All I could think of when the phone call from the Governor General office came was the friendly face of the immigration officer who signed my residence papers more than 36 years ago. I hadn’t applied for a refugee’s visa, yet I was technically a refugee.
A civil war had started back in my country of origin as I was finishing my graduate studies in Paris. I was already on a postdoctoral position in Canada, awaiting the winds of war to die down. They eventually did, but only 16 years later. And when I finally decided that waiting was futile and proceeded to apply to become a Canadian permanent resident, there were tons of complications to overcome. For one, I didn’t have a home country to apply from.
I did overcome the hurdles, but not without the help of the accommodating and extremely kind immigration officer who understood. It is his face that I see now every day, ever since Canada resumed being Canada on October 19.
This country has been enormously good to me. It gave me asylum, career and safety, but it also gave me my wife, my children, and the joy of seeing them thrive in a civil and compassionate society, a land of fair-play and opportunity, and a secure environment.
As importantly, it gave me the possibility to serve and pay back. My old friend Ivar Ekeland never ceases to remind me: “You could have never done in France what you’ve managed to do in Canada.” I agree.
I could have settled for the quiet, comfortable, and secure life of a tenured academic, but I chose the route of advocacy. My causes were in no way based on a sense of entitlement, far from it. They were all rooted in a deep sense of commitment to an adopted home country that can be made even better still.
I fought for the pursuit of mathematical excellence in Canada, because I believe it to be one of the most fundamental of human pursuits, but also because of its role in moving forward most aspects of civil society, be they intellectual, social, technological, or economical.
Canada’s bestowing on me one of its highest honours, naturally fills me with enormous pride. But humility and a sense that so many others may be more deserving are never far behind. Can you really escape such feelings when you are cohorting with the folks who manage Canuck Place?
My friend and colleague, Jim Colliander, tweeted the other day that my appointment to the Order of Canada was due to the “Hat Trick” in founding PIMS, MITACS, and BIRS. My response was: “it may be a hat trick, but the assists were perfect, and the teammates outstanding.” Even the mathematicians among Canada’s immigrants end up using “Hockey speak” about one of the least athletic of human endeavours.
And thank you, friends and colleagues, who made all this happen, starting with inviting me to Canada, hosting me in your homes, teaching me Canadian ways, supporting my academic career, collaborating on these fine national and international projects, god-parenting my three children, and topping it all by nominating me for this tremendous honour.