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Coming Home

How U of T grads are making a difference - where their help is needed most

A world leader. A builder of industry. Fighters for peace, native rights and victims of HIV. These are just five outstanding alumni who came to U of T from diverse backgrounds and applied the knowledge they gained where it could do the most good: back home. Some have authority, some fight authority. But all credit their U of T experience with laying the foundations for a world of change. Here are their stories.

Darlene Johnston (LLB 1986, LLM 2003)
“Sorry, but you have no authority here.” To the astonishment of her fellow protesters, it was shy, petite Darlene Johnston who stepped up to the burly OPP officer sent to investigate a trespassing complaint. “This is reserve land. It’s never been surrendered.”

Shaking and nervous as she was, Johnston was determined to defend her people’s occupation of an acre of land containing two private homes in Owen Sound, Ont. As land claims researcher for the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, she had discovered that the land contained an aboriginal burial ground. Her band had not ceded that site when it sold the surrounding lands to the Crown 140 years earlier. On this cold day in December 1992, Johnston told the policeman she wasn’t trespassing, because the land still belonged to her people.

It wasn’t Johnston’s first struggle on behalf of her people, who live on the Neyaashiinigmiing (Cape Croker) reserve on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula. Hired by the Nawash and its sister band, Saugeen First Nations, to research local land claims and fishing rights, Johnston became involved in many long-running controversies. Fuelling her commitment and courage was a passion for her people and a solid legal education.

Although her father grew up at Cape Croker, as a child Johnston lived mainly in Alberta and Eastern Ontario, near the air force bases where her father worked. But she spent holidays “back home” on the reserve, where her paternal grandmother and other relatives nurtured her sense of native heritage.

Johnston was studying history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., when she took a summer job researching land claims. The experience opened her eyes to how her ancestors had been hounded continually to surrender their territory – even though proclamations as early as 1763 had given Canada’s aboriginals control over their lands.

In 1983 Johnston enrolled in law school at U of T. “It was a family investment and a community responsibility,” she says. “We knew the first thing was getting the information and then having people who were educated in the Western tradition to deal with the government.” Although intimidated at first by the workload, she felt heartened by the response to a paper she wrote about the Six Nations Confederacy’s right to self-determination. The annual U of T Faculty of Law Review published her work as its lead article in 1986.

Five years after graduation, Johnston was teaching at the University of Ottawa when she received a call to help defend Nawash First Nations’ fishing rights. She had married and started a family and was trying to complete her master’s degree, so she declined the offer. “I remember feeling really guilty, because the whole point of going to law school was so that I’d be ready when the time came to help out in the community,” says Johnston. After agonizing over her decision for two weeks, she called back to accept.

As land claims research co-ordinator for the Nawash and Saugeen bands from 1991 to 2001, Johnston fought to protect the natives’ fishing and land rights, and to preserve their cultural and sacred sites. The biggest challenge was “to harness the anger and not let it get too destructive,” says Johnston. “There was a sense that government will let things slide and slide and slide unless you’re constantly keeping at them.”

In 1992 Johnston spent a week in court fighting the over-fishing charges that had led the band to defend its traditional fishing rights. She presented more than 400 documents supporting the band’s legal right to run its own fishery. Today the Nawash and Saugeen bands own nearly all of the commercial fishery around the Bruce Peninsula. “That has made a huge difference to the community,” says Johnston. “Now they can stay home and live off the fishery and the spin-offs that come from that.”

Johnston’s work also helped win several land disputes, including the 1992 standoff in Owen Sound. After Ottawa bought out the homeowners, the natives removed the homes – selling one house and floating the other by barge to Cape Croker, where it became the band’s land claims office.
But Johnston also went after bigger fish, preparing research for a $90-billion claim against the provincial and federal governments. The Nawash and Saugeen bands are seeking compensation for loss of use of much of the Bruce Peninsula. “That number [$90 billion] is hard to imagine at first,” she admits. “I think people aren’t used to thinking about what the land is worth and what native people have been deprived of.” Although the case may not come to trial for years, Johnston says the results could set a precedent for other native groups. “It’s a novel claim, but probably the strongest claim in its category.”

In 2002 Johnston returned to U of T, becoming an assistant professor and aboriginal student adviser in the Faculty of Law. She says she feels at home in the faculty, which now has 30 native students and offers strong upper-year programming in aboriginal issues. “There’s a sense we’re not alone here,” she says.

Philip Yeo (BASc 1970)
In just three decades, Singapore has vaulted from impoverished third-world country to gleaming city-state, with a per-capita GDP approaching that of the top industrialized nations. As chair of two key economic agencies, Philip Yeo has helped shape his country’s future.

Yeo, 57, never expected to be a mover and shaker. He grew up in Singapore and came to Toronto as a Colombo Plan scholar (a Commonwealth program that helped Asia-Pacific students study abroad). After earning a U of T degree in industrial engineering in 1970, he returned home to a succession of jobs in Singapore’s ministries of finance and defence. Under the mentorship of Goh Keng Swee, Singapore’s key economic architect, Yeo moved quickly up the ranks. “Goh gave me authority and responsibility far beyond my age and experience,” recalls Yeo. “He had a saying: ‘Better to have to restrain a charging stallion than to kick a stubborn mule.’”

By 1973, at the age of 26, Yeo was in charge of the defence budget – even as he was studying part-time for his master’s at the University of Singapore. By 1976 he had earned a Harvard MBA and was managing defence logistics for Singapore’s army, navy and air force. In 1981, he became founding chairman of Singapore’s National Computer Board, where he championed Singapore’s national computerization plan. “I learned economic development on the job,” he says.

In 1986, Yeo became chairman of the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), a quasi-governmental agency set up to spur economic growth. EDB is often credited with creating the development programs that have propelled Singapore’s rapid growth. Even 20 years ago, says Yeo, “the economy was down, and industry was very labour-intensive. I got it moving into more capital-intensive, skill-intensive sectors” such as semiconductor manufacturing, aerospace and chemicals. He also nurtured small business and encouraged Singapore companies to expand overseas.

“Yeo brought with him new energy, new ideas, several key new people and new activities,” says Edgar H. Schein, author of Strategic Pragmatism, a book about the EDB’s history and culture. Though the economy’s turnaround since 1986 was clearly a team effort, says Schein, “he personally provided the force for re-examination and revitalization because he was a very energetic, quick-thinking, quick-acting and hands-on kind of leader.”

Yeo’s energy has helped attract more than $80 billion in foreign investment into such ventures as semiconductor plants, industrial parks and dozens of projects on Jurong chemical island, a group of reclaimed islands on which Yeo is building a new chemical-industry cluster. Overall, EDB projects have created more than 250,000 jobs.

The Jurong project was one of many in which Yeo has had to push hard to convince government leaders to invest in his vision. “In all my work, I always encounter opposition and skepticism,” says Yeo. “Especially from the budget/ finance boys [in government], as they have no feel for industry and do not suffer any dire consequences from objecting.” His solution: “I prevail by moving very fast and producing tangible and visible results, which helps to melt away and roll over early opposition and skepticism.”

Indeed, one Singapore journalist marvels at Yeo’s ability to walk the fine line between being a perpetual innovator and a respected bureaucrat. “He is a bit of a maverick, but he manages to remain a valuable member of the Singapore establishment.”

Since 2001, Yeo has also been chairman of Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), which promotes public-sector R&D activities in Singapore. In this role, he wants to foster Singapore’s latest niche, biomedical research. EDB expects biotech to account for 10 per cent of Singapore’s manufacturing output by 2010. One tactic being employed by Singapore is to promote technology based on human stem cells, luring researchers by imposing fewer restrictions on this controversial technology than do the U.S. and Europe. Yeo is personally credited with helping Singapore lure British scientist Alan Colman – the man who cloned Dolly the sheep.

Yeo is now scouring the world to attract top scientists to fill Biopolis, a $500-million biomedical research complex that will open this spring. But imported researchers are only filling in until their jobs can be taken by a new generation: the hundreds of scholarship students whom A*STAR is sending overseas to get PhD educations. “Whatever activity I want to do, economic or industrial, the most important first step is training young people,” says Yeo. “We give them the best education, we teach them how to catch a fish. The rest is up to them.”

For his years of public service, Yeo has received many honours, including an international award for innovation in economic and social development, and an honorary doctorate from U of T in 1997. And in December, at a reception in Singapore, he received a 2003

U of T Arbor Award for his volunteer work for his alma mater. In turn, Yeo credits much of his success to all he learned as an undergrad. “My engineering training at U of T made me a practical person,” he says. “I learned economics, contract law, human behaviour. Those are very relevant to me and my work.” People who make things happen need a range of expertise, he says. “We need well-rounded people who have breadth.”

Vaira Vike-Freiberga (BA 1958 Victoria, MA 1960 Psychology)
When Vaira Vike-Freiberga was elected president of Latvia in 1999, she became the first female leader of a former Soviet republic. Quite a challenge for someone who has spent most of her life in Canada – and even more so for someone who was only visiting the country when she was asked to stand for election as its head of state.

Born in 1937 in Riga, Latvia’s capital, Vike-Freiberga fled with her family in 1944 from the advancing Red Army. After a terrible ordeal in a refugee camp in Germany her family moved to Morocco, and then, in 1954, to Canada. They finally settled in Toronto, which was becoming a focal point for displaced Latvians.

Vike-Freiberga worked as a bank teller while taking general arts at U of T’s Victoria University. Upon graduation in 1958 she was accepted into medical school, but changed her mind. She opted for an MA in psychology at U of T, and later a PhD in the subject from McGill University in Montreal.
Flash forward to 1998. Vike-Freiberga had just retired after serving as a psychology professor at McGill for 33 years. A widely published expert on Latvian heritage and folklore, she lectured to Latvian communities around the world. Seven years after Latvia achieved independence from the Soviet Union, then-prime minister Guntars Krasts invited Vike-Freiberga to return to Riga to establish the Latvian Institute, a centre dedicated to promoting Latvian history, culture and society to the world. “It was an offer you can’t refuse,” she says.

Vike-Freiberga moved back to her homeland for what she thought would be one year. “I dropped everything I had in Canada, packed a suitcase and went all alone to Latvia.” But within a year her life took a dramatic turn. To break a political log-jam, a group of artists and intellectuals encouraged Vike-Freiberga to run for president. Not expecting to win, she agreed. On June 17, 1999, after failing to agree on a number of better-known candidates, Latvia’s parliament elected Vike-Freiberga president. She had the support of a slim majority of legislators – 53 out of 100.
Vike-Freiberga inherited a country in chaos and an economy in recession. Almost immediately, she had to exercise the president’s most high-profile duty – appointing a new prime minister (the then-PM had resigned after his governing coalition fell apart).

As head of state, Vike-Freiberga is not involved in day-to-day governing. But hers is no ceremonial position: she has the right to veto or initiate laws, and is also commander-in-chief of Latvia’s armed forces. Day to day, however, working out of the 14th-century Riga Castle, Vike-Freiberga mainly represents Latvia in foreign diplomatic relations and international agreements. At a NATO summit in Prague in 2002, she electrified a roomful of world leaders with her speech about democracy’s return to Latvia. According to a Boston Globe report, that performance won her an invitation to sit at the head table for the summit’s state dinner, alongside U.S. president George W. Bush, British prime minister Tony Blair and French president Jacques Chirac.

Thanks in part to the legislative freedoms she has promoted, Latvia has been invited to join both the EU and NATO. “I am proud of having been at the helm of a country at a crucial point in history,” she says.

It hasn’t all been easy. Some critics say they are disappointed by her performance in domestic politics. And her support of the U.S. war in Iraq generated the lowest approval ratings of her presidency. Nonetheless, last June she was re-elected to a second four-year term. The vote this time: 88 to 6.

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