Margaret W. Laurence, LL.D., May 27, 1986
Margaret W. Laurence

I have the honour to present Dr. Margaret W. Laurence, B.A., University of Manitoba, (United College).

Dr. Laurence a native of Manitoba and a graduate of United College (then an affiliated college of the University of Manitoba and now the University of Winnipeg), has distinguished herself as one of Canada's most accomplished writers. Beginning in 1960 with This Side Jordan, she has written fourteen books, the most famous being the novels set in rural Manitoba, the Manawaka series. Each of these books - The Stone Angel (1964), A Jest of God (1966), The Fire Dwellers (1969), A Bird in the House (1970), The Diviners (1974) - has enhanced that world and brought to us an acute sense of life on the prairies. Among an impressive list, the first in the series, The Stone Angel, and the last of the Manawaka books, The Diviners, have been particularly distinguished in the intensity of their perceptions, the richness of their language, and the depth of their compassion.

Dr. Laurence began writing as a young girl, Margaret Wemyss, in Neepawa, and had the good fortune of a literary stepmother and an excellent teacher, who soon recognized her qualities and encouraged her. Years later, as a winner of a Governor-General's Medal, she enrolled in English at United College, where she found further inspiration and support. What she learned from the outset has marked her writing since: an exacting eye for details, and a profoundly moving sense of human dignity. She, like the prairie novelist Sinclair Ross, who greatly affected her, has a gift of expressing understated emotions and of endowing her characters with qualities that bring them into our lives. More than any other writer she has been able to express the intense need of those who do not easily speak of such things but who long to shed their reticence. There is a moving scene in The Stone Angel when Marvin, son of Hagar Shipley, who tells the story, hangs on the door wanting her blessing:

When Marvin came to say good-bye, it only struck me then how young he was, still awkward, still with the sun-burned neck of a farm boy. I didn’t know what to say to him. I wanted to beg him to look after himself, to be careful, as one warns children against snowdrfts or thin ice or the hooves of horses, feeling the flimsy words may act as some kind of charm against disaster. I wanted all at once to hold him tightly, plead with him, against all reason and reality, not to go. But I did not want to embarrass both of us.
"Mother --"
"Yes?" And then I realized I was waiting with a kind of anxious hope for what he would say, waiting for him to make himself known to me.
But he was never a quick thinker, Marvin. Words would not come to his bidding, and so the moment eluded us both. He turned and put his hand on the doorknob.
"Well, so long," he said. "I'll be seeing you."

The list of Dr. Laurence's honours would take some time to review, and can only be summarized briefly here. She has received thirteen honorary degrees from distinguished universities across Canada since the first award at her alma mater in 1966. She has been accorded the Beta Sigma Phi First Novel Award; Companion, the Order of Canada; the Molson Award; Woman of the Year Award from B'Nai B'rith; City of Toronto Award of Merit; and twice the Governor-General's Award for fiction - for A Jest of God and for The Diviners. There have been many other signs of recognition. Dr. Laurence has been interviewed frequently and cited widely; she has appeared often across Canada to give readings and talks; her work is studied at universities in Canada and elsewhere; she has been the subject of dozens of books, articles, and special issues of scholarly journals, and of at least one film, First Lady of Manawaka.

It is especially fitting that Dr. Laurence should receive from the University of Manitoba the first Doctor of Laws ever awarded to a writer. Her life and work have taken her away from the prairies to the Somaliland and the Gold Coast, to Vancouver and London, and for the past sixteen years, to Ontario, where she writes, participates in social and political causes, and serves as Chancellor of Trent University. But her travels have never taken her spiritually out of the prairies. She writes of our world with a passion and a poignancy that astonishes. But she works, always, out of her deep concern for people everywhere. As a writer she has shown the way for Canadian literature. As a citizen — generous, humble in ways that can only silence us, aware, committed to making a world of decency and fairness and richness for all people - she has shown the way to live in full humanity. That abiding humanity informs her own writing, enlarging our lives and inviting us to be what we are and what in our best selves we want to be. In the rightness of her words, the reach of her vision, the power of her caring, we surely are gifted. For she, surely, is one of our diviners.

Madam Chancellor, I am deeply privileged and honoured to ask, on behalf of the Senate at the University of Manitoba, that you confer on Margaret Laurence, the degree of Doctor of Law, honoris causa.