Herménégilde Chiasson: The Great Gift of Knowledge

2011-2012 Issue 1


Photo by: Kathe Lieber

Photo by: Kathe Lieber

With hindsight, his career path makes a certain kind of sense. Start out in a small francophone village in New Brunswick, develop a thirst for knowledge and insatiable curiosity, apply a healthy dose of self-discipline and openness to the world. What do you get? In the case of Herménégilde Chiasson, you get a poet, playwright, artist, editor, filmmaker and former Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick. That’s a bit of a tall order, but Chiasson, who received the honorary Doctor of Letters degree at Spring Convocation on May 30, doesn’t take himself too seriously. He says, with characteristic modesty, that his life has just evolved that way.

Chiasson’s beginnings were modest. “I started my education in a two-room school in St. Simon in northern New Brunswick. The dropout rate was high: my class started out with 33, and by Grade 12 we were down to three. My father couldn’t read or write and my mother wrote phonetically, but she believed in education. She was a very strong woman. She’s the one who made us aware that learning was the way out.”

Chiasson considers himself a fortunate beneficiary of former New Brunswick Premier Louis Robichaud’s educational reforms. But here were few, if any, role models in those days. “If you went into the arts, you were losing your soul and mind. I had to resign myself to the fact that my mind was artistic.” And so he embarked on a life of simultaneous work and learning. His passion for education is reflected in his long list of diplomas from Canadian, U.S. and French universities. And studying in both of Canada’s official languages was a way of seeking balance, he recalls: “I had all these French ideas in my head, yet I saw myself as American in the continental sense.”

A student till the age of 32, he developed a highly productive routine. “I was working full time at Radio Canada and writing a book at the same time. So I’d get up at 6 a.m. and make myself write five pages a day.” That kind of dogged determination resulted in the production of more than 25 books, 15 films, 30 plays and a dozen set designs. A lifelong advocate for culture and the arts, he is never reluctant to speak about the pivotal role of the arts and lifelong learning.

Chiasson says he was particularly pleased to have his honorary degree conferred by the School of Continuing Studies. “Learning creates such great pleasure throughout your life. It’s an ongoing daily and lifelong process: everyone is a teacher, everyone is a student.”

One huge milestone that seemed to come out of left field was his appointment as Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick (2003–2009). His proudest accomplishment while serving in that role was making culture part of the public discourse. “Culture relates us to our identity. Every great thing starts with culture. When a dictatorial regime takes over a country, the first thing they do is silence artists and the media.” He has always been a strong advocate for Acadian culture. “Our history is very different from Quebec’s. Acadie has a huge diaspora, a million strong, with a strong identity.” The citation for Chiasson’s honorary degree puts it well: “Herménégilde Chiasson embodies the values of university continuing education and upholds the ideals of McGill Universit through achievements and accomplishments of the highest order. Creativity, excellence, public service and commitment to learning – and the nurturing of these civilizing forces in others – have been hallmarks of his distinguished career.” Chiasson puts it more simply: “Everything is rooted in curiosity.”

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