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Interview with Rector Denis Brière
October 7, 2011

[The following is taken from an interview with Dr. Denis Brière, rector of Université Laval, in Quebec, Canada, conducted by Masao Yokota, current advisor to the Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue. On May 4, 2010, Université Laval conferred an honorary doctorate in education on SGI President Daisaku Ikeda in Tokyo.]

Masao Yokota: May I ask about your overall impression of your visit to Soka University for the honorary doctorate conferral ceremony and also your exchange with SGI President Ikeda?

Rector Denis Brière

Denis Brière: It was really a privilege to be there. It was my first trip to Japan, and it was very impressive--the welcome we had at Soka and the welcome we had in Japan in general. Meeting Dr. Ikeda awakened my concerns about universities and their relationship with the environment, and about basic education. He spoke about this in some of his books. It’s important to be trained properly; but the university’s primary mission is educating students to be part of society. Engagement is very important.

The values Dr. Ikeda transmitted to us in his speech when he received his honorary doctorate and in my personal exchange with him really stressed the fact that we’re training and educating citizens of tomorrow. We need such openness and that very transversal type of training at the university. He shed great light on what we must do from now.

When we visited Soka Elementary School and Soka High School, I was very impressed by the way the young people cherish education. You can feel that it is a high priority for them. It is evident they are participating with joy, taking delight in being educated, and that they genuinely like the educational system. That is one of the strengths of Dr. Ikeda’s approach to education. You have the same pattern of education from elementary school, high school, and up to university. Students are attracted to such an approach because it gives them self--confidence and a way to develop themselves as citizens. It is focused on the individual, and students become better citizens as a result of developing themselves as persons. A natural consequence of their openness and confidence is that they will be happier personally and professionally.

These are the values Dr. Ikeda stressed that had an impact on me.

In his speech, I really appreciated his emphasis on the value of the family, especially mothers. I don’t know if he did that because my mother was still alive at the time, at 99 years old. But he made it clear that the family has the greatest impact on children continuing their education, and the most crucial role is that of the mother. It is known worldwide that the mother has a big influence. My mother had a big influence on me. In the family, it is usually the mother who encourages her children to pursue their education. The community and the environment may also provide encouragement, but the first stimulus of the strong urge for education is the family, and mainly the mother. So in his speech I was very touched by that.

Dr. Ikeda had two trees planted in Makiguchi Memorial Garden: one in honor of Université Laval and one in honor of my mother. My whole family now has that picture of the tree he planted for my mother. Therefore, if a member of my family ever visits Japan, they will definitely go to see that tree. My mother passed away in September 2010 at the age of 99. She was very much at peace. In the speech I made at the funeral, I spoke of that tree because it was something so special that reflects the values of Dr. Ikeda. We also appreciate the tree for Université Laval. But this one was very personal and I was really touched. I’m still emotional talking about it now.

Yokota: You spoke about your mother when you visited the Soka Schools. In response, Mr. Ikeda talked about your mother at the ceremony. Were you surprised?

Brière: Oh, very surprised.

In a ceremony like that, in front of almost 5,000 people and 3,000 people in another building, a total of 8,000 people, Dr. Ikeda chose to speak about my mother. I was really touched and I almost cried. I owe so much to my mother. It was a very nice gesture and on top of that, the tree. It means even more to me because I’m a forester.

Yokota: Each time that I’ve attended a Soka University graduation Mr. Ikeda has mentioned the importance of appreciation, especially appreciating one’s mother and father. He has also said that appreciation is the essence of education. What are your thoughts on that?

Brière: When you appreciate something, that value is integrated into your life. I think that is what he means when Dr. Ikeda says you should have appreciation. If you appreciate, it means you contribute to the value and you make it your own value. I felt that from the primary students and up at the Soka Schools. They appreciate education, which demonstrates their great sense of values.

And there was another question: whether there were some bad feelings in the community because we went to Japan to award the honorary doctorate, which was exceptional. We don’t usually do that. But no, I said very straightforwardly, we received no negative comments whatsoever. It was published in our university journal. Quite the contrary--people thought it was a nice gesture. There was no negative aspect at all in us going to Japan. It was a great pleasure for us, the way we were received, the cultural and educational exchange, and to meet Dr. Ikeda.

We have to be very straight here. The procedure to give an honorary doctorate degree involves the whole community. It is not my decision and it’s not the decision of the faculty, per se. They make proposals. They go through an independent committee. I’m not on that committee. They receive a recommendation and it then goes to the council. The council debates and there is a vote. This one was very well received. I’m allowed to say it was unanimous. I didn’t stress that enough when we gave the honorary doctorate degree to Dr. Ikeda. It’s really a community gift, it’s the highest degree of recognition that Université Laval can give to somebody. It was very well received and you can convey to Dr. Ikeda or his entourage that we were very pleased and Université Laval was honored, especially since it was his first doctorate degree from Canada. We were really honored to be the first one.

Dr. Ikeda is involved in so many international efforts for education, for peace, for building the human being. He is really a doer, someone who, when he believes in something, will make every effort possible to achieve it. That is why he is recognized. We don’t recognize people that only give speeches. Speaking doesn’t involve much sometimes. It just indicates that someone is good at speaking.

Yokota: How did your mother respond to having a tree planted for her?

Brière: She asked me, “Is that true?” I said, “Yes, look at the picture.” Because I’m a forest engineer, she asked, “Is it because you are a forest engineer?” I said, “No, no, no. I appreciate it, but it’s not because I’m a forest engineer. It is because of you. Mr. Ikeda made the gesture because of you, the importance of mother.” He really sympathized with me having a mother that age who did so much for me in her long life.

She said, “Oh my God, I’m immortalized in Japan!” I said, “That’s very true. That’s going to stay there forever.” She was very touched.

Yokota: What do trees, the forests, symbolize for you?

Brière: I think any plant and any life form has roots. As an individual, you’ve got roots--that’s your history, your culture, your environment. That’s the root. From there you grow, every year you grow, like a tree. Maybe a little less, when you get older, but you grow. So that’s the meaning of a tree for me. That’s why it was so significant to me. That’s the way I explained it to my mother. “Look at this tree that is going to be there forever. And it’s going to grow in your memory.” For me, being a forest engineer, it perhaps has a greater value. Look at continuity as a tree. It’s there. It stays there. It grows. It gets all its nutrients and it needs to grow. It does it naturally. In the time of drought, it sometimes grows a little bit better. That’s the way the foundation works; when you have trouble in your life, you have to go further to get your resources. That’s what a tree does. It goes further to get the resources it needs, to get the water and the nutrients. That’s the parallel between a tree and a human being.

By the way, Dr. Ikeda also gave me a book of photos he took. I always liked photography when I was young, but over the years I had put it aside. However, after seeing Mr. Ikeda’s photos, I’ve decided to take it up again. I bought new photography equipment and I’m taking courses. I was inspired by his book. I think photography is a nice way to project your values and what you believe in. I recently went to Resolute Bay in the Arctic to attend a conference. I thought about Dr. Ikeda. I took my camera and took some nice pictures. Every time now when I take a picture, I think of Dr. Ikeda. That’s one of the significant results of the trip.

The best conclusion I can give of my trip to Japan is that we all come out of experiences like that feeling we have become greater human beings.

Everyone we meet brings nourishment to us so we become a greater person. That’s what my wife gives me. I learn a lot from my wife. So we learn from every person we meet. That’s what makes life so interesting. The result is that we all become better persons, hopefully, as society grows, and as society develops.

Dr. Denis Brière is Rector of Université Laval, the oldest center of education in Canada and the first institution in North America to offer higher education in French. A graduate of Laval’s Faculty of Forestry and Geomatics, Dr. Brière went on to earn his PhD in forest management and economics from the University of British Colombia. He has worked in both private and public sectors and has been honored by the Order of Forest Engineers of Quebec for his contributions to forestry.