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

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

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.

Just Posted

Langley Mustangs high jumper Aiden Grout, seen here in McLeod Athletic Park in Langley in 2019, has just qualified for several top international competitions, including the Olympic trials. (Photo courtesy Vid Wadhwani)
VIDEO: With one jump, Langley Mustangs high jumper Aiden Grout has qualified for three international competitions

Maple Ridge resident records new personal best at McLeod Athletic Park in Langley

A local letter writer would appreciate if cyclists would think more about safety while riding in the area of River Road in North Langley. (Black Press Media files)
LETTER: North Langley route popular with cyclists but letter writer urges caution

A road user has concerns about some of the cycling habits she’s seeing in the area of River Road

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole spoke to members of the Greater Langley Chamber of Commerce via a Zoom chat with chamber CEO Colleen Clark on Friday, June 11. (Greater Langley Chamber of Commerce/Special to the Langley Advance Times)
Conservative leader talks tourism, trade, SkyTrain with Langley Chamber

The virtual fireside chat included talk about childcare and the budget

Deeba Mostafaie-Mehr, Setare Maleki Rizi, and Olivia Chen Xu from R.E. Mountain Secondary are recipients of three prestigious scholarships. (Langley School District/Special to Langley Advance Times)
Langley STEM students shine as recipients of prestigious scholarships

Three students from R.E. Mountain Secondary recognized

The new Langley Memorial Hospital emergency room opened for its first patients on Tuesday, May 4. (Government of B.C./Special to the Langley Advance Times)
LETTER: Aldergrove woman underwhelmed with new hospital ER

New ER is nice but needs adequate staffing, local woman writes

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Premier John Horgan speaks as provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, right, and health minister Adrian Dix look on during a press conference to update on the province’s fall pandemic preparedness plan during a press conference from the press theatre at Legislature in Victoria, Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. officials to provide details on Step 2 of COVID reopening plan Monday

Step 2 could allow for larger gatherings and a resumption of recreational travel

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
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

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: B.C. family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

Most Read