A Brief Attempt at University
The Personal Story Behind The Political Career, Part 5
[ Continued from Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 ] In 1998, on the advice of my school guidance counsellor, my parents sent me on a 22-day Canadian Outward Bound Wilderness School course in northern Ontario. It consisted of an 8-day hike through Pukaskwa National Park along Lake Superior, a march in a parade through White River, Ontario, followed the next day by a day of rock climbing and rappelling nearby, and an 11-day canoe trip through Lake Superior Provincial Park including by a 3-day solo period for self-reflection, where we were each left alone for two nights several hundred metres apart, with the final day being a lengthy all-hands hike near the school’s base camp near Sault Sainte-Marie. We were 44 students divided into 4 sections, with my 11-member class being all-boys except for one of the two instructors.
I flew from Montreal to Sault Saint-Marie for the course with a heavy duffel bag full of the required gear, changing planes on a tight transfer in Toronto. I remember asking the flight attendant if my bags would make it given how short the transfer was to be. It was a prescient question – they didn’t.
I went to the nearby hotel and some hours later an airport employee showed up with a large green bag – just not mine. Luckily, it did show up on time to sleep, and the next morning I went to check into the Outward Bound course with all of my stuff in tow.
We were scattered around a lawn and issued hiking backpacks, kitchen utensils, and tent parts, as well as lists of stuff we needed to pack for the first week’s hike, and told to change right there on the spot. We would be putting away our unneeded stuff in a bunkhouse and saddling up almost immediately.
The first night, our instructors, Rory and Bridget, showed us how to assemble the tents, each holding three students, and cooked us spaghetti and meat sauce using dried textured vegetable protein for the meat over a campfire not far from the base camp. The course information had said “there may be meat in your diet”, but it quickly became clear that would only happen if we caught it ourselves.
The next morning, our first day of hiking, I tripped and fell, giving myself a very minor cut in the palm of my hand. Looking at the blood, it dawned on me that if I were seriously injured, there was no practical way out. We did not have a satellite phone or any sort of radio – the only rescue would be by either being carried out, or by one of the instructors hiking to the nearest highway and hitchhiking to the nearest town to then phone for help, likely a two-day process. Mobile phones were not yet common and in any case still wouldn’t work in that area two decades later. That realisation caused me to briefly faint, and after I became much more determined to be careful and succeed.
Each day, we stopped to prepare lunch, and I soon realised that if I ate the lunch, whatever it was, I was not able to keep up with the group afterward. After a few days, I stuck to only breakfast and supper for the rest of the course.
I had always been wide, having rapidly gone from skinny to fat at around age 7, and for the first time in my life that I could remember, I was in shape by the end of the course. In spite of trials along the way, my overall experience was very positive and I retain only happy memories of those three weeks. When I returned to school that fall, the idea of joining the military took seed in my mind.
That school year, 1998-1999, my last in high school, saw me looking for university options. As with most of my generation, I had been led to believe that the only path to success lay through a university degree. I had not exactly excelled in high school, making the honour roll only once, in my very last semester, and so it is fair to say that universities were not fighting over me.
My first choice – indeed, my only choice – was the Royal Military College in Kingston. After my time at Outward Bound and being in good physical shape for the first time in my life, this was the obvious path to me. I applied, got an interview, and completely bombed it, not expressing in any coherent way why I was interested, having no background whatsoever in athletics or team sports, and all-round presenting myself about as poorly as possible. I was rejected on the spot and was back to the drawing board, my military career never getting past the issuance of my applicant serial number.
I applied to numerous universities across Canada in both History and Computer Science, and rejections poured in. Eventually, the University of Lethbridge accepted me. Excited that anyone had, I quickly registered, preparing to move to the mysterious far-off land of Alberta. As my plans advanced, the University of Guelph became the only other institution to accept me, and I instantly scrapped my plans to move two time zones given the option to live just one day’s drive from home.
My mother drove me out to Guelph in the summer of 1999 for a pre-orientation of some kind, and, as we left, the power shut down at home in a significant black-out that ended up dragging on five days in the middle of a scorching hot summer. Our car, the same 1990 Oldsmobile Cutlass Cruiser whose roof had collapsed on the way to Fredericton four years earlier, did not have working air conditioning and in the high heat my father stayed home to salvage all the food in our freezers using a single generator traded every few hours among several neighbours, and my mother and I roasted on the 401, stopping in Belleville for cold water with a side of Chinese food – but at least I had a destination.
In September, I was the very first to arrive at my dorm, Lambton Hall, and was met by very eager orientation volunteers who had completely emptied the car before I made it all the way to my fourth-floor room. One of them told me that I was going to love living there, to which I replied “I have heard this is a party dorm.” He was positively crestfallen – and I was right.
After five years in boarding school, being in an environment with people who were older than me – Ontario still had Grade 13 at the time – and had never left home before, was not an enjoyable experience. While I had arrived eager to succeed, planning a double degree, by the end of my first semester my grades had me on the cusp of dismissal.
I found the university environment a great disillusionment. People in my computer science classes could get straight As without having the faintest idea how computers worked, and I could pass many of the early classes without attending the lectures or doing the assignments. Provided I passed the finals, my grade would still be a pass; why would I bother killing myself for an A+ when I could still get my degree with Ds? There was no advantage to the extra work. I was far more interested in the awkward social life of the computer science club than in any aspect of academia.
By 2001, I had abandoned post-secondary education altogether in favour of a career in technology, asking why I would pay to work when I could be paid to do so? Ever since, I have felt very strongly that university degrees should only be acquired by those who know why they want them, not as a rite of passage to society which bears no intrinsic value of its own.