Last week I attended the presentation of the Governor General’s Literary Awards. This ceremony, held at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, is an annual event that celebrates the best in Canadian literature. Administered by the Canada Council for the Arts, the GGLAs are Canada’s oldest and most prestigious literary awards. His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada presided over the evening’s events.
In his introductory remarks, David Johnston congratulated the authors, translators and illustrators who were being honoured for their hard work, imagination and talent. He said, “You entertain us, you enlighten us and you challenge us to expand our minds and our hearts. You make us cry, laugh and think. It’s amazing what a great book can do.”
Former Governor General Lord Tweedsmuir, aka John Buchan, inaugurated the GGLAs. Buchan was a Scot who served as Governor General of Canada from 1935 to 1940. The late 1930s were turbulent times. Our nation was challenged with an economic depression, the death and abdication of British kings, and the rise of Nazism. It was Buchan, in fact, who signed Canada’s entry into the Second World War.
John Buchan loved exploring the countryside and meeting the people. He was the first Governor General to tour all regions of Canada, including the north. And Buchan himself was a great writer. In his opening remarks at last week’s ceremony, David Johnston mentioned that Buchan penned 120 books in his lifetime – poetry, biographies, histories and fiction. And writing was not even his primary vocation! He is most famous for his suspense novel The Thirty-Nine Steps which was later adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into a movie.
It turns out that I am a distant relative of John Buchan. My great grandfather (also named John Buchan) was a third cousin to Lord Tweedsmuir. What makes me most proud of my GG ancestor is that he and his spouse Susan promoted Canadian culture and encouraged literacy. They gathered books from eastern Canada, for instance, and distributed them to needy communities in the west. And they established the first library at Rideau Hall.
In 1936, John Buchan had the foresight to establish the Governor General’s Literary Awards in order to promote Canadian literature. The Awards have gone on to support notable writers such as Gabrielle Roy, Marshall McLuhan, Marie-Claire Blais, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, André Brochu, Michael Ondaatje and many others. What a legacy! The GGLAs have helped literature become one of Canada’s core competencies and have nurtured the international literary reputation that we enjoy today.
Besides David Johnston, I think I was the only sci/techie in attendance at the ceremony. Everyone else that I met seemed to be a writer, actor, editor, or publisher. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the event. The ceremony was uplifting and I felt that I was in the presence of greatness. It was a thrill to meet author Madeleine Thien since I am currently reading her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Her book not only won the GGLA for English Fiction, but had earlier won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a finalist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. As we briefly chatted, Madeleine impressed me as a humble, insightful and wonderful human being.
Driving home, I reflected on the evening. The highlight for me was hearing from the laureates. Following the presentation of their awards, each of the 14 spoke eloquently, earnestly and fervently about their books. They all seemed to be using their writing to make the world a better place – to focus readers on a range of social issues from mental illness and violence against women to relations with Indigenous peoples and immigration. Heartwarming.
Somehow Canada needs to harness this remarkable talent, insight and goodwill for other purposes. My passion is human space exploration. I regard exploration as an important societal undertaking with boundless possibilities and ominous responsibilities. Accordingly, I’d sure like to gather the GGLA laureates around a dinner table sometime and get their opinions about the next human spaceflight endeavor beyond the International Space Station.
- Where should humanity go next?
- Why should we go?
- When should we go?
- Who should be part of the partnership?
The ‘how’ of space ventures is certainly challenging and best left to engineers and industrialists. I wouldn’t want Madeleine Thien, for example, telling me how to manage stowage aboard a spacecraft or how to plan a robotic trajectory for the Canadarm2. But I would like to hear from her and her fellow laureates how human exploration of space could potentially address issues facing 21st century humanity. And I would value her help to craft a compelling vision for the next international spaceflight endeavor … a vision that inspires all world citizens.
Anyway … I’m so glad that my Scottish relative had the foresight to establish the Governor General’s Literary Awards 80 years ago and that the Canada Council for the Arts continues his legacy. Lang may yer lum reek!