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 in the 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.
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