Canada’s Gov. Gen David Johnston received an honorary PhD from Haifa’s Technion – Israel Institute of Technology on Nov. 3, the second full day of his official visit to Israel, and Day Six of a one-week trip to Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank. The day’s visits centred around themes of innovation, diversity, and education.
At a student panel at the Technion, Johnston heard from four students benefiting from diversity programs at the science and engineering school, which, as Prof. Morris Eisen explained, does not offer any affirmative action programs.
“There are no shortcuts for anyone,” Eisen said. Instead, the university attempts to close gaps – educational and cultural – without lowering standards.
Arab students now make up 20 per cent of the Technion student body, the same as the percentage of Arabs in the general population.
For Yazan Safadi, a civil engineering student in his final semester, it wasn’t as hard to get to university as it is for other Arab students. He grew up attending a Jewish school in Haifa. However, for others, there is massive culture shock coming to a big city and attempting to integrate while keeping up academically. Peer tutoring programs let senior students reach out to those beginning the journey.
Yehuda Sabiner, a haredi medical student with no secular education, talked about his discouragement in dreaming of medical school. Sabiner, married with children, upgraded his skills through a Technion outreach program aimed at the haredi community, which makes up eight per cent of the Israeli population. His goal is to become the first Israeli-trained haredi doctor.
A Jewish Israeli student from an economically disadvantaged area and another born in Ethiopia shared their own challenges. In response, Johnston reiterated his commitment to closing educational gaps within Canada, such as those which still hold back Aboriginal minority students.
Johnston, who has visited Israel three times before, told The CJN he’s always amazed at how green Israel is. “Israel made the desert bloom… and that’s a good metaphor for what we’ve seen in the past almost 70 years, coming and making a homeland for the Jewish people, and providing a great hope for the world because so much of it is based on equality of opportunity…developing knowledge and sharing it not only with your own society, but with the world.”
He is “surprised,” he told The CJN, that no Canadian governor general has paid an official visit before. Since the governor general is the Queen’s representative, some believe this reflects the chilly attitude of the British royal family. Despite brief personal trips, such as Prince Charles’ attendance at the funeral of Shimon Peres in October, there has been no official royal visit since the State of Israel was established.
Asked about the prospects for a future royal visit, Johnston said only that, “They’re travelling people. I can’t speak for them, but invite them and see what happens.”
He attributes his own trip to the growing emphasis on international relations as part of the governor general’s role. Johnston’s predecessor Michaelle Jean made over 40 official state visits from 2005 to 2010, a record the 75-year-old Johnston will likely surpass on the current trip.
In an electronic age, Johnston believes diplomatic visits remain priceless. “The world has become much closer,” he told The CJN. “It’s not simply economics… it’s peaceful relations and the making of peace. Canada should be well understood and understanding of other parts of the world simply for us to be properly engaged in that world.”
There are also trade benefits, such as Canada’s free-trade agreement with Israel, as well as cultural dividends, such as collaboration between universities like the Technion and institutions in Canada, such as Waterloo, Montreal, Montreal-Polytechnique, Toronto, York, Concordia, McMaster and Alberta. “Minds, like parachutes, work best when open.”
On a personal level, Israel is also special to Johnston, a lay minister with the Anglican Church. “Faith and family are my rocks and my foundations.”
From Haifa, Johnston and his delegation returned to Jerusalem for a visit to the Institute for Medical Research Israel-Canada, and an evening reception. He was hosted at a state dinner on Nov. 1 by President Reuven Rivlin, who, he told The CJN, is “an outstanding individual and a wonderful person to be with… a man with a very positive and optimistic approach to life.”
Asked about rumours that Johnston was planning to announce restored Canadian funding for Palestinian aid organization UNRWA, the governor general told The CJN he could not comment. In 2010, then prime minister Stephen Harper withdrew funding, charging that money was being used to fund terrorism. The decision met with loud protest, including from many pro-Israel voices in Canada, and from the Israeli government itself. Rumours have persisted since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office that funding would be restored imminently.
Earlier in the day, Johnston’s wife Sharon visited Hand in Hand Preschool, which promotes Jewish-Arab bilingual and bicultural coexistence in Haifa.
Today, Johnston started a two-day trip in the West Bank, where he will meet PA President Mahmoud Abbas and will educational and cultural sites before returning to Canada on Sunday, Nov. 6