Heather Margaret Robertson, LL.D., May 27, 1998


Heather Margaret Robertson

B.A.(Hons.)(Man.); M.A.(Columbia, New York)

Among the things rightly claimed for liberal education is encouragment of the capacity to think critically and to challenge conventional assumptions. In the person of Heather Robertson is found the embodiment of such capacities, though she needed little such encouragement, having developed an independent mind long before she graduated from the University of Manitoba in 1963, or before she proceeded, on a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, to do an M.A. at Columbia University in 1964.

As a student at the University of Manitoba, indeed, she served as Editor of The Manitoban and presided over the liveliest, most controversial student newspaper in the country. As Editor, she broke a long-standing convention and endorsed a party in the mock parliament elections: uproar ensued. She questioned the prevailing orthodoxy on the need for a football team: she was denounced by sportscasters in the daily papers and on radio. In her most recent book, Writing From Life: A Guide for Writing True Stories, she observes that writing is a provocative act and that writing true stories, which involves people with their own lives and points of view, is to invite often strong disagreement. She writes:

I have been hanged and burned in effigy. I have been sued for libel. I have been called a Nazi and accused of racism, hysteria, and neurosis. I have made enemies, and lost friends. In my first book, I unwittingly offended my mother...

So stimulated was she by the reactions to strongly expressed opinions that she concluded, early on, that writing and not the classroom was to be her life. She worked as a reporter and drama and television critic for the Winnipeg Tribune, as a public affairs radio producer for CBC, and over the years contributed to numerous Canadian periodicals, including Saturday Night, Toronto Life, Chatelaine, Maclean's and Canadian Forum.

By her late twenties she had written her first book, Reservations Are for Indians. A book about Aboriginals, by a woman who was not one, it combined audacity with insight. This was followed by Grass Roots and Salt of the Earth which looked, with sympathy but without sentimentality, at rural and small-town life: their lack of sentimentality, not surprisingly, was controversial. These were followed by A Terrible Beauty The Art of Canada at War and a predictably unconventional book on the notorious Ken Leishman, appropriately titled The Flying Bandit.

These highly diverse works of non-fiction were followed in the 1980s by a fictional trilogy, Willie: a Romance, Lily: a Rhapsody in Red, and Igor: a Novel of Intrigue. In these novels, Heather Robertson discovered, embellished - or created - the hitherto unknown excitement in the life of the Rt. Hon. William Lyon Mackenzie King. These were audacious works, challenging both conventional forms of the novel and conventional views of Willie King. The first volume of the trilogy won, for Ms Robertson, the Books in Canada First Novel prize for 1983, the first of a number of writing awards she was to receive.

Later books included More Than A Rose: Prime Ministers, Wives and Other Women. This book - which appeared before the advent of Kim Campbell - was an extended examination of the wives and other women in the lives of Canada's Prime Ministers. Not only did it break new ground in disclosing unknown or little known facts about its subjects, it chronicled the transformation of the roles and expectations of prime ministerial spouses. On the Hill: A People’s Guide to Canada’s Parliament offered sometimes irreverent, but not inaccurate, perspectives on all one would wish to know of the arcane ways of parliament; and Driving Force: the McLaughlin Family and the Age of the Car provided an account of Canadian - and hence, little-known - involvement in the automobile age.

Heather Robertson's career as a writer now spans thirty years. Her writings have been characterised by meticulous research, high intelligence, passion, flair; and by an irresistible urge to puncture the pretentious. She has typically taken the road less travelled and her writings have introduced her compatriots to many less known or less well understood aspects of Canadian life. Her career has been an extended contribution to public discourse. For this, and the honour she brings the University, we honour her today.