For students looking for inspiration, there’s arguably no academic leader more inspiring than Benoit-Antoine Bacon, president and vice-chancellor of Carleton University.
Bacon, 48, leads an active and healthy lifestyle these days, but there was a time when he turned to alcohol, drugs and suicidal ideation to escape the depression that plagued him, after growing up in a highly dysfunctional and abusive household in Quebec.
That he managed to make peace with his past, turn things around for himself and become head of such an innovative institution is a compelling comeback story. That he’s been so open and honest in sharing his experience is a courageous example of leading from the front.
Bacon is one of five individuals being honoured with an Inspiration Award during The Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health virtual event taking place Thursday, March 4. TD Bank is back as presenting sponsor.
Bacon is being recognized in the Transformational Leader category.
“It’s incredibly touching,” Bacon said in an interview. “The most touching part is that people in the community here – faculty, staff, students, admin, a board member – got together and put in an application. People that know me, that heard me speak, that saw my decisions on a day-to-day basis, got together and, by the time they told me, had a full application ready.”
Bacon started his five-year mandate in July 2018 as the 15th president of Carleton University, a post-secondary institution of 32,000 students located at the scenic junctions of the Rideau River and Rideau Canal. Carleton was founded in 1942 to meet the needs of veterans returning from the Second World War.
PhD in neuropsychology
Bacon was previously provost and vice-principal (academic) at Queen’s University and held prior leadership roles at Concordia University and Bishop’s University. He earned his PhD in neuropsychology from the University of Montreal.
When Bacon was first interviewed for the job of presidency at Carleton, he disclosed details of his former struggles with depression and substance use, and spoke of his childhood trauma. He’d been living a life of total sobriety for five years at that point. The hiring panel not only called him back for a second interview but the university offered him the job.
Here was a leader who had no interest in pantomiming his way through life.
At the time of Bacon's appointment, health-care leader Dr. Chris Carruthers had been chair of the board of governors, succeeded by well-known pollster Nik Nanos.
Bacon was also candid about his journey of healing during his installation ceremony held Nov. 10, 2018. He addressed an audience of 3,000 people, most of whom were graduating students and their families. A trio of Indigenous elders and leaders presented him with the honoured gift of an eagle feather, which he keeps with him at his office.
It’s Bacon’s strong belief that the truth will set you free.
“It demands a certain sense of hope, that the truth will be accepted and received for what it is, and that maybe the consequences of doing that will be better than the strategic consequences of trying to predict what you should be saying,” said Bacon.
“You’ve got to surrender; you’ve got to let go of that control and say what’s important to me is to say things that are true and things that I believe in and things that I feel, and we’ll see what happens.”
Bacon was motivated to talk about his own past after hearing Clara Hughes, one of the greatest athletes in Canadian history, speak in person some seven years ago about her struggles with depression.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, is she really saying this out loud?’” said Bacon, who wasn’t used to hearing public discussions around mental illness. “You grow up so strongly conditioned not to speak about this, and then Clara Hughes starts down this road and, the next thing you know, you’re crying in the crowd. It stayed with me for a long time.”
Bacon first started using drugs and alcohol as a teenager, developing bad patterns that would take him more than 25 years to end completely. Substance use offered him temporary relief, a kind of easy solution from the hurt, anger and shame caused by a childhood defined by his father “fighting his own demons.”
Bacon’s healing didn’t happen overnight, nor even within a year or two. It’s been an ongoing journey, he says.
In 2003, he welcomed his daughter into the world. She became his “biggest motivation to try to do better.” He slowly acquired healthier habits and took on leadership roles in academia that he calls “integral” to the journey of healing. He also spent 18 months in therapy with a mental health professional. He feels, in hindsight, he should have sought help sooner.
“You go through a series of transformations that bring you further and further away from where you came from and from how you were, into being in a different place with a different set of people and a different set of circumstances.”
The Inspiration Award recognizes Bacon’s efforts to open up mental health conversations and provide leadership at Carleton University. His steady hand at the helm and continued communication around caring for one’s mental health have given him the reputation of a very inspirational and well-respected president.
"For the students, in particular, it just wouldn’t feel right knowing that they struggle and not letting them know that I’ve been there."
“For the students, in particular, it just wouldn’t feel right knowing that they struggle and not letting them know that I’ve been there,” said Bacon, who makes a point of replying to every thank-you card, email and phone message that he receives in response to his conversations about mental health.
It’s important to Bacon that he let others know they’re not alone. He encourages others to speak openly and to seek help. He lets them know recovery is a journey.
“I wouldn’t want people to get the impression that there’s magic and suddenly you’re healed. It’s ongoing, but it’s always possible.”
When sharing his story, Bacon keeps in his thoughts those individuals who have faced trauma far worse than anything he’s had to deal with. In some cases, their stories have ended tragically.
Carleton has taken “a flexible and compassionate approach” from the get-go of the pandemic, said Bacon.
“You’ve got to recognize that these are not normal circumstances, as opposed to saying ‘sink or swim.’”
He said the university was in a good position, from a mental health perspective, heading into the COVID-19 crisis, due to strategies it had put in place over the last 10-plus years.
'Purpose gives meaning to an individual life'
During his 2018 installation address, Benoit spoke about his core values of resilience, purpose and gratitude and how they align, not coincidentally, with the values held by Carleton University and its desire to contribute to the greater good of society through higher education.
“Resilience allows us to stand tall, to come up with ways to take on the challenges of life and to come out stronger and wiser on the other side,” Bacon told his audience, speaking at the podium in his presidency robe. “Purpose gives meaning to an individual life.”
Resilience and purpose together can lead to gratitude, said Bacon. “Higher education ... that’s my life. It’s given me resilience. It’s given me purpose. It’s given me everything – much more than I can give back – and I’m so grateful.”
Before he closed his first address as the school’s new president, Bacon took a moment to thank a few people. With a glance and quick hand gesture up toward the ceiling, he acknowledged his late parents right off the top.
“Thank you,” he said with such lump-in-your-throat-inducing earnestness that his audience couldn’t help but interrupt with applause of support.
This year, organizers are encouraging individual ticket sales for the The Royal's Virtual Inspiration Awards. Each ticket is $125 and comes with a $100 tax receipt, a link to the event and the option to purchase a $25 gift certificate to a selection of Ottawa restaurants in order to support local during the COVID-19 pandemic.
2021 Inspiration Award Recipients
- Benoit-Antoine Bacon, Transformational Leader Award
- Charlotte Smith, Personal Inspiration Award
- Jennifer Phillips, PhD, Young Researcher Inspiration Award
- Michael Dixon, Community Inspiration Award
- Samantha Nadon, youth category Inspiration Award