Stephen Lewis accepted an honorary degree at Nova Scotia's Mount Saint Vincent University in May, adding to his collection of more than 30 such recognitions.
“I hang them in my office. Very colourful,” he laughs from his Toronto home.
It’s an odd twist of fate for a man who dropped out of college twice in the 1970s before embarking on a political career in Ontario that ultimately stalled.
“I got in at 25 and out at 40. I recommend that highly to any aspiring politician,” he jokes.
As the founder of the anti-HIV/AIDS Stephen Lewis Foundation, the one-time UN diplomat who rubs shoulders with former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and rock star Bono could probably collect as many degrees as he’d like.
He chose to accept the MSVU degree and to deliver a stirring, sometimes disturbing speech about AIDS in Africa at the convocation, because of the school’s deep and historic commitment to women’s education. His foundation directs much of the $10 million it raises yearly to women in Africa. “They don’t abuse funds. There’s not a worry about funds disappearing,” he says. “That’s been our experience.”
Even odder for a former NDP provincial party leader, he credits Brian Mulroney with starting the extraordinary post-politics career that has seen Lewis named Maclean’s magazine’s Canadian of the Year and Knight Commander of the Most Dignified Order of Moshoeshoe in Lesotho, southern Africa.
Mulroney appointed Lewis as Canada’s ambassador to the UN in 1984. Working in the complex but powerful arena of international efforts like the response to the Ethiopian draught, he knew he’d found his calling.
After that, he worked for UNICEF before being asked to be special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa in 2001.
“Between 2000 and 2006 was really the nightmare period for Africa, where the carnage was most extreme and one spent one’s life watching people die and visiting graveyards,” he says. “It was a horrific narrative of death.”