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Honorary degree citation - Michael Desbois Spencer

By: Catherine Wild, December 2005

Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you Michael Desbois Spencer.

In the foreword to Hollywood North: Creating the Canadian Motion Picture Industry, co-authored by today's honouree, the legendary Canadian actor Donald Sutherland writes: "The burgeoning Canadian film industry had to confront (Americans) in its struggle to exist. This is the story of that battle and it's a truly terrific tale. It was a fierce fight. I was mortally wounded at least three times and pronounced dead twice. Michael Spencer was at the heart of it all, undercover in the trenches, at the diplomatic level, everywhere." Precisely.

Michael Spencer est le grand incontournable du cinéma canadien et québécois. Il est permis de douter si nous pourrions parler aujourd'hui de cinéma d'ici sans son énorme contribution.

Né en Angleterre, le destin, sous forme de la deuxième guerre mondiale, a voulu qu'il change de pays et d'orientation de carrière suite à l'interruption de ses études. Il se trouve en vacances au Canada lorsque la guerre éclate en 1939. Après avoir fait quelques documentaires en tant que caméraman, alors qu'il est à l'emploi de John Grierson, directeur fondateur de l'Office national du film, il devient cinéaste de guerre. Il a aussi travaillé avec Budge Crawley de Crawley Films, à Ottawa.

Once the war was over, Captain Spencer joined the National Film Board as a producer, eventually becoming director of planning. This combination of creative and business experience was to serve him well for the rest of his career. In 1966, at the request of then Film Commissioner Guy Roberge, he worked on a plan for government support of Canadian film. When Judy Lamarsh, then Secretary of State, convinced cabinet to move ahead, Michael Spencer became the very first executive director of the Canadian Film Development Corporation, now known as Telefilm Canada. He was in charge of an initial investment of $10 million.

If you remember Don Shebib's Goin' Down the Road, Ted Kotcheff's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Ted Allen's Lies My Father Told Kamouraska, de Claude Jutras, Les Ordres de Michel Brault, La vraie nature de Bernadette de Gilles Carles ça vous dit quelque chose...these groundbreaking films, all clearly set in our country with homegrown talent, were made because Michael Spencer fostered them, fought for them and found the money to make them.

The $10 million Michael Spencer was given to manage in 1967 was the seed. Today, the Canadian film and television industry is a $3 billion business employing tens of thousands of Canadians. More importantly, seeing ourselves and our stories reflected and projected in the most powerful mass medium of our time has helped us remember who we are, and keep on reinventing ourselves.

Au Québec, le taux de succès des films et émissions de chez nous dépasse ce qui se fait presque partout ailleurs. C'est notre identité même qui en est renforcée. Parlez de Michael Spencer à n'importe qui dans l'industrie, et vous verrez la reconnaissance, le respect et l'affection qu'on lui accorde.

After the end of his career in the public service, he moved on to the private sector, but always at the service of creativity, always to help make it financially viable. He remains Chairman Emeritus of Film Finances Canada, a completion bonding company which ensures that many productions make it to the finishing line.

Michael Spencer is a world traveller, a person of great curiosity and sensitivity. If you know him, you may have seen him writing on little bits of paper that he carries in his pocket. Often, avid ornithologist that he is, he will be noting the weather conditions, the place and the bird he is observing. Later, he will transfer these observations into a journal that he has kept all his life and will form the basis of a book: "The Accidental Birdwatcher" which he hopes to publish soon. Once, in the late 1970s, he and his wife Maqbool shipped their Mercedes 240 to Europe and drove it all the way to India, her country of origin.

Michael Spencer is a true original, and a great Canadian.

Mr. Chancellor, on behalf of the Senate and the Board of Governors, it is my privilege and an honour to present to you Michael Desbois Spencer, so that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws honoris causa.

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