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Poet Dionne Brand takes on Donald Trump and Jordan Peterson in powerful commencement speech

The Canadian poet, filmmaker, educator and activist received an honorary degree from the University of Toronto.

By Mugoli Samba

“For some of us, changing the world amounts to an emergency,” Dionne Brand said to the crowd at a University of Toronto convocation ceremony last week.

The university recognized the the award-winning poet’s work last Wednesday with an honorary degree. She received a doctor of letters, honoris causa, “for her outstanding service for the public good as an educator, filmmaker and activist, and for her excellence in the arts as a poet and author.”

Brand, who was born in Guayaguayare, Trinidad, moved to Toronto in 1970 at the age of 17. She obtained both her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Toronto.

Her first book, Fore Day Morning, was released in 1978. Since then, Brand has released 18 books and contributed to 17 anthologies.

The author’s body of work covers everything from her concepts of home to the subtleties of Toronto life, passing through the lived experiences of gender, race, identity and politics that lie in between. Renowned Barbadian poet and academic Edward Brathwaite has called her the Caribbean’s “first major exile poet," but Brand also writes passionately and intimately about Toronto, the city she now calls home.

“I grew into a writer in the city and the city, with its multiple languages, multiple communities, grew into the place I most want to live. I’ve felt in my work, my poems and novels, the odd sensation of writing the city into being, though that city that I imagine, and that city that is possible, is yet unfinished,” she says in an interview.

Brand is the recipient of numerous awards for her poetry and novels, notably the Governor General’s Poetry Award, the Griffin Poetry Prize, and the Trillium Book Award. Brand was also Toronto’s poet laureate between 2009-2012 and was named to the Order of Canada in 2017.

She used her convocation address as an opportunity to share her thoughts on the current political climate.

“So today we have Donald Trump in the U.S. consolidating a white supremacist dictatorship, and right here, in our own backyard, we have [Ontario Premier] Doug Ford — newly elected, moving us back to the good old Ontario where men were white, and ladies were ladies (and had great smiles), and children stayed ignorant,” Brand said to a laughing audience.

She also made a joke about Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto professor who has attracted controversy for his opposition to political correctness. She said he is “ushering in a new neanderthal age, but let’s not insult the neanderthals — neanderthals were trying their very best to leap into another time.”

Her message to men whose xenophobic, anti-woman, homophobic and anti-trans mindsets make them see others’ demands for rights as “somehow encroaching on their (own) patriarchal rights” was simple: 

“Their world of inequity is coming to an end.”

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