Colette Bourgonje knew from a very young age that she wanted to be an athlete. At recess time in elementary school she would be the first one out the door to play soccer, or whatever other sports were offered. By the time she reached her teens she was a national-level cross-country runner. In her final year of high school in 1980, a car accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. What followed, she says with understatement, was a bit of a transitioning period. Suddenly she was not only entering university, but doing so using a wheelchair. She began studies for a Bachelor of Science in Physical Education at the University of Saskatchewan that fall. She was the first person to graduate from the Physical Education program in a wheelchair when she received her degree in 1984. She received her B.Ed. from the U of S the following year.

While attending university Bourgonje acquired a racing wheelchair, competing in her first 10 kilometer race in 1984 with more than 200 other runners. She placed around 80th in that race, but within three years she could say that if another competitor beat her, she hadn’t had a good race.

Beginning in 1992 Bourgonje competed in three summer and seven winter Paralympic Games, at first in wheelchair athletics and then in sit-skiing, winning ten Paralympic medals. From 2000 on she focused on sit-skiing because it was a great workout, fun, similar to cross-country running, and she wanted to be on the podium. The two silver medals she received at Nagano and the silver at Vancouver are particularly significant to her; the medals at Nagano because they were her first in Nordic events, and the one at Vancouver because it was the first Canadian Paralympic medal won on home turf. At the closing ceremony in Vancouver she received an achievement award - a pure gold medal - recognizing her determination to overcome adversity through sport. Among the many amazing opportunities that sport has opened up for her, Bourgonje says competing during Canada’s first Paralympic Games in our countries history, and winning the first medal was a significant moment in her racing career.

In 2011 Bourgonje was named Sask Sport Female Athlete of the Year. She was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2019, the Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2019, and into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame in 2021. She is an advocate for physical activity and participation in sport, promoting the Riki Walkathon for the Saskatchewan Abilities Council, and being an ambassador for the In Motion program. Bourgonje lives outside of Prince Albert, working as a substitute teacher at Muskoday School and coaching young athletes who are training for cross country skiing. She shares her experience and knowledge through speaking engagements with the International Indigenous Speakers Bureau and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, and is involved in the online “Never Give Up” series with the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame.

Receiving an honorary degree from the University of Regina is “certainly a surprise and honour,” Bourgonje says. “Accepting this great honour will give me the chance to congratulate the graduates and send a message of hope for the future.”

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What do former Prime Minister Lester Bowles Pearson, actor John R. Vernon (dean Wormer in the frat house comedy Animal House), singer Buffy Sainte-Marie and hockey great Gordie Howe have in common? They have all been bestowed the highest honour the University can confer - an honorary degree. This Spring's recipients include a decorated paralympian, an environmental and transgendered advocate and Saskatchewan's Chief Medical Officer who steered us through a pandemic.

Colette Bourgonje                                                         Brigette Baptiste Ballera                                                                 Dr. Saqib Shahab

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From any perspective and by any measure Dr. Brigitte Baptiste-Ballera has led a remarkable life and achieved singular success in her culturally conservative home country, Colombia, and beyond. In 2019, she was appointed president of EAN University, the first transgender woman to become president of a university in South America. This school of business administration, located in Bogotá, offers programs to 11,000 students in business administration, economics, finance, engineering and languages at the undergraduate and graduate level. The university's objective is to produce the next generation of economists, entrepreneurs and engineers with the knowledge and skills for the development of sustainable economies.

Before assuming this role Baptiste-Ballera was for 15 years director of the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Research on Biological Resources, transforming it from a marginal to a nationally and internationally recognized organization that serves as a key consultant for governments on land use, mining, conservation and the protection of endangered species and biodiversity. During her tenure, the von Humboldt Institute published several beautifully illustrated books that show the beauty, uniqueness and diversity of Colombia's flora and fauna, articulating her views the connections between nature's diversity and cultural diversity.

"We humans have evolved and succeeded as a species within the ecological networks (in which) we live," she says. "We are still animals, organic beings, fully colonized in our guts by micro-organisms that keep going in and out, connecting us with the land. We continuously modify those ecological networks, since the living communities that sustain us also change to adapt to our activities. Cultural diversity is the expression of the multiple ways we keep creating (in order) to experience and assess the ever changing dialogue with other living beings."

Baptiste-Ballera is also a public intellectual, advocating for environmental conservation and speaking out as a transgendered voice for the rights of sexual and other minorities. She writes columns in Colombian newspapers and in other media on topics such as ecology, queer ecology, land rights, land use, peasants, women and indigenous peoples. Her arguments are based on her expertise in these areas and her rigorous reliance on science, and presented in a manner to encourage dialogue and reflection. She has developed a reputation as a debunker of bad science, and for making science cool and fun for her audiences. She has served on several panels and boards focused on environmental issues and sustainability, and is a Past Chair of the Science and Policy Advisory Committee of the Inter-American Institute for Global Change.

Baptiste-Ballera was a keynote speaker at Congress 2018, a conference on the humanities and social sciences hosted by the University of Regina. She describes receiving an honourary degree from the U or R as a great and amazing surprise, since that conference was her only visit to the campus. "It also means," she continues, "an opportunity to create stronger bonds with Colombia and its many communities, both native or emerging, in a country in urgent need of healing the many wounds created by the idea of nature as a separate entity from society."

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