KEMPTVILLE — The particular brand of education received at their alma mater would hold them in good stead for life, graduates heard from a prominent Ottawa businessman during commencement proceedings here May 25.
Addressing the gowned group who were set to receive diplomas and certificates ranging from agriculture to welding at the Kemptville Campus of the University of Guelph, Leonard Lee spotlighted the importance of practical and trades training in a country where, he joked, "Many people have difficulty screwing in a lightbulb."
"I thank all of you for taking technical education because you’re needed," declared the Lee Valley Tools and Veritas Tools founder. Added the smiling Order of Canada member, "I’m sure you’ll be happier than any unemployed BA. And don’t tell any university I said that. And you’ll contribute more to Canadian life in general as well as your own life because of your knowledge and ability and training in hand."
Lee, a Royal Roads Military College graduate who also holds a Bachelor of Arts and Economics from Queen’s University as well as four honorary doctorates, pointed to the "primitive" beginnings of his own technical education — on the Saskatchewan farm where he was born in a log cabin built by his prairie homesteader father.
"We didn’t have electricity or running water or anything like that, but we still had a perfectly good life. But my technical background was specifically: if anything is broken, you can repair it with wire and pliers," he said. "If you find yourself in deep difficulty, try a hammer and nails," he added, then quipped, "but if that doesn’t work, just use the hammer."
It was in that environment that he learned the use of axes and bow or ‘swede’ saws, for cutting trees into pulpwood and cordwood the family sold. His father, who was a skilled carpenter to the degree of being able to produce a wooden gravity box capable of carrying flax seed, passed on that woodworking acumen to his son.
"Even my primitive training was one of substantial benefit to me later in life," Lee recounted. "I was able to convert my hobby into a business. And training also gave me the confidence to problem-solve in tool design. The sharpening activity with the axes and swede saws gave me the courage to do research in the field, and I wrote a book on the subject that sold 120,000 copies so far. And I launched a hard cover volume of it in the Kemptville library today."
Drawing a contrast with Europe, he noted that this country doesn’t afford enough respect to people going into the trades and technical training, despite the "essential" nature those vocations. "In Canada , we try to discourage our children these days from becoming technicians and say they should go to university and get a bachelor of something or other," observed Lee.
"Technicians maintain our infrastructure both nationally and in our communites. If we did not have electricians, or somebody to debug your computer or your water system or sewage system, we would be in big trouble."
He opined, "Canadians seem to have forgotten .. their own origins and the importance of trades to the country."
He also lauded the importance of technical co-op programs and proudly pointed to his own companies’ hiring of student machinists. "Now, a lot of companies don’t want to do that, but a lot of companies don’t want to do a lot of things."
He advised the group to do work they enjoy and "always choose job content over salary. If you can be creative in work you like, you can be far happier when you come home at night."
The biggest laugh of the speech came when a child in the audience began wailing. Lee looked up and replied, "You’re probably right."
Dr. Claude Naud, Campus director, introduced Lee to the audience. Naud pointed out that, among the guest speaker’s honorifics and achievements, he had an agricultural connection as well: Lee is a former executive director of the Dairy Council of Canada, according to Naud.