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clockwise from top left: David Matas, Dr. Martin Yaffe, Harry Nelken, Marsha Hanen

June is traditionally the time of year for endings and transitions. It is when universities award honorary degrees (along with graduate and post-graduate degrees, of course) and others are recognized by their peers for outstanding achievement in their fields.

And, as usual at this time of year, current and former members of our Jewish community are among the honourees.
The list of honourees this year is led by Dr. Marsha Hanen. On Friday, June 15, the University of Winnipeg – in conjunction with convocation - recognized its former president with the unveiling of a plaque and a reception for relatives (including this writer) and former colleagues. In addition, the Spence Street pedestrian mall (between Ellice and Portage) – which is part of the University of Winnipeg campus – has been renamed Marsha Hanen Way.
Born and raised in Calgary, the daughter of the late Ben and Rowena Pearlman served as president of the U of W from 1989 to 1999. She was the first woman to serve as the University’s president and only the second woman to serve as a university president in Canada.
A graduate (Ph.D. Philosophy) of Brandeis University and a member of the Order of Canada, Hanen played a prominent role in the growth of the U. of W. It was during her tenure that the University of Winnipeg Act was signed, a Bachelor of Education program was established and the Bulman Student Centre and Eckhardt-Gramatte Hall were opened.
She also played an instrumental role in having Spence Street between Ellice and Portage closed to traffic and in the acquisition of the former Salvation Army Citadel on Balmoral, which was transformed into the university’s Department of Theatre and Film.
And, although she has lived in Victoria these past many years, she has maintained an ongoing relationship with the university. Her post-presidential contributions to the university include the Marsha Hanen Global Ethics and Dialogue Fund and the Marsha Hanen Award for Excellence in Creating Community Awareness.
While, in her remarks at the reception, she spoke about the great strides that women have made in society and the road still ahead, she noted that she always viewed her role as president as encompassing all students – male and female.
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The University of Manitoba also honoured a former Winnipegger this year at convocation. On May 24, the Max Rady College of Medicine bestowed an honorary Doctor of Science (honoris causa) on alumnus Dr. Martin Yaffe, a pioneer in the development of digital mammography and other diagnostic screening techniques for breast cancer.
This was Yaffe’s first honorary degree.
“I was delighted to have been recognized by my alma mater,” says the Toronto-based researcher. “I earned my B.Sc. and M.Sc here (at the U. of M.)
“The late 1960s and early 1970s were an exciting time” he says of the period in which he was a student at the university.
Yaffe was inspired to pursue Medical Biophysics by Dr. Harold Johns, the individual who developed Cobalt 60 therapy to treat cancer.
“Dr. Johns came to Winnipeg to give a lecture while I was studying at the University of Manitoba,” Yaffe recalled in an earlier interview. “A few of us guys were asked to take him out for dinner. We went to The Spaghetti Factory. We had an animated and interesting discussion. That, combined with his lecture, inspired me to want to pursue cancer research. Dr. Johns took me on as a student and proved to be a wonderful mentor.”
Yaffe earned his Ph.D at the University of Toronto in Medical Biophysics.
Yaffe has specialized in developing methods for earlier detection of breast cancer. “Early on, I felt that detection of breast cancer could be improved,” he recalled in that earlier interview. “I had some ideas for adapting for medical imaging the new computers and technology that were being developed. I refined the technology and got support from industry and now that medical imaging technology is being used all over the world.
“We are working hard to try to persuade the people who develop healthcare policies how important it is to detect breast cancer early,” he says. “We believe that government can do a lot more to encourage screening for breast cancer.”
Yaffe was inducted into the Order of Canada three years ago.
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At 74, internationally-known human rights campaigner David Matas is showing no sign of slowing down. In a typical week in mid-June, Matas had stops in Hong Kong and Washington, DC to continue to raise awareness of the plight of the Falun Gong in China. On between, he stopped off in Edmonton – on June 12 - to receive an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from the University of Alberta in recognition of his lifelong devotion to the defense of human rights worldwide
Over the years, Matas notes, he has received numerous honours, including he Governor-General’s Confederation Medal, appointment to the Order of Canada, the 2009 Human Rights Award from the German-based International Society for Human Rights, with the Mahatma Gandhi Peace Award last year and a nomination for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. But this was only the second time that a university has bestowed on him an honorary degree.
Matas’s commitment to human rights, he once told this writer, was motivated by the lessons of the Holocaust. While Matas ( who also finds time to practice immigration law in Winnipeg) is best known in recent years for his championing of the cause of the Falun Gong movement in China (working together with former Member of Parliament David Kilgour).  He was active in the campaigns against apartheid in South Africa and human rights abuses in the former Soviet Union. He is also a leading defender of Israel.
Matas observes of his most recent honour that the recognition from the University of Alberta adds to his credibility as a human rights campaigner and presented him with an opportunity to speak to the graduating students at convocation about the importance of human rights.
“Human rights is a subject that should unite us all, no matter how specialized we get,” he told the students. “Human rights violations are a spreading stain. Unless we stop them before they get to us, we will become victims. If we wait for that, it will be too late. We must exercise human solidarity when there is still enough of us who are not victimized for that solidarity to matter.
“When crimes against humanity are committed, we are all victims. We must combat human rights violations wherever and whenever they occur.”
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Also receiving an award (not in academia though) this past June was local acting veteran Harry Nelken.
On June 11, Nelken and fellow actor Frank Adamson were made Life Members of ACTRA (the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists )at ACTRA Manitoba’s annual AGM at the Radisson Hotel.
“It was awesome,” Nelken says of the honour.
Two years ago, the popular actor was recognized by his peers for his achievements when he was presented with the Vic Cowie Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Performing Arts.
Over the past 40-plus years, Harry Nelken has built up a solid resumé within Canada’s theatrical community. Among the highlights of Nelken’s storied career were roles as “Josef” in “Butcher” (PTE), “Levine” in “Glengarry Glen Ross” (MTC), “Shylock” in “Merchant of Venice” (Shakespeare in the Ruins), “Stem” in “Eureka” and “Miguel de Unamuno” in “All or Nothing” (Winnipeg Fringe Festival). He also appeared in Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s inaugural production of “Today I am a Fountain Pen”.
More recently, he has been focusing more on film than theatre. “While the theatre is still my first love,” he notes, “I have been concentrating mainly on auditioning mainly for movies and television series being filmed in and around Winnipeg. I have auditioned for roles in 15 films in the last four months.”
Recent appearances have included a Christmas movie starring Pat Richardson of “Home Improvement” fame and a sci-fi production called “Nicola Tesla and the End of the World”.
One of the benefits of being older, observes the 71-year-old, is that he no longer has to deal with the “intimidation factor”. “If I lose a role, I just move on to the next one,” he says. “You play the hand you are dealt.
“I still feel that I have a lot to learn and a lot more to contribute – especially to film. It’s a matter of the right role and the right director.”

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