You’ve probably heard of Dominic Giroux. Last April, he became the ninth president of Laurentian University. At 34, Giroux is the youngest university president in Canada—the youngest ever, in fact.
Giroux has always been something of a prodigy. His “bio” on the university website shows a remarkably swift ascent along his career path in public education.
He was only 19 when he was first elected to an Ottawa school board. He’s been on the way up ever since, routinely rubbing shoulders as an equal with people 10, 15, even 20 years older than himself. Now he’s president of a university. Will a young man who has accomplished so much be ponderous and self-important?
The Dominic Giroux who rushes out of the president’s office to greet me when I arrive for our 1:30 pm meeting seems much too open and enthusiastic to ever fall into pomposity. His words are warm and welcoming, his handclasp firm and friendly, and he ushers me into his comfortable space (it’s obviously a working office) as he would an old friend he hasn’t seen for a very long time. I like him. How could I not?
We chat a bit, and then get down to business. I mention his impressive CV and wonder how he’s managed to accomplish all that he has (after all, he only graduated high school 15 years ago!).
He tells me that when he was first elected to the school board, he already had 10 years experience “as both an observer and a participant,” in public advocacy work related to education.
“I was quite young,” he explains, “when I discovered the value of speaking up, and speaking to the right people.” Just eight years old, in fact, when, as a “frequent user,” he publicly expressed his unhappiness about the absence of a bike rack at the Ottawa public library. Another library patron, who happened also to be a city councillor, admired the kid’s spunk and took up his cause. Three weeks later, a bike rack was installed in front of the library.
That was Giroux’s introduction to the power of words and a cause that is just. As young as he was, he started attending city council meetings, observing and learning, getting to know people. When he discovered causes more immediately relevant to his daily life as a kid, he started going to school board meetings, too. Always in a hurry, he graduated high school one day in June, and in October he was on the school board. A couple of years later he was board chair, taking on provincial and national roles.
At the same time, he was busy earning a bachelor’s degree in social sciences and another in education, both from the University of Ottawa. He also holds an MBA from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC) in Montreal. Before coming to Sudbury, he was assistant deputy minister (ADM) with the Ontario Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.
Impressive credentials. Still, I must bring this up. “Some people say you are just too young to be a university president.”
The president has sense of humour. “I’m working hard to fix that,” he says. “On a daily basis.”
What motivates him. “I have always been passionate about education. And passionate also about the sustainable development of the francophone community.”
These two things, he explains, have been the focus of his work and community involvement for the past 18 years. More recently, he developed a third passion – aboriginal education, and as ADM led in the creation of a provincial Aboriginal Education Office. It all seems a perfect fit with Laurentian’s bilingual, tri-cultural mandate.
He is very animated as he talks about this, almost boyish in his enthusiasm. He’s enthusiastic about Sudbury too. He and his wife, Barbara Breault, who is also an educator, were both happy to come here, not despite the fact but because it was Sudbury. It was on their list of four cities where they could live happily.
“Sudbury is a vibrant, bilingual, and child-friendly city. While I was with the ministry, I used to come here at least every month so I already had many friends, and we quickly made more once we were living here. In our view, Sudbury has way more to offer than other cities of similar size.
“Barbara is a northern girl,” he tells me, “born and raised in New Liskeard. She is also a Laurentian graduate and she’s excited about being back in Sudbury because she so thoroughly enjoyed her time at Laurentian. Our son Simon, who’s in senior kindergarten, is already talking about being a student at Laurentian.”
The couple met at an educational conference while working for the same school board. She was principal of a school in Borden. He was the board’s senior executive responsible for all non-academic functions. They met again at other conferences. He found her “delightful and charming.” They started seeing each other seriously in 2001. He received his MBA in 2002, and promptly proposed. They were married in 2003. True to form, he was 27, she was 34.
Barbara and Dominic have two children: Simon is six, and Amélie is three. Before moving here, to mitigate their concerns for after having just moved to a new home in Toronto, they told the children all about the “pink castle on the hill,” where they would be living. To make the move as smooth as possible, they decorated the children’s bedrooms at the “castle” in the very same way they had been decorated in their Toronto home. The children love the historic old house, says Dominic. There is a lot of space to play hide and seek.
The kids also love going to Science North and having “Mickey Mouse pancakes” on weekends at Gloria’s Restaurant on Regent St. Simon learned how to skate when he was three and Amélie is learning this winter. In the summer, they enjoy their swimming lessons at the YMCA.
If Dominic Giroux and Barbara Breault love Sudbury, they also love their jobs. He says Barbara looks forward to going back to work as a school principal when Amélie starts junior kindergarten in the fall.
As for himself, he too is thinking ahead, anticipating the “buzz” during the fall and winter sessions at Laurentian, meeting with many students, potential applicants, parents, and secondary school principals. So much activity.
“It’s what makes the job fun.” he says.
Our meeting ends with me feeling as though I’ve made a new friend. Dominic Giroux seems to be knowledgeable, intelligent, open, honest, friendly, focused, passionate, and possessed of all the other stellar qualities Laurentian needs in a president during this 50th anniversary year, and beyond.
Yet, in the back of my mind, a tiny little part of me still wonders if this bigger than life guy is the real stuff or a charming lightweight.
As I’m leaving, I stop at the desk of Diane Massicotte, assistant to the president (and to several before him), and ask what sort of person her boss is. She smiles like a proud auntie, and says, “What you see is what you get.” I believe her. Looks like interesting times ahead for Laurentian University.
Benita Hart, a retired CBC broadcast journalist, is a Sudbury writer.