Former Westmounter Noah Richler hits town for fascinating McGill lecture

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The author of What We Talk about When We Talk about War

Author and former Westmounter Noah Richler hits town this week to give the annual J.R. Mallory Lecture for the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC).

"The thing about Canada," says Richler, "is that our blessing is also our curse – we are endowed with plenty of space. At its best, it means plenty of room to reinvent ourselves and be free, at its worst it means we never have to meet each other, so most people in Canada will never even meet an Aboriginal person in their lives.”

“Well, (MISC Director) Will Straw and I shared the floor at an event in Montreal, and I was very taken with how he spoke,” says Richler.  “We chatted, and he invited me, in the wake of the publication of my last book, What We Talk about When We Talk about War, to speak at the Institute, and I’m completely pleased to do that.”

Richler’s lecture is titled, Landscape and Canadian Political Destiny: Does the Territory Even Matter? “What I’ll be talking about is the idea of place, and if we can draw from it robust connections, arguments to how we determine our relations between ourselves, and our domestic and foreign policy,” says Richler, on the phone from his Toronto home.  Richler currently divides his time between Toronto and Nova Scotia.

The author and public intellectual has devoted much of his career to pondering big questions facing Canada. “What I am trying to do, in all of my work, is to establish the idea of Canadian difference,” Richler says.  “What lessons do we draw from the territory?  To my mind, those include ones addressing one of the most important Canadian issues of the day, which is the nature of our relations with the aboriginal communities, and the nature of our pluralistic society.”

Richler has enjoyed a long and successful career as a writer and documentary filmmaker.  His first book, “This Is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada (McClelland & Stewart, 2006), won the 2007 British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, was nominated for the 2006 Nereus Writer’s Trust Non-Fiction Prize and, among many plaudits, chosen as one of Canada’s Top Ten Books of the Decade by Macleans.caWhat We Talk About When We Talk About War (Goose Lane Editions, 2012), was long-listed for the Charles Taylor Award, shortlisted for the Shaughnessy Cohen Award for Political Writing and a finalist for the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction.

Richler has also produced and hosted documentaries for BBC Radio, and written here in Canada for the CBC Radio Ideas series.  His work has also been featured in such publications as the Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, Walrus, and The National Post, of which he is a founding staff member. 

Richler’s lecture is titled, Landscape and Canadian Political Destiny: Does the Territory Even Matter?

Richler continues to follow the national issues of the day, and has plenty to say about the recent Idle No More movement, in which First Nations people rose up on the ground and through social media to protest the federal government’s recent omnibus budget bill, which Idle No More supporters said violated Native land treaties.

“I’d say that my talk points in that direction, and addresses that (movement),” says Richler.  “I think we should certainly be paying attention to it. I think that as the pattern of news, it was a flash in the pan, and people have now generally forgotten about it – that’s what happens all the time in Canada,” Richler says.  “It has to do with people’s attention spans, and a pretty jaded idea of what’s important.”

Richler also has plenty to say about the media coverage of Chief Theresa Spence’s hunger strike.  The First Nations Chief made headlines during the Idle No More movement by going on a six-week hunger strike near Parliament Hill to protest substandard living conditions on her Northern Ontario reserve of Attawapiskat. “The sometimes-venal mockery that Chief Theresa Spence was subjected to was at times shameful,” says Richler bluntly.

But Richler says there are solutions to be found.  “Rather than speak of assimilation, what I like to talk about is participation, and there are easy ways of doing that.” says Richler.  “The thing about Canada is that our blessing is also our curse – we are endowed with plenty of space.  At its best, it means plenty of room to reinvent ourselves and be free, at its worst it means we never have to meet each other, so most people in Canada will never even meet an Aboriginal person in their lives.”

Richler says he’s looking forward to his visit to Montreal.  “What I love about Montreal is that all sorts of ways of living your life are on display so it’s possible to make your mark in all sorts of ways,” he says.

Richler’s lecture starts at 5 pm, at the Birks Heritage Chapel (3520 University Street).  Admission is free, and a reception will follow the lecture.  As space is limited, registration is strongly encouraged.  Online registration is available at www.mcgill.ca/misc/events

Organizations: Trust Non, Goose Lane Editions, BBC Radio CBC Radio Ideas Globe and Mail National Post First Nations Birks Heritage Chapel

Geographic location: Canada, Montreal, Toronto Nova Scotia Nereus Writer Parliament Hill Northern Ontario Attawapiskat

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