RIP Robin Mathews (1931 – 2023)
May 24th, 2023
Robin Mathews, born in Smithers on Nov. 1, 1931 and raised in Powell River, graduated from UBC and worked as a producer for CBC Vancouver. “We have the privilege to grow up almost in wilderness,” he said, “and we have the privilege to be distant from the centres of power. These combine to give us a kind of innocence. The genuine multi-culturalism of British Columbia teaches us at the earliest age that we are just people. It’s the most beautiful place in the world!”
Mathews taught at Carleton University for 18 years before returning to teach at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Canadian Studies. He was also in Paris as a young academic in 1968 when the streets erupted with student-led protests and a national strike. He collected more than 70 posters and 100 handbills from the turmoil. “Nearly ten million went on strike,” he recalled 30 years later. “At one point there was a march in the streets of Paris of a million people.” By comparison, Mathews noted that the Canadian public had been docile about the management of their economy and culture. Mathews believed that “studying the narrow selection of great literary works largely from the two empires, Britain and the States, denies examination of our real selves.” An ardent nationalist, he was an outspoken critic of Free Trade and privatization. He also argued for the destruction of liberalism in the 1970s as a precondition for creating a unique Canadian identity.
Robin Mathews’ books such as The Struggle for Canadian Universities (co-edited with Jim Steele) and Canadian Literature: Surrender or Revolution (literary criticism) drew the ire of some academics and writers for alleged anti-Americanism. These titles were followed by Canadian Identity: Major Forces Shaping the Life of a People (Steel Rail, 1988) and Treason of the Intellectuals (Voyageur, 1995).
“The general, agreed-upon reality in North America,” he told BC BookWorld, “is a middle-class reality and it defines the human condition in our time. But it is a narrow, blind view. My work calls into question the complacency of this reality, and that is why there are those who are disturbed by the reality my work represents.” Particularly disturbed was the American-born UBC English professor Warren Tallman who conducted a public feud with Mathews for many years.
Mathews also wrote poetry and published his work in books that include Language of Fire, The Beginning of Wisdom and The Death of Socialism and Other Poems (Voyageur, 1995). His collection of short stories is Blood Ties. In 2000, he published another poetry book, Being Canadian in Dirty Imperialist Times (Vancouver: Northland $15.95), followed by his eleventh volume of poetry, Think Freedom (Northland Publications, 2004).
“We have few good political poets in Canada,” wrote reviewer Ron Dart in the Pacific Rim Review of Books, “and Think Freedom ably demonstrates why Mathews is our best at the present time.”
Robin Mathews died of pancreatic cancer on April 25, 2023, at his home in Vancouver at the age of 91.
Robin Mathews – Canadian Icon
by Ron Dart
I’m not saying Robin Mathews is yet nearly as good as he’s going to be. But he’s so far ahead of the ruck, right now, that if he wanted to look back at them, he’d have to use binoculars. –Milton Acorn, introduction to Language of Fire: Poems of Love and Struggle (Steel Rail, 1976)
“To Ron Dart, In Praise of the Red, yes Red and even on occasion, High Tory Tradition.” — Marya Fiamengo’s inscription to Ron Dart’s copy of her book, Visible Living: Poems Selected and New (Ronsdale, 2006)
I have spent many enjoyable hours with Robin Mathews, received a library of letters from him, and I’m in possession of many of his photographs. We often spoke of his friendship with Milton Acorn. I did many a trip with Robin and his wife Esther to be with Marya Fiamengo (another ardent nationalist) in Gibsons in her late and fading autumn years; her soul ever intense and animated as her body weakened and failed. Our conversations travelled far and wide on Canadian nationalism, Canadian literature, education, politics, religion and much else. It was a generous gift of sorts to hear about the close yet often trying relationship of Robin and Marya with Milton Acorn, and the deep respect Robin had for Marya’s life and her early journey, fully immersed in BC artistic life.
I was, in the mid-late 1990s, somewhat frustrated by the fact that many a Canadian writer was fawned upon, biographies written, many a commentary and scholarly article published, yet rare was the serious or substantive book on the varied and layered life and publications of Robin Mathews. I met often with Robin in those years (he was most generous with his time, attention, phone calls and letters) and, in the process, took an informal course in Canadian Literature, education and politics. My primer on Robin, Robin Mathews: Crown Prince of Canadian Poets (Synaxis Press, 2002) was a suggestive and hasty overview of Robin’s literary, educational and political activism. Needless to say, a fuller, deeper and more comprehensive biography is a Canadian cultural imperative.
Robin dared to challenge the Canadian heavyweights such as Northrop Frye, Margaret Atwood (she wrote a blistering article in which she turns on Robin), West Coast anarchist doyen of sorts, George Woodcock, who refused to publish Robin’s literary-political writings in Canadian Literature, and other American anarchists and their Canadian acolytes. I summed up the nationalist-anarchist clash in Canada in my article, “West Coast Literary-Political Clashes: 1960-1985” in Making Waves: Reading BC and Pacific Northwest Literatures (Anvil, 2010). The article covers the obvious differences in thought, activism and literature between the nationalism of Milton Acorn, Robin Mathews, and Marya Fiamengo versus George Woodcock, Gerry Zaslove, Warren Tallman, and the TISH tribe.
Robin and Esther Mathews have been definitely and decidedly front and centre in most of the larger literary & cultural, and political & educational battles of the latter half of the 20th century and well into the 21st century. The fact that Robin has been marginalized, caricatured and vilified, often, by the literary establishment speaks much about an ideological clan that brooks little opposition and questioning. But, to Robin’s credit, he persisted in his vision of a view of Canada that had much to commend it but was often sidelined by those who either fawned over American anarchist models or else a sort of indulgent bourgeois back scratching.
A couple of years ago I had an extended lunch with Sandra Djwa at her home and we chatted about her unfolding memoir (should be a beauty once it’s published) and her years at SFU and the literary culture wars there in which Robin was front and centre. I got the full tale of Robin’s return to BC and his controversial rejection by the Literature Department at SFU – many of whom were from the United States and didn’t take kindly to Robin’s pro-Canada, anti-Americanism. (How Robin was finally welcomed into SFU’s Canadian Studies program is a potential book or essay that I welcome.)
Robin kindly wrote a “Preface” to my Red Tory Tradition: Ancient Roots, New Routes (Synaxis, 1999) and a book of poetry, Busking (Synaxis, 2003). It was this Red-High Tory tradition that Marya alluded to in her “inscription” to me in Visible Living, and such a Red-High Tory Tradition has many an affinity with the Nationalist-Socialism that was so central to Robin. I had written a variety of books on the significant Canadian political philosopher, George Grant, and Robin, true to controversial form and commitment, took umbrage with Grant—such was Robin’s meticulous and feisty ways.
The publication of must-read classics of Robin such as The Struggle for Canadian Universities (with James Steele) in 1969 and Canadian Literature: Surrender or Revolution in 1978 do need to be read together with his prolific poetic output, beginning with The Plink Savoir in 1962 and reaching a poetic-political manifesto of sorts with Being Canadian in Dirty Imperialist Times in 2000. The comprehensive tome, The Canadian Intellectual Tradition (1990) and Treason of the Intellectuals: English Canada in the Post-Modern Period (1995) are razor sharp beauties that call forth many a challenging read. The plays and dramas of Robin judiciously walk the reader into the heart and soul of the contested Canadian journey. The Canadianization Movement: Emergence, Survival and Success (2004) by Jeffrey Cormier gives many a generous nod to Robin and his colleagues in the trenches, and struggles for a mature and historic Canadian voice just as Robert Williams timely MA at University of Northern British Columbia, Robin Mathews and the Canadian Dialectic (2009) is worthy of multiple engaging reads.
The personal and the political do often exquisitely intermingle and are woven together in Robin’s poetry, just as the generous hospitality of the Mathews home has been a haven for many people. Discussions in their home salon (ever animated and intense, with ample food and drinks provided) in the Commercial area made for an educational centre. The poignant and telling DVD by Sabrina Mathews on Robin “Bicycling as Truth” is worth many views; visual and text brought together in a revealing and evocative manner. The final few months of Robin’s life, a tender and evocative poem, read by him with paintings replete, Into the Forest, is a must-hear for those nearing the inevitable end.
There can be no doubt Robin Mathews has contributed more than most to a recovery of a Canadian nationalist vision and he has both known the immense opposition to his work but also support from those who see what and why he attempted such work. The fact that Robin has never been offered many of the main literary awards in Canada speaks much about a timid and hesitant Canadian elite that marginalize and mute those who nudge them to greater depth and integrity. Robin is very much a Canadian icon and like Horatio, in Hamlet, I conclude with “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet Prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” And, perhaps fittingly, a quote from Horace used by Robertson Davies in his informative “Introduction” to Stephen Leacock: Selected and Introduced by Robertson Davies (1981), Non omnis moriar (Robin having many a literary-educational-political affinity with Stephen Leacock).
Ron Dart is an associate professor in the department of political studies at the University of the Fraser Valley.
by Robert Williams
It was the Spring of 2003. I was in the midst of a summer move back up to Haida Gwaii, but noticed an intriguing course listed on the University College of the Fraser Valley’s calendar for the upcoming spring/summer semester: Political Science 320: Canadian Political Thought. Thinking it would be a long-shot, I reached out to the course instructor, Ron Dart, to see if it would be possible for me to take POSC 320 via distance education rather than physically attend class. Much to my surprise, he agreed, stating that I would have to write a “review” of each text used in the course, one of which was Robin Mathews’ The Canadian Intellectual Tradition: A Modern People and its Community (2002). Thus began my introduction to a man who would influence my early academic career and, indeed, become a friend.
As I read through The Canadian Intellectual Tradition, a couple of things caught my attention: 1) The concept of “dialectic;” and, 2) conceptions of Canadian identity. Up until that point, I hadn’t thought much about the latter but Mathews’ overview of the subject certainly got my brain percolating. As I shifted into a joint English and Political Science degree at the University of Northern BC (autumn 2003), Mathews’ ideas certainly influenced my readings of Canadian literary texts – so much so that I ended up doing a “Directed Studies” course under Dr. Linda MacKinley-Hay, in 2005, broadly titled the “Canadian Literary Tradition.” The course sought to “touch on some of the key issues that define, in a literary sense, the Canadian identity” while concomitantly demonstrating how our literature “has evolved over the course of time and why we [. . .] have often responded to important issues in ways significantly different from our neighbour to the south.” In short, the course was a primer and warm-up for my MA thesis on Mathews.
What I sought to do in my thesis was twofold: 1) Shine a brighter light on the literary and cultural texts of Robin Mathews; and, 2) Disarm negative connotations associated with the term “nationalism.” I wished to do the former because after reading the corpus of Mathews, it became abundantly clear to me that he offered something unique to the ongoing debates about Canadian identity, nationhood and culture. From The Struggle for Canadian Universities (1969) to The Call to Freedom (2012), Mathews espoused an attractive philosophy – dialectic – that did not presuppose a single, unifying narrative; rather, his texts, when taken together, illustrated how “identity” is not static, but constantly evolving and inclusive. In a way, this also highlighted why I felt it was important to “disarm” the negative connotations associated with “nationalism.”
Nowadays when one thinks of “nationalism” thoughts immediately shift to exclusivity, racism and abusive ideologies. Donald Trump, in his role as the US President, did much to magnify this view through thought and deed. Nationalism has been given an ugly name, which is unfortunate because it relegates any discourse on the matter to the outer fringes not to be taken seriously. But then, this isn’t entirely new. Robin Mathews and James Steele faced such criticisms in the 1960s and 1970s during the “Canadianization Movement” and, even after I started writing my MA thesis in 2005, some on my “thesis committee” admitted they weren’t friendly towards discussions on the subject. As such, any discussion of Mathews inevitably (and unfortunately) takes place on the margins. My thesis, flawed as it was, tried to articulate Mathews’ brand of nationalism exactly because it operated within a moral framework based upon a dialogue and healthy tension between opposites. These shared moments of discord, noted Mathews, clarified and strengthened his notion of dialectic in Canada: “The concept of shared intellectual traditions implies shared moments of tension and conflict: an argument conducted from two sides of a community is still shared experience” (Intellectual 243). Mathews saw, only too clearly, that we are diverse and eschew simple categorization.
To say executing my MA thesis was a challenge in university politics would be an understatement. Significant revisions were done in a fairly short time to satisfy critiques that came primarily from the external examiner and then there was a lot of waiting. Robin, ever generous with his time, sympathized for me. In an email dated 17 June 2008, he remarked: “I feel awful that I am a large part of the reason you are being hammered and there is nothing I can do to stop it” but, he said, “The rest, of course, is predictable in an ugly way.” Here Mathews was referring to the administrative climate in most universities where responses to his brand of thinking was usually met with a “cold fist.” Nevertheless, as things progressed and the thesis neared its final (heavily edited) form, Mathews grew ever optimistic while also displaying his keen sense of humour: “I’ll be saying incantations and such to make the right things happen.”
After the MA thesis was signed off at the end of January 2009, Robin and I remained in touch. We had our first face-to-face meeting on 10 December 2009 at his home in Vancouver. Professor Dart from the University of the Fraser Valley was also present and we had a full and rich discussion about the thesis, politics and potential next steps. Just two days later, on 12 December, Robin and I met at the now demolished Empire Landmark Hotel’s revolving restaurant for dinner. This meeting was particularly memorable because Robin, with his sharp sense of humour, made me laugh right out of the gate. Unbeknownst to me, Mathews – 78 at the time – walked from his home all the way to the Empire Landmark while I, at 26, took a taxi from my hotel, which was on the same street as the Empire Landmark. Upon seeing me arrive at the lobby, Mathews stood up from his chair: “Ah, you’ve arrived! You took a taxi? LAZY!” (said with a sly grin and his signature laugh). Our meal, 22 stories above the “folly and madness of modern civilization,” wasn’t bad, either!
Our final in-person meeting came in October 2013 at Gastown for lunch. After this, we kept in touch via email, but only sporadically. Our final communication occurred in March 2022 and we talked about life in a pandemic, The Struggle for Canadian Universities (1969), and his battles with SFU following a professor exchange in the 1990s. I had hoped to meet with Robin again – to mark 10 years since our last meeting – and was about to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), but decided to see if he’d written any new articles lately. That’s when I learned Robin Mathews passed away in April of this year following a brief illness. The news saddened me, but encouraged reflection on Mathews and his legacy.
While Robin Mathews has often been depicted as an extremist anti-American nationalist, those characterizations are strawmen and downplay the far more significant role he’s played in literary, cultural and political debates over the decades. In fact, I would argue that Mathews’ philosophy is, in many ways, a precursor to the various acts of decolonization we encounter today. His struggles with university administrators in the 1960s, and his call for a revolution in Canadian literature in the 1970s, are cautionary tales. Will we move beyond the surface and engage in a sincere re-evaluation of ourselves and core (hidden) assumptions? Only time will tell.
Robin Mathews continued to write regularly at least into 2020, albeit on small internet blogs. On Canada Day 2019, he asked: “What is to celebrate about a sickness in Canadian Society that is more than 150 years old?” Then, after talking about the historical genocide and ongoing looting of First Nations and their land, he states: “What a strange and sorry tale to tell about Canada on the occasion of its 152nd Birthday Party.” Yet, ever the optimist, Mathews concluded on a note of hope, suggesting that people will soon awaken and demand reconciliation beyond a token land acknowledgement.
When I concluded my thesis, Mathews thanked me for citing a couple of then recent articles he’d written for the now defunct website Vive le Canada. He said “one realizes that we are all, in a way, our own spiders – meaning though we think (at any one point) we are weaving a separate strand, in fact we are filling out the web which [. . .] makes up, finally, a completed intellectual pattern.” Indeed, considering Mathews’ work, from the 1960s through to the 2020s, completes the “intellectual pattern.” Far from being a narrow-minded anti-American nationalist, Mathews articulated an attractive philosophy that, while not perfect, spoke to a love of this time and this place.
Mathews penned what was likely his final poem on 1 January 2023 and titled it “Deeper into the Forest.” The poem is reflective, written by one who knew he was nearing the inevitable end. The tone is subdued and calm – the fighter political poet bidding us all adieu:
The voices beyond the surface
Will grow distant and imperfect
And you, quite alone, will move deeper into the forest.
Haawa (Thank You), Robin, for your major contributions to academia and, more importantly, thank you for your years of friendship.
 The external examiner, in particular, commented: “I must admit that I am pretty cold to just about any expression of nationalism that moves beyond narrow patriotism.”
 Personal email dated 23 December 2008
 The full poem can be found here and is narrated by Mathews: https://open.spotify.com/episode/1Er4RuJoIlLuhggylce9hy