Dozens of young Manitobans are thanking Lloyd Axworthy for promoting post-secondary education for aboriginal students, after the former MP and University of Winnipeg president was named to the highest rank in the Order of Canada.

A thank-you ceremony was held for Axworthy over the noon hour Tuesday at the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre in Winnipeg's North End.

Lloyd Axworthy honoured for education programs in Winnipeg's North End2:13

The event was hosted by Point Douglas MLA Kevin Chief and about 30 young people who have benefited or are currently benefiting from Axworthy's education initiatives during his tenure as university president.

He retired from the university in 2014. Gov. Gen. David Johnston announced on Dec. 30 that Axworthy is being promoted within the Order of Canada from officer to companion.

Axworthy joins a select group of Winnipeggers named to the order's highest rank. Organizers of the event on Tuesday said he was the first person from the city's North End to receive that honour.

Lloyd Axworthy award

MLA Kevin Chief, left, presents Lloyd Axworthy with a certificate recognizing the former University of Winnipeg president. They are joined by Jessica Lavallee, a beneficiary of the Model School program. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

"No one in the history of Winnipeg's North End has ever been a companion to the Order of Canada," Chief told the audience at the event.

Johnston noted Axworthy for his "principled contributions to international human rights and for his leadership in post-secondary education, particularly in support of aboriginal students."

Young people representing several North End initiatives thanked Axworthy on Tuesday, including students from the following programs:

  • The Opportunity Fund, which offers fast-track bursaries and tuition credits to indigenous students and newcomers to Canada and students from the North End. It offers tuition waivers to youth leaving the child-welfare system.
  • The Eco-U summer camp, which has hosted about 6,000 children from 35 inner-city schools since 2007, making it the largest day camp for children in the North End.
  • The Science-Kids on Campus program, which brings elementary school students to the University of Winnipeg to learn about science and sustainability.
  • The Collegiate Model School, which offers high-school students opportunities to succeed at a university collegiate. Organizers say more than 60 students have graduated from the program since 2008, with most pursuing post-secondary education.

"He has an enormous reputation throughout the world. He connects with people all throughout the world; he's got a global reach … but even with all that, and he's been honoured many times for his work throughout the world, his biggest impact has always been in Winnipeg's North End," Chief said of Axworthy.

"He graduated from King Edward Elementary School, graduated from Isaac Newton, graduated from Sisler. His programs that he developed at the university worked in every single school in our neighbourhood. So not only does he connect everyone in the world, his biggest impact has been in the neighbourhood that has given him the most, and he's never forgot that."

Axworthy said being promoted to the highest rank within the Order of Canada came as a surprise to him.

"I was just basically a kid from the North End who [has] been able to benefit from the incredible support and companionship of all kinds of people growing up and in the work that I have been able to do," Axworthy said.

He added that he likes the title "companion" because "it's a recognition that to achieve things in today's world, you have to work with others and you have to be part of a team."

Other Order of Canada recipients are known to have ties to Winnipeg's North End. For example, TV game-show host Monty Hall was invested in the order in 1988. Sylvia Ostry, a public servant and expert on economic policy, was invested as a companion in 1991. More recently, musician Burton Cummings was invested as an officer in 2010.

The Governor General's website lists at least nine other Order of Canada companions based in Winnipeg: Dr. Henry Friesen, Stuart Garson, John MacAulay, Kathleen Richardson, Dufferin Roblin, Edward Schreyer, Lily Schreyer, Arnold Spohr and Dr. Paul Henrik Thorbjorn Thorlakson.