Toronto came alive when 25,652 Rotarians descended in the city to network and celebrate friendship beyond borders at the 109th Rotary Convention. The event was the talk of the town and wherever you went, right from hiring a cab from the airport to a restaurant or in a train, you heard people say, “There is some Rotary event happening and people from various countries have come down to attend it. That’s why the rush…”
Even as I shuttled between the Air Canada Centre, the main venue for the plenary sessions, and the Metro Toronto Convention Centre a few blocks away, the venue for the breakout sessions and House of Friendship, I was never walking alone. There was always some Rotarian from another part of the world falling in step with me and starting a random conversation, either about his visit to India or sharing an amazing Rotary moment. RIPN Mark Maloney’s remark was bang on the mark: “Rotary lets you sit down next to a total stranger from the other side of the globe and call him by his first name.”
Toronto is second only to Chicago in the number of conventions hosted. This is the fifth Rotary convention to be hosted in this city, the first was 94 years ago, with subsequent conventions in 1942, 1964 and 1983.
The 2018 Convention began with a colourful flag march representing 178 countries, after which RI President Ian Riseley presented Norah Owori and her son with a posthumous Rotary International Award of Honour for the late RIPE Sam Owori. PRID Gordon R McInally was the Convention Chair and PRID Safak Alpay, the Vice Chair.
Riseley’s heartwarming speech summed up the year gone by and acknowledgements for the Rotarians who walked with him in his presidential journey. “I am an accountant, and we, accountants love a good balance sheet. But in Rotary, at the end of the year, we want to see not an account balance, but a world that is better than it was at the beginning of it — one that is healthier and happier, and, perhaps a bit more peaceful as well.”
Referring to the RI President’s office on the 18th floor in Evanston, he said that though the view from there was impressive, “the number of days I got to look at it were very few indeed. Most of this year Juliet and I spent not looking down upon the Rotary world, but looking it in the eye. We saw the difference that is being made by Rotarians around the world, every day — a difference multiplied and magnified by the 1.2 million members, serving in over 35,000 clubs, worldwide.”
Though planting trees is a long-established Rotary tradition, right from the days of Paul Harris, “this year, we planted trees not only for friendship, but to draw attention to the urgent need for Rotary to include the environment in its service activities. We should be paying more attention to protecting our planet, and ensuring its sustainable future,” he said, having visited 60 countries and planting 180 trees world over during his year.
“Our values define us,” he said, borrowing a line from an advertisement that he came across for a bank during one of his travels. “The Four-Way Test, Service above Self, our motto — those values must be defended, and preserved, by all Rotarians through whatever changes we may choose to embrace in Rotary. They are what makes Rotary special, and what makes us different.”
Striking a poignant note at the closing session, he thanked all the Rotarians for making his year meaningful. “It is striking how little significance each individual role has in Rotary. You can’t do a Rotary project alone, you can’t become a Rotarian alone, and it often seems that no decision in Rotary is ever made without a committee. We leverage our contributions to do more together than we ever could do alone, to make a difference and it is vital that we be the inspiration,” he concluded.
An inspiring talk
“Challenge yourselves to be the agents of change. Your enthusiasm should be contagious enough to bring in more Rotarians to Rotary,” said RI President Elect Barry Rassin in a passionate address which covered Rotary’s partnership with the Haitian government to provide water to every citizen of the water-starved nation. He described how his theme — Be the inspiration — can be acted upon to inspire Rotarians, non-Rotarians, Rotaractors and the younger generation. He stressed at leveraging the social media “to show, and not just tell, the world what we do and who we are, every time we help humanity.”
Rassin’s main focus is to build Rotaract “in a strategic way. We have 250,000 Rotaractors and 10,000 Rotaract clubs around the world. But only a tiny percentage of Rotaractors join a Rotary club. Only 27 per cent Rotary clubs sponsor Rotaract clubs. We need to double all these numbers.” Rotary needs younger members, younger leaders to stay strong. Rotaract is the vital force of Rotary. For the first time, a select few DRRs will have the opportunity to participate in the 2019 International Assembly, he announced, to huge applause.
Spelling out the new vision statement: Together we see a world where people unite and take action to create a lasting change — across the globe, in our communities, and in ourselves, he said, “That is Rotary, in one sentence. We are people of action, we are not thinkers or dreamers, we are doers. Our vision statement tells the world what our ultimate value is for the long term and helps Rotarians and non-Rotarians understand what our goal is when it comes to changing the world.”
He highlighted the importance of building sustainability in every project and initiative Rotary clubs and districts conduct. And urged every Rotarian attending the convention to “take home the inspiration you have gathered here, and awaken in the soul of every Rotarian a longing for a better world, making the future better for our children.”
For RIPN Maloney, Toronto holds great significance as it was his mother’s home city, and he attributed his “booming radio voice” to her, a radio actress with the CBC during her teenage years. In his acceptance speech, he stressed on the need for “people of all ages, not only to serve, but also to lead. We must have clubs and membership models that embrace today’s families, societies and expectations.” Calling for a greater involvement of Rotaractors, he said that Rotary’s first partnership will be with Rotaract.
RI General Secretary John Hewko shared his personal story of how his parents came as refugees to the US from Ukraine at the end of World War II.
“As a child, they would tell me stories of leaving everything behind and making the long and dangerous trek from western Ukraine, across war-torn Europe, to the refugee camps in southern Germany — and then to a new life in the US. In fact, it was my desire to give back to the country that welcomed my parents with open arms that motivated my interest in public service.”
The delegates were treated to a host of eminent speakers and world leaders discussing various aspects of Rotary’s six areas of focus. Haitian Prime Minister and Rotarian Jack Guy Lafontant announced the creation of HANWASH, a collaboration between Rotary and his government to tackle the nation’s water and sanitation challenges.
UK’s Princess Anne lauded Rotary for taking a central role in the eradication of polio.
Highlighting women power
Former first lady of the US Laura Bush stressed the significance of education in shaping a child’s life and placed great importance on women’s empowerment and economic independence. “Your work — to fight disease, provide clean water, support mothers, advance education and promote peace — makes a brighter future for our children and I am deeply grateful for your service,” she said, adding that there are so many needs to be met and so many ways we can all help.
A discussion between Riseley and Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and one of the architects of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, centred around gender equity and the crucial link between environment, poverty, hunger and peace. To a question by Riseley on how she felt about “smashing the glass ceiling” when she came into politics at a time when women in politics was a rarity, Helen said, “When I was elected to the Parliamentary Party in 1981, there were 92 MPs of which eight were women and people started saying that women are taking over!” This despite the fact that New Zealand was the first country where women fought for the right to vote 125 years ago. She concluded with conviction that the tenth Secretary-General of the UN will be a woman and she will support the strongest candidate.
Riseley presented Helen with the Rotary International Award of Honour in recognition of her commitment to inclusion, equality and work for a sustainable future.
Other speakers included Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyasus, Director General of WHO, Dr Caryl M Stern, President UNICEF-USA and Ann Gloag, Founder of the Freedom from Fistula Foundation.
The convention also celebrated Rotaract’s 50th anniversary and a panel discussion with Rotaractor-turned-Rotarians was moderated by RIDE Olayinka Hakeem Babalola, a past DRR.
The Rotary Alumni Global Service Award was presented by Riseley and TRF Trustee Chair Paul Netzel to John Caulfield, a career diplomat and an Ambassadorial Scholar sponsored by RC Moorestown, New Jersey, USA, in 1973–74.