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Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson stop on the red carpet at the Scotiabank Giller Bank Prize gala in Toronto on Nov. 19, 2018.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Though he was a celebrated author who was the partner of perhaps the most successful novelist in the history of Canadian literature, Graeme Gibson, who has died at 85, was passionate in his belief that no writers should be privileged over another. He co-founded Writers’ Trust of Canada and the Writers’ Union of Canada in the 1970s and was still an active presence in 2013 when he lobbied in favour of the motion that self-published writers should be welcome in the union.

“He spoke very eloquently about it,” said Merilyn Simonds, a family friend and fellow author. “It was a significant factor in the motion being passed.” According to TWUC executive director John Degen, the words of Mr. Gibson carried great weight. “He swayed the room.”

Mr. Gibson leaves his spouse, acclaimed writer Margaret Atwood, and children and grandchildren. In a statement, Ms. Atwood said Mr. Gibson was suffering from dementia and feared further decline, and that his family was grateful he had the “swift exit” he wanted.

He will be remembered as a generous, highly intelligent man who loved literature and nature equally. His novels included Five Legs, Perpetual Motion and Gentleman Death. He was a member of the Order of Canada and served as the president of the writers’ advocacy group PEN Canada.

Also an avid birdwatcher and environmentalist, Mr. Gibson was the chairman of the Pelee Island Bird Observatory. The avian obsession inspired two anthologies he edited, 2005′s The Bedside Book of Birds and the 2009 follow-up The Bedside Book of Beasts.

“I became a birdwatcher in my 30s, and discovered I didn’t want to be competitive with them,” Mr. Gibson told The Globe and Mail in 2006. “Birds are symbols of what we consider the best in ourselves.”

Mr. Gibson, a native of London, Ont., had first attempted to get a bird book published in the early 1990s, but the idea didn’t fly. “I have 36 rejection letters,” he said.

Mr. Degen remembers sitting in a backyard and sharing a Scotch or two with Mr. Gibson, who casually identified the birds in the trees around them on their chirp and songs alone. “It was an astounding thing to experience.”

If Mr. Gibson was familiar with avian melodies, he had a few songs in his own repertoire. “After a day of birding, at the end of the evening, he would sing Scottish ballad after Scottish ballad,” Ms. Simonds said. “He was very proud of his Scottish roots, and knew all the words and he had a wonderful, deep baritone.”

The activism of Mr. Gibson, who in the early 1970s climbed the statue of Egerton Ryerson in Toronto in protest of the sale of Ryerson Press to a U.S. company, was often exhibited with a mischievous flair. On the glitzy occasion of the Scotiabank Giller Prize gala in 2007, held at Toronto’s Four Seasons Hotel, Mr. Gibson and Ms. Atwood passed up the tuna tartare and beef tenderloin in favour of paper-bagged repast.

He was upset with the hotel chain’s role in a resort development in Grenada that he believed would threaten an endangered species. “Until there is a fair resolution of the dispute over the kind of resort being built in Grenada,” Mr. Gibson was quoted as saying at the time, “we cannot accept food or drink from the Four Seasons.”

Mr. Gibson last novel was 1993′s Gentleman Death. He had quit writing novels because “I didn’t want to start chewing my cabbage all over again.” But if he felt he had nothing left to offer as a novelist, he never stopped having important things to say.