Personal and financial obstacles in the pursuit of higher education have never prevented Justice Dr. Irving Andre from achieving academic and professional excellence.
Three decades ago, the Dominican government turned down his request for a scholarship to pursue law at the University of the West Indies. The Curacao-born scholar, who moved to Dominica with his parents at age three, was feeling good about himself having just acquired a Bachelor of Arts degree with first class honours from the Caribbean university.
“Dominica is a very small island and the government said they did not have the funds,” Andre said. “That was at a time when students from Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and some of the other bigger regional islands received scholarships from their governments to study law. I had to come to Canada to study law. Ironically, it was easier to do that here than in the Caribbean.”
Last year, Andre supported the inaugural UWI Toronto fundraising gala that provided 17 scholarships for the university’s students and funding for 200 Haitians to complete their degrees at the Mona campus in Jamaica. The Haitians were enrolled at the University of Haiti that was destroyed in the January 2010 devastating earthquake.
“Because of what happened to me 30 years ago, it’s important that we contribute financially to assist those students in the Caribbean to achieve their educational dreams,” said Andre who was presented with a Vice-Chancellor’s award at the second annual gala recently.
Andre graduated from Osgoode Law School in 1988 and was called to the Ontario Bar two years later. Nine years ago, he was appointed a judge in the Ontario Court of Justice where he presides as the local administrative judge in Peel.
Last year, Andre earned a doctorate becoming the only judge in the 289-member Ontario Court of Justice to hold a Doctorate degree in Law.
He attributed much of his success to the UWI and the exceptional lecturers to which he was exposed.
“When I look back at my time at the UWI, I see myself as a student pilgrim seeking benediction from a number of professors who, quite frankly, by the late 1970s, had made UWI one of the premier institutions of learning in the world,” said Andre who has authored 13 books. “The UWI moulded me, it accounted for the growth of my intellectual development and it gave me the confidence which I needed when I came to Canada.
“Without that confidence, I would not have been able to apply to go to law school here, do well, work while I was in school and even after I had completed my studies, to continue to try to achieve as much as I can because I felt I had the wherewithal and I was not inferior to any other person who I competed with, irrespective of race, colour or creed.”
Unlike Andre, Jamaican Canadian Association’s first female president Kamala-Jean Gopie didn’t get the opportunity to attend UWI because of her family’s Indo-Caribbean status.
She grew up at a time in Jamaica when East Indians, who made up about two per cent of the population, were treated with disdain.
“When I went to high school, I didn’t know how you could get to UWI,” said Gopie who migrated to Canada in 1963. “My mother was a maid.”
She attended the University of Toronto, achieving a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters in Education and taught in elementary and junior high schools during a sterling 31-year career in education.
Vice-Chancellor awards were also presented to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Karl Massiah, neurologist Dr. John Stewart and retired Toronto Police Service deputy chief Keith Forde.
“I am honoured to have been chosen for this award,” said Forde. “The university’s reputation of being an institution of academic excellence and its history of producing some of the world’s most respected thinkers, leaders, accomplished business people, educators, scientists and politicians among many others makes this recognition of my work that much more meaningful.
“This gala is a demonstration of how UWI is tapping into the increasing power and influence of Diaspora communities as another platform to strengthen and sustain Caribbean nation-building.”
Two-time Olympic champion sprinter Donovan Bailey, who spent a year at Knox College in Jamaica before coming to Canada, entrepreneur and philanthropist Michael Lee-Chin and former Canadian Governor General Michaëlle Jean were honoured with Luminary awards.
Jean, who is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) special envoy for Haiti flew in from Helsinki hours before the gala to accept the award.
“I am deeply moved by your gesture because it is inextricably linked to a very noble cause, extending opportunities to those who lack the means of fulfilling their dreams of attending a world-class academic institution like yours,” said Jean. “It’s a bit more meaningful that this award is attached to the oldest fully regional school of higher learning in the English-speaking Caribbean, an institution that has helped the region chart a course to full political, social, cultural and economic independence….
“You remind us that societies advance when they nurture and cultivate the hearts and minds of their people to learning, creativity and innovation. From the time I was growing up in the Caribbean, I was deeply convinced that education had the power to unlock the rich potential inherent in every person, every community and every nation. Education is the key to freedom. I would not be the woman standing in front of you tonight if it were not for the value of education inculcated in me by my parents.
“That’s why I believe that access to education places upon each one of us a special responsibility to use knowledge as a medium to draw our ideas from the realm of theoretical concept into the practical reality of concrete and meaningful actions that can shape and transform the lives of others.”
Ryerson University, which collaborated with UWI three years ago to offer a distance learning program to nursing students in the Caribbean and Gap Adventures founded by Trinidad-born Bruce Poon Tip in 1990 were honoured with Chancellor awards.
The UWI was established in 1948 as the University College of the West Indies (UCWI) in a special relationship with the University of London. The university has provided approximately 4,600 scholarships since it opened 63 years ago with 23 male and 10 female students who began their academic journey in wooden huts in Jamaica that once housed war refugees from Gibraltar and Malta.
The cost of tuition for a full-time undergraduate program averages about US$12,000 annually.
“We are here for an important cause,” said Vice-Chancellor Dr. Nigel Harris, who along with Chancellor Sir George Alleyne and Chancellor Emeritus Shridath “Sonny” Ramphal attended the sold-out gala. “The UWI sees as its central mission the provision of an excellent education to undergraduate and graduate students so they can become global citizens.
“That we have and continue to achieve that goal is evidenced by the rich harvest of our graduates over many decades, thousands of whom have come to North America to make important contributions to the places where they have worked and societies in which they have lived.
“Equally important to our mission is an absolute commitment to the conduct of research and the gathering of knowledge to help drive social and economic development of our Caribbean people.”
Nearly 2,000 students apply annually for UWI scholarships and less than 100 are granted academic funding each year.