The Rhodes to glory

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McGill Reporter
December 13, 2001 - Volume 34 Number 07
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The Rhodes to glory

Kimberley Brownlee and François Tanguay-Renaud aren't your typical Rhodes Scholars.

Given that Brownlee is legally blind, some would think just getting through a degree at a demanding university like McGill would be accomplishment enough, never mind meeting the exacting standards for academic excellence, community service and athletic ability that the Rhodes, the world's most prestigious scholarship, calls for.

At first glance, Tanguay-Renaud, a stellar law student, is a likelier pick. Until you talk to him about it. How many Rhodes Scholars have seriously thought about turning it down?

Brownlee completed her studies at McGill earlier this year, receiving her BA in philosophy and political science in June. She is currently doing a master's degree at Cambridge University.

"I'm often asked to write letters for students for scholarships and awards," says Joan Wolforth, director of the Office for Students with Disabilities. "This one was a tremendous pleasure to write."

Writing letters of recommendation for Brownlee is old hat to Wolforth. Prior to receiving the Rhodes, Brownlee had already applied for, and received, an armful of student awards.

"Every year I would ask for a new copy of her cv and I would marvel at the whole set of new things listed on it. She is incredibly well-rounded. She also has a very strong social conscience."

Brownlee has a genetic disorder called oculocutaneous albinism which results in restricted vision, balance problems and a loss of muscle tone. She turned to Wolforth's office for some help in getting through her degree -- things like getting her exams in large print and being able to have some extra time in writing them.

"Joan was very supportive of me during my time at McGill," says Brownlee. "The services they have at Cambridge [for students with disabilities] are not as well regarded as what McGill has in place."

As for managing to get along with her condition, well, Brownlee does more than just manage. As Wolforth notes, strictly in terms of working around a sight problem, taking a degree in a book-heavy discipline like philosophy probably isn't the most logical thing to do.

Despite her visual impairment, Brownlee is a keen artist who contributed editorial cartoons to both the McGill Daily and the McGill Tribune. Despite her balance and muscle tone difficulties, she is an accomplished dancer -- good enough to have received a full scholarship offer from the National Ballet of Canada's school program. She recently tried out cliff jumping.

"It's an aspect of who I am, but it hasn't structured my life at all," says Brownlee of her condition. "My attitude has been to work around it, to move beyond it. I started taking ballet when I was three and when I experienced problems with balance or muscle tone, I would just work harder."

While at McGill, Brownlee served as the coordinator of Amnesty International McGill, organizing visits by speakers such as The Independent's Middle-East correspondent Robert Fisk, and overseeing a national conference held at McGill.

She helped organize Terry Fox runs, joined the McGill Debating Union, and sat on the executive committee for Alliance Quebec's youth division.

She performed and did choreography for the McGill Contemporary Dance Ensemble. She served on the Department of Philosophy's hiring committee and as the president of the McGill Philosophy Students' Association.

Brownlee was also the editor-in-chief of Philosophic Fragmets: The McGill Undergraduate Journal of Philosophy. Which got her thinking. Shouldn't there be a national journal for philosophy undergraduates? So she set about starting one -- Pensées: The Canadian Undergraduate Journal of Philosophy.

"She was the driving force behind that and she did a very good job putting it together," says Professor Philip Buckley, chair of the Department of Philosophy.

Philosophy professor James McGilvray taught Brownlee in several courses. He remembers being especially struck by how she interacted with other students during one particularly demanding seminar.

"When dealing with the views of other students, she always put them in the best possible light. She would think of the most intelligent interpretation of what was said and transform sometimes clumsy contributions from other students." While there is little doubt that Brownlee is ambitious and driven, she isn't the sort to make someone else look bad in order to make herself look good.

While she thoroughly enjoyed her time at McGill, Brownlee points to her experience at another school as the "most challenging, formative years of my life."

She spent two years doing an international baccalaureate diploma at Lester B. Pearson United World College. "There were 200 students from 80 countries," she recalls. Over the two-year period, her roommates included students from France, Japan, Albania and India.

"There wasn't a single belief or prejudice I had that wasn't challenged." The experience sparked a passion for finding ways to reconcile different cultural backgrounds and different ways of looking at the world within the context of a peaceful and culturally diverse society. It also fuelled a commitment to human rights work.

At Oxford, Brownlee will be focusing on philosophy again.

"I was torn between careers in philosophy or law. At one level, law seems to have a much more concrete impact on human rights. But in some sense, philosophy is where it all starts. That's where people assess their values. That's where we need to go for the ideas that underpin our cultural outlook."

Tanguay-Renaud says he had mixed feelings upon hearing that he had earned a Rhodes Scholarship. "All the prestige surrounding it makes me uncomfortable," Tanguay-Renaud says. "I feel that there are people out there who deserve this kind of opportunity who haven't had the same kind of privileges that I've enjoyed.

"I was able to take on extra-curricular activities and do the sorts of things [that impress Rhodes selection committees]. If a student has to work a lot of hours to put herself through school, or if they have a sick parent to help look after, that isn't an option for them."

Tanguay-Renaud says he even briefly thought about not accepting the scholarship. "But I realize this is an immense opportunity to go and get the tools that will ultimately allow me to have an effective impact on the things I want to address. Some of the best law professors in the world are at Oxford."

In deciding to go to Oxford, Tanguay-Renaud found himself having to choose between two once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. He had already been selected to serve as a Supreme Court of Canada clerk after his graduation next spring. "You can't have your cake and eat it too," he muses.

"He is a brilliant student and someone who is remarkably humble," says El Obaid El Obaid, a senior fellow at the Institute of Comparative Law.

El Obaid is the director of the Faculty of Law's human rights internship program, placing six particularly bright and committed students with human rights organizations in Canada or abroad each year.

Tanguay-Renaud took part in an internship with the Pakistan Commission of Human Rights. "Our Pakistani colleagues were very impressed with him," El Obaid says.

Maybe not initially, though. "When I first got there, I was asking, 'What can I do?' and some people were saying, 'Nothing. Your ancestors caused all this'" as Americans -- Québecois were apparently lumped in this category -- were blamed by some for everything from the widespread poverty to the rise of the Taliban.

"It took a long time to gain their confidence." It helped that Tanguay-Renaud wasn't content to just monitor working conditions in factories and write reports about the country's juvenile justice system (he did these too).

He also teamed up with some Pakistani restaurant owners and opened a soup kitchen in Lahore that provided 500 meals a day to the poor.

Closer to home, Tanguay-Renaud has been a legal assistant at the McGill Legal Information Clinic, the vice-president of external affairs for the McGill Law Students' Association, a legal resource person for the Park Extension CLSC and a campaign organizer for Amnesty International.

During his down time, Tanguay-Renaud studies judo (he has a brown belt), skis, sails and takes part in swing dancing.

He was part of a McGill team that earned second place at the prestigious Charles Rousseau International Mooting Competition held in The Hague earlier this year. He took top honours for best written factum at the tournament.

Tanguay-Renaud has also been part of several protest activities at McGill, criticizing what he sees as the increasing corporate influence over how the University is run.

As a result of his legal assistance work in Park Ex and elsewhere, Tanguay-Renaud says, "access to justice is an enormous problem." Poor people are often simply outgunned in legal disputes by opponents with deep pockets.

He says he doesn't see himself as the sort of person who will effect the dramatic changes in society that he believes are necessary for true equality. But he thinks he might be able to use his training to open the door for others whose voices aren't heard enough. "There are already enough white males out there taking up space in positions of power."

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