Canadian author Graeme Gibson, partner of Margaret Atwood, dies at age 85

Gibson remembered for putting his words into action for both cultural and environmental causes

For Canadian author and conservationist Graeme Gibson, the responsibilities of being a writer and citizen were much the same.

Gibson’s commitment to Canadian literature permeated nearly every aspect of his life — from his role in organizing the country’s writers, to his five-decades-long relationship with author Margaret Atwood.

In the wake of the 85-year-old’s death, Gibson is being remembered for putting his words into action for both cultural and environmental causes.

“He was a great moving force in the writing community,” said former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, a friend of Gibson and Atwood.

“They were a very wonderful couple because their interests coincided, they both loved nature. They both felt very much that Canada was a country that was unique and had a special feeling about it.”

Gibson died Wednesday at a hospital in London, U.K., said publisher Penguin Random House Canada

In a statement, his spouse Atwood said Gibson was suffering from dementia and feared further decline, and his family was grateful he had the “swift exit” he wanted.

“He had a lovely last few weeks, and he went out on a high, surrounded by love, friendship and appreciation,” said Atwood. “We are grateful for his wise, ethical, and committed life.”

Clarkson said Gibson suffered a severe stroke last Friday, so his children flew out to be at his bedside. ”They were all around him when he died, so that was wonderful and a blessing to us all.”

Gibson was in England accompanying Atwood to promote the release of “The Testaments,” her sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Several events on the book tour have been postponed, including appearances in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.

“He’d had a wonderful week because she presented her ‘Testaments,’ as you know, in (London’s National Theatre) to the world,” said Clarkson. “He had to leave, but he was 85 … and he had lived a wonderful life.”

Born in London, Ont., on Aug. 9, 1934, Gibson studied at the University of Western Ontario and later taught English at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Even early in his career, Gibson displayed an activist streak. In the early 1970s, he scaled a statue of Egerton Ryerson on the school’s campus, wrapping it in an American flag to protest the sale of Ryerson Press to a U.S. company.

Meanwhile, Gibson was making his mark with his modernist writing in his first two novels, 1969’s “Five Legs” and “Communion” two years later.

His style evolved in 1982’s “Perpetual Motion,” which explores the human desire to dominate the natural world. Eleven years later, he published “Gentleman Death,” centring on a writer confronting his own creativity and mortality.

In 1973, Gibson released a book of interviews, ”Eleven Canadian Novelists,” featuring such literary greats as Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Timothy Findley, Alice Munro and Mordecai Richler.

His passion for writing was evident not only on the page, but in his advocacy for writers’ freedom of expression, said PEN Canada president Richard Stursberg.

In addition to PEN Canada, Gibson co-founded several organizations to support Canadian writers, including Writers’ Trust of Canada and the Writers’ Union of Canada, which he chaired from 1974 to 1975.

“He was, without doubt, one of the most important and seminal figures in the emergence of English Canadian literature,” Stursberg said of Gibson, who occupied his role at PEN Canada from 1987 to 1989.

An avid birdwatcher and environmentalist, Gibson was a council member of World Wildlife Fund Canada and chairman of the Pelee Island Bird Observatory.

His two final works, 2005’s ”The Bedside Book of Birds” and the 2009 followup ”The Bedside Book of Beasts,” explore the relationship between humans and animals through stories, poems and illustrations.

Atwood was Gibson’s partner in many of these literary, nature-loving and activist pursuits.

Peter Raymont, who is co-directing a documentary about the couple, said Gibson and Atwood first met at a literary awards party at Grossman’s Tavern in Toronto.

According to Raymont, both writers thought the other should have won. And from there, a roughly 50-year relationship blossomed.

For the past several decades, the two shared a home in Toronto. They also spent several years on a farm in rural Ontario.

Even after Gibson was diagnosed with dementia, he travelled the world with Atwood, making her laugh even in his last months, said Raymont.

Gibson always brought out the “fun-loving side” of Atwood, Raymont said, and he sometimes caught the two of them “giggling together like teenagers.”

“We were really honoured to witness the love between them both,” he said. “It’s as if they were still at that pub at Grossman’s. You really, really felt that.”

Gibson is survived by Atwood and their daughter, Jess. Gibson also had two sons with Shirley Gibson, with whom he divorced in the early 1970s.

— with files from Victoria Ahearn and Cassandra Szklarski and Associated Press

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Voting now ready for Arts Alive 2020 sculptures

Audio and written descriptions posted for all 10 sculptures

Almost half of Canadian university students fear they cannot pay rising tuitions

COVID-19 also diminishing expectations for job market

Saanich’s autumn full-moon lantern celebration shifts to drive-thru

Harvest Moon event takes place Sept. 26 in Gordon Head

Oak Bay Police bring home a West Shore grad

Const. Jake Colwell brings ‘conflict resolution and communication skills’

Cook Street Village grocery icon closing, new owners plan major renovation

Louie family has operated Oxford Foods and predecessor for five decades at Cook and Oxford streets

B.C.’s top doctor thanks supporters after revealing threats over COVID-19 measures

Dr. Bonnie Henry says COVID-19 has caused some people to lash out in anger and frustration out of fear

POLL: Do you agree with the decision to call a provincial election for Oct. 24?

British Columbians will put their social distancing skills to the test when… Continue reading

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

97 distressed horses, cats and dogs seized from farm in Princeton

RCMP assisted as BC SPCA executed search warrant

NDP, Greens divided on pace of child care improvements in B.C. election campaign

NDP Leader John Horgan recommitted to $10-a-day child care and blamed the Greens for not supporting his efforts

Rare fish washes onto Whiffin Spit in Sooke

Deep water fish identified as ‘King-of-the-salmon’

BC Liberal Leader talks drug addiction in the Lower Mainland

Drug addiction and public safety a top priority says Andrew Wilkinson

Island Corridor Foundation launches survey on importance of Vancouver Island rail

“ICF remains 100 per cent committed to the restoration of full rail service on Vancouver Island”

Most Read