mulroney Institute of Government that includes a quote from the former prime minister’s father.
The quote, based on a conversation Mulroney had with his father Benedict in 1955, reads: “The only way out of a paper mill town is through a university door.”
At the time, a young Mulroney was planning to seek an apprenticeship at the mill in Baie-Comeau, Que., where his father worked as electrician – but the elder Mulroney was opposed to the idea and encouraged his son to attend St. FX.
Brian Mulroney, who graduated from the university in 1959, recalled the conversation in speeches he delivered when plans for the institute were announced in October 2016 and again last September when the facility was officially opened.
However, one of the Nova Scotia university’s former students recently posted a message on Facebook, saying she was offended by the plaque because it appears to devalue tradespeople and creates the impression that mill towns are “impoverished and embarrassing.”
“As a social worker in training, I need to speak out against oppression and discrimination,” Meaghan Marie Landry said in a post that is addressed to St. FX.
“Just because post-secondary education is your idea of success, that doesn’t mean that it’s everybody else’s. Living in a paper mill town is not an obstacle that you need to overcome.”
Landry, who is originally from Cape Breton, argued that tradespeople play an important role in the economy, and she said a paper mill has provided her with employment for four years – and well-paying jobs for her father and her partner.
“I’m sure you are aware that a ton of your students hail from paper mill families, and I bet you the majority of them feel 100 per cent no shame in that … Instead of encouraging people to leave their hometowns, why don’t you teach them valuable tools that make them want to stay?”
Kevin Wamsley, the president of the university, issued a statement Friday saying he will be reviewing the issue with the university’s executive council – a move that was welcomed by Landry.
Wamsley, who grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, said the university is proud of northern Nova Scotia’s rural heritage, and he stressed that the institution encourages students to take pride in working and residing in the area.
He said he was grateful to those who those who came forward to say they were offended by the plaque. “As a university, we are bound to self-reflection and, frankly, we did not read that context into it,” Wamsley said in the statement.
“To those of you that we have offended, please accept my sincere apology on behalf of St. Francis Xavier University. In no way did we intend to degrade the reputation of those or any industries or occupations that have played a foundational role in building those communities of which we are so proud.”
Wamsley said his father, like Mulroney’s, also wanted him to attend university – something his father was unable to do.
“It didn’t mean I was going to be better than him or that I was encouraged to ‘escape’ the town; rather, it was a pathway of opportunity that he supported for me,” Wamsley said.
Landry’s post drew support online from people who agreed the quote was “demeaning” and said the university should be ashamed of itself.
But others said Landry was off base.
“I somewhat see your point, but hoping to find a fulfilling, lifelong career in a factory outside an isolated small town seemed a dubious proposition in 1955 and is far more so now,” one response to her Facebook post said.
“There is nothing wrong with factory work, but for those with the aptitude and ambition for something more, education is the key. Mr. Mulroney was well advised.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 25, 2019.