Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

Voices of leadership: Frank McKenna, student leaders share lessons in John C. Friel XTalks to open Leaders Summit @X

January 26th, 2018
The Hon. Frank McKenna

Those wanting to make a difference in the world and in their own lives had only to be on the StFX campus Jan. 26 as four distinct voices of leadership rang strong and clear at the John C. Friel XTalks, kicking off the student focused Leaders Summit @X.

The Hon. Frank McKenna, back at alma mater for a fireside chat during the Friel XTalks, shared his views on leadership in an inspiring, funny, honest and wide-ranging conversation.

StFX student leaders Nicky Barona, Sam Gan and Annie Sirois also highlighted the event, sharing their own unique perspectives on leadership with the crowd as well as those tuning in online via

Those gathered heard powerful messages that ranged from the importance of stepping outside your comfort zone to learning leadership is within oneself to being aware of the inequity of opportunity.

“I just listened to three young people speaking at the Leader's Summit @stfxuniversity. Renews my faith in the future of our country,” tweeted Helen Hanratty.

“What stuck out the most is we have three extraordinary leaders coming out of this university,” Mr. McKenna, Deputy Chairman TD Bank, former New Brunswick premier and former Canadian ambassador to the United States, said as he opened the fireside chat, conducted by Xaverian Weekly co-editors-in-chief Claire Keenan and Ian Kemp, by commending all three students who spoke.

“I thought there was huge lessons from our speakers.”

Student speakers Nicky Barona (top photo), Sam Gan (middle) and Annie Sirois (bottom photo). 

The John C. Friel XTalks, now in its second year, kicked off the Leaders Summit @X, co-hosted by the StFX Students’ Union and StFX’s McKenna Centre for Leadership. The summit is a weekend devoted to enhancing leadership skills for a broad and diverse cohort of StFX students, Maple League of Universities students and select high school students.


During his talk, Mr. McKenna credited his time as a StFX student as being instrumental in honing his own leadership skills.

“My toughest leadership challenge was right here when I was Students’ Union president,” he said. “I never had more pressure.”

He recalled a seething cauldron of debate on campus, at a time of huge societal change, when a massive debate erupted about open residences. “And I got caught right in the middle, trying to figure out where my loyalty should be. It was intense,” he said.

“I learned a lot of lessons about leadership, take a stand, be gracious about it, and communicate it.”

That’s the thing about StFX, he said. It has a marvelous 150-plus year history of being a social catalyst, a place where people come to exchange ideas, and from this freewheeling debate, leaders often can make their best decisions.

“StFX’s got all the raw material here,” he said. It’s a liberal arts institution. It’s a residential institution, where students need to exchange with each other. It brings in inspired leaders and lively debates that only add to the raw material.

“I think that’s why we produce prime ministers and premiers…All of the right elements are here, uniquely here, in this proving ground for leadership. I think we should be uniquely proud how far above our weight the university has punched over the years.”

Responding to a series of questions, Mr. McKenna engaged in a conversation that touched on lessons he learned as Canadian ambassador to the United States to humanitarian efforts he’s been involved in Haiti.

He told the crowd he’s a firm believer in hard work and perseverance, and that opportunities are often found at the intersection of hard work and luck. He also encouraged young leaders to grow a thick skin against criticism, to chin up if they want to make transformative change.  

When asked about the biggest challenges faced today, he cited people willing to borrow money and sacrifice our air and water against their children and grandchildren’s future because they are too selfish and greedy to do the things they need to do. “We have to deal with the problems of our generation.”


StFX President Dr. Kent MacDonald, who brought opening remarks during the event, also took time to formally acknowledge the contributions of Senator Mary Coyle, the outgoing executive director of the Frank McKenna Centre for Leadership and former director of StFX’s Coady International Institute, now named to the Senate of Canada.

StFX President Dr. Kent MacDonald

“Tonight after 21 years, this is your last formal event (at StFX),” he said to Ms. Coyle. “Your impact has been deep,” he said, noting how Ms. Coyle has left her print on the soul of StFX. “We’re so proud of you.”

Sen. Mary Coyle

Student voices also highlighted the evening.

Ms. Barona, a fourth year entrepreneurship student from Ecuador, shared lessons from her own experiences, telling the crowd to think about opportunities they missed because they were afraid, and to step out of their comfort zone when they are afraid to do something and do it anyway.

“Life is short. Take risks. They are worth it,” she said as she encouraged all to motivate others with their unique leadership.

Mr. Gan, a fourth year entrepreneurship student from London, ON, talked about how it’s important to understand how leadership is a relationship with yourself. As someone long involved with sport, he spoke of how he always wanted to be a leader and to wear that captain or assistant designation, but how he’s learned, one doesn’t need to wear a letter to be a leader.

Regardless of the label, people can still be leaders, he said, citing an example of when he believed in himself, it brought opportunity like no other.

“I hope you all understand the power you have to enact change in the world around you. It’s in every single one of you, how you chose to enact that is up to you.”

Ms. Sirois, a fourth year honours political science student from Ottawa, ON, and president of the Students’ Union, spoke about privilege, drawing attention to the lack of equity that exists for all people. The tools for success were never out of her reach, she says, but that is not the case for all, especially those facing prejudices based on race, gender or sexuality.

“What can we do about it?” she asked.

“You have to recognize you have privilege and take that privilege and create opportunity for other people to succeed,” she adviced.

“Take a chance on people, people who don’t look like you, who don’t talk like you, who don’t think like you.”

The Leaders Summit continues Saturday with a full day for participants with motivational and informative talks, hands-on workshops and their own action planning and commitment declaration sessions.

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