Presentation of the Governor General’s Literary Awards
Rideau Hall, Thursday, November 24, 2011
My wife, Sharon, and I are delighted to join you for this celebration of Canadian literature.
It is a great privilege to be in the company of so many outstanding literary talents, and to welcome a number of previous governors general and their spouses back to Rideau Hall for this very special event.
Given the occasion, I would like to begin with a story.
It was the height of summer, 1937. My predecessor, Lord Tweedsmuir—better known to the world as John Buchan, bestselling author and founding patron of these awards along with his wife, Lady Tweedsmuir—was travelling by steamship down the Mackenzie River. Accompanied by a small party of journalists, photographers and staff, he was making the first ever vice-regal visit to the Arctic.
Buchan, you may know, was a prolific writer, and at that time—when his duties as governor general allowed it—he was busy at work on a biography of the Roman emperor Augustus.
Now, if there’s one thing a person has quite a lot of while steamboating down the Mackenzie River, it’s time. And Buchan wasn’t one to waste an opportunity.
As photographer Margaret Bourke-White of Life magazine observed:
“He spent the greater part of the day at the stern of the boat, an excellent place to write undisturbed. A long narrow table had been contrived for him with a couple of planks, and there he sat with the fluttering little white paper markers of his index all over the place. Our cargo almost swallowed him up. His spare form was all but lost in the midst of the pig crates, the cage of chickens, the tractor, the assortment of agricultural implements which surrounded him.”
Save perhaps for the steamboat, the chickens and the pig crates, I think that each winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award can relate to this story—to Buchan’s relentless compulsion to write.
Tonight, we shine a spotlight on you, our leading writers, translators and illustrators, and honour your dedication to the written word, which has given us such remarkable books in the past year.
This ceremony is even more special as it marks the 75th anniversary of the Governor General’s Literary Awards, which have done so much to support and encourage the writers and artists of this country.
Today, Canada is known around the world for the quality of its literature, and these awards have played an important, nurturing role.
Looking over the catalogue of classics that have preceded yours, I am once again amazed at the literary talent of Canadians. And in fact, we are privileged to have with us this evening a number of laureates from previous years.
Many who won these awards did so at the outset of their careers, with even greater things to come.
Let me pause for a moment to ask, “Why does Canadian literature matter to us?” Of the need for poetry native to this young country, John Buchan once said: “Canada must make her own music,” and he felt similarly about other kinds of writing. What did he—and many others since—find so necessary about a distinctly Canadian tradition?
For an answer we need only look at the role stories play in our lives. As Thomas King succinctly put it, “The truth about stories is that’s all we are.”
Literature is more than a simple reflection or interpretation of reality; in a very true sense, words and the ideas they form shape our identity and our actions, thus creating our future.
Each of you knows the weight of words. By harnessing them to your imagination and your curiosity, you take us to remarkable places. You entertain and enlighten us, and you enlarge our understanding by giving us a fuller, more vivid picture of our humanity and of the world in which we live.
I am passionate about storytelling of all kinds, as my grandchildren could tell you. They call me “Grampa Book,” and not without just cause. I am now on my second reading of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, this time with our eight grandchildren, having already read them five times with our five daughters.
I always have a book at hand—often more than one. I am constantly sharing books, stories and quotations, and I am interested in the way that great literature can act as a lens through which we can view our lives and our changing world.
Many of the award-winning books from the past 75 years reflect the growth and evolution of Canadian society, and literature continues to demonstrate our deepening engagement with the world.
In fact, I just returned from a State visit to Vietnam, where I was joined by Kim Thúy, last year’s laureate in the French-language fiction category.
Ms. Thúy fled Vietnam when she was just 10 years old, and through incredible hard work and determination, she has achieved great success as a novelist here in Canada. She is a wonderful ambassador for this country, and we can learn much about life in Vietnam and in Canada through her unique perspective.
The works that you have created are now part of an extraordinary library of Canadian literature.
After this ceremony, I invite everyone to visit the new exhibition that we are opening tonight in the Ambassador’s Room, celebrating the more than 600 works that have received the Governor General’s Literary Award since 1936.
Every one of these books is part of this exhibit, thanks to the efforts of my predecessor, the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, and her husband, John Ralston Saul, who, during their time at Rideau Hall, made a point of tracking down a copy of each award-winning volume that was missing from our library, with the support of former Rideau Hall librarian, Maurie Barrett.
In addition, it is interesting to note that John Ralston Saul is the only laureate of a governor general’s literary award to have lived in this house.
I also want to single out one book in particular for your attention: Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel, winner of the 2004 award for children’s literature. People of all ages love this book, including Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk—who loves it so much that he brought our copy with him on his 2009 expedition to the International Space Station!
We are delighted to have Dr. Thirsk here with us tonight, not least because he also happens to be—in one of those remarkable coincidences that is truly stranger than fiction—a distant relative of John Buchan.
If we didn’t know better, we could be forgiven for wondering whether Buchan had low Earth orbit in mind in 1937 when he said: “All good literature seeks escape, escape from the dust of the trivial, the partisan, the transient, to a clearer air and a wider landscape.”
Indeed, that is the mark of great books everywhere—even in outer space.
Before I close, let us return our attention to this year’s laureates, who have created such great works of art. Your creativity and hard work are an inspiration to us all, and I congratulate you and your publishers on this achievement.
On behalf of all Canadians, I offer my sincere thanks—to all recipients of this award, past and present, to the former governors general and their spouses who have lent their support to the literary arts, and to the Canada Council for its dedication to fostering excellence in this country.