One of Canada’s best-known and most respected lawyers and advocates for justice is just as likely to be recognized for the poses he has struck with Thompson Rivers University graduates as for the role he has played in the province’s courtrooms and legislature.
Friday’s convocation at TRU will be the last one at which Wally Oppal, QC will preside. Since being appointed as TRU’s Chancellor in 2011, he has handed parchments to each and every graduating student in 33 ceremonies.
For nearly 10,000 alumni, the ultimate memento of their achievement is a photograph of themselves, in graduation robes, on stage, with the broadly smiling Chancellor Wally Oppal beside them.
“I am often stopped in the street by students who recognize me,” the Honorable Wally Oppal said. “On a recent flight the attendant handed me a note from a passenger which read, ‘I think you and I had our picture taken at my graduation from TRU’.”
He has made an effort to personally congratulate each student as they have crossed the stage. That, and every handshake as he passes the credential, is why Wally Oppal has reveled in his role as chancellor.
Alan Shaver, TRU President and Vice-Chancellor, knew in 2011 when he and Wally walked across campus for a meeting that the former judge was going to take his role seriously, as he paused to talk to every student. A 10-minute walk became 30. “Wally has done more than talk about student-centredness, he embodies it.”
“Totally participate” is the advice Chancellor Oppal passes along to fellow chancellors he’s met. “You have to do that, stand with students in a picture, speak to each graduate, make a connection, it’s what has made the whole experience so enjoyable for me.”
Although Chancellor Oppal participated in two convocations of his own (UBC, UBC Law) he only vaguely remembers the chancellor at each of his ceremonies. He does, however, recall how sombre the ceremonies were, and it’s something he’s noted at other convocations when members of his family have graduated from other universities.
“In Kamloops the crowds are so spirited,” he said. “They are just so behind the success of the students and it’s a sentiment that is reflected in the passion the community has for TRU.”
The official conclusion of his second term as chancellor will arrive in April 2017. And although the 76-year-old can be tired by the end of the final ceremony during the busy week of June’s five convocations, he has no regrets about the experience—except that it’s ending. “I am sorry it’s all over. I really wish I could do more.”
“He has been an exceptional chancellor,” said President Shaver. “Not only for the time he has taken with our students but for being a ceaseless advocate for TRU everywhere he goes. He was able to adopt our law school early in its development and that has been tremendously helpful.”
TRU will recognize Chancellor Oppal’s efforts during Friday’s ceremony. A certificate of recognition will be presented to him near the start of the ceremony, directly after the Emeritus awards. When the staff photographer captures his smile, it will be as wide and kind as the day he first stood to congratulate a student in his new chancellor’s regalia. It will be the same smile in the graduation pictures of 10,000 TRU alumni.