Skip to main content
obituary
Open this photo in gallery:Robin Mathews. Courtesy of the Family

When Robin Mathews began his teaching career at the University of Alberta in the 1960s, he wanted courses at Canadian universities to be more reflective of the country's literature and society.Courtesy of the Family

Robin Mathews was a controversial figure in the 1970s who came to prominence in the nationalist struggle to have Canadian literature taken seriously as an area of study. He had a passionate belief in the uniqueness of Canada’s dual-language literary culture that began with the emergence of the country’s first homegrown novels, especially Wacousta (1832). In that literature, he saw the search for community as an overarching theme in contrast to U.S. literature, which he saw as a celebration of self-seeking individualism.

Universities, he argued, must teach Canada’s unique viewpoint to protect our culture from being smothered by that of the United States.

In the 1960s, when he began his teaching career at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, it was possible in Canada to earn a BA or even a doctoral degree in English without ever reading a Canadian novel.

He wanted courses to be offered, programs created, research funded, articles and textbooks written about our own literature and society. But these goals, in his view, could not be reached if Canadian universities continued to hire PhDs from Britain and the U.S. with scant knowledge of Canada.

For two decades, from his position as a literature professor at Carleton University, he sent forth denunciations of the curricula and hiring practices of universities as well as writing some 20 slim books of rabble-rousing poetry, plays, essays and polemics. He co-founded the Great Canadian Theatre Company, a still-existing Ottawa troupe that mounts only Canadian plays, and established two small presses, which published many of his books. His energy was formidable.

Robin Mathews died of pancreatic cancer on April 25 at his Vancouver home, at age 91.

On weekends he flew at his own expense to other universities where he was invited, usually by student groups, to speak about the importance of learning to understand our own culture.

The writer and teacher Joyce Wayne recalled hearing him speak at her university in Windsor, Ont. “He came to give a speech when I was in first year, and there were no courses at Windsor in Canadian literature,” she said. “A couple of us transferred to Carleton after hearing him. I took his introductory course in Canadian literature in 1969. I couldn’t name one Canadian author before that.”

Ms. Wayne recalled that “his course was packed. He was a showman and he was charismatic. He carried this worn little suitcase full of Canadian books.”

His students adored him and enjoyed dropping in at the Mathews home in Ottawa, where they might encounter visitors from Quebec such as labour leader Madeleine Parent, or the poets Milton Acorn, Dorothy Livesey, Lorna Crozier. “If you were hungry, you could always get a meal there,” recalled Ms. Wayne, who eventually earned an MA in Canadian literature. “They kept an open house. Robin was generous and the students from Quebec really liked him because he spoke French and understood nationalism the same way they did.”

Half of his books were collections of political poetry, often marred by reckless overstatement such as this, from Think Freedom:

Think Daniel Ortega

His revolution beaten to death

By murdering Yankees.

They drink the blood of children

From goblets of gold.

His most consequential book, however, contained no poetry. Assembled and edited jointly with his colleague James Steele, it was The Struggle for Canadian Universities (1969), a dossier of memos, letters, speeches, articles and letters-to-the editor about the sharp increase of foreign professors teaching here, and the effect of this on scholarship dealing with Canadian subjects. Some accused him of xenophobia, though the two editors were careful to state that they believed the expertise of foreign professors was needed at our universities, so long as they did not become the majority.

Robin Daniel Middleton Mathews was born in Smithers, B.C., on Nov. 1, 1931, the youngest of six children of English immigrants Harold and Margaret (née Tulley) Mathews. His father was a music teacher and composer who earned little money during the Depression. His mother had worked at a department store in London as a sales clerk, then a model and a buyer. “She actually had a professional life,” said Sabrina Mathews, Robin Mathews’s daughter. The family moved to Powell River, on the Sunshine Coast, where Robin grew up.

Open this photo in gallery:Robin Mathews with his son Hrothgar. Courtesy of the Family

Robin Mathews with his son Hrothgar.Courtesy of the Family

After high school, he went to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver where the English department was headed by the eminent poet and critic Roy Daniells, editor of the Literary History of Canada and president of Canada’s Royal Society. The undergraduate took an Honours degree in English, writing a thesis on Matthew Arnold. At UBC, he met Esther Leir, an energetic young woman from Penticton preparing to be a teacher of physical education, though she later switched to social work. They married in November, 1958; the first of their three children was born in Vancouver.

He worked for a time as a producer for CBC Radio, before leaving for a year to do his Master’s degree at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, with a thesis on Henry James.

The family then moved to Toronto where he studied for his PhD at U of T under Northrop Frye, the leading literature scholar of his time. Prof. Frye was held in awe by his students – except for Robin Mathews. He pointed out publicly after Prof. Frye gave the 1962 Massey Lectures (The Educated Imagination) that in his talks about the central importance of literature, he quoted not one Canadian poet or writer.

Offered a teaching job at the University of Alberta, Prof. Mathews abandoned his doctoral degree. His first book of poetry was published during the five years the family lived in Edmonton.

In the mid-60s the Mathews family moved to England where Prof. Mathews taught English literature at Leeds University, and later spent time in France during the radical student protests of 1968. His teaching career exclusively in Canadian literature started soon after at Carleton.

Using census data and other sources on academic appointments, Prof. Mathews and his colleague James Steele determined that 72 per cent of hires at a sample group of Canadian universities went to non-Canadians between 1965 and ‘67, and may have been as high as 86 per cent the year following. The new universities such as York and Simon Fraser, which had to staff up quickly, recruited aggressively abroad.

The noise Prof. Mathews made about this situation had an effect. The federal government eventually introduced new rules that academic positions had to be advertised within the country before recruitment abroad. Thomas Symons, the first president of Trent University was appointed to chair a commission that held more than 40 hearings across the country to determine the future of higher education in the country. Prof. Symons’s voluminous 1975 report titled To Know Ourselves endorsed the Canadianization of universities.

As the number of professors specializing in Canadian literature grew, Prof. Mathews, with literary biographer Sandra Djwa, started a learned society, the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literature.

“He gave us a forum to discuss Canadian writing and grow the discipline,” Prof. Djwa said in an interview. “It was generously funded by the Canada Council; it gave us funding that previously all went to studying Shakespeare and D.H. Lawrence. It allowed us to get our discipline off the ground. More than 200 people came to the first meeting.”

Prof. Mathews also found time in 1979 to run for a seat in Parliament as an independent. (He lost.)

In 1985, he applied for an academic exchange to teach at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, an established university procedure. The English faculty there, which included the poet Robin Blaser, had to vote whether to accept him; they turned him down. Prof. Blaser, who went on to be a two-time winner of Griffin prizes for his poetry, had been born in the U.S., though he was now a Canadian citizen. He had played an important role in the San Francisco poetry renaissance in the 1960s that reshaped poetry in Vancouver. Prof. Mathews had written harshly about Prof. Blaser and his supposedly malign American influence, and his criticism was not forgotten.

The unprecedented rejection caused a mini scandal and Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki, NDP leader Ed Broadbent all spoke out in favour of Prof. Mathews but to no avail. He was not wanted on the SFU English faculty.

According to Prof. Djwa, later head of the department, it was the president of SFU, William Saywell, who finally solved the impasse by suggesting that Prof. Mathews come to SFU to teach in the Canadian Studies faculty. Prof. Mathews taught there for five years before he retired.

In his last years he continued writing and rediscovered painting, which he had enjoyed in his youth. His artwork covered the walls of the family cottage on Saturna Island. At their East Vancouver home, he cared tenderly for his wife, Esther, when her health began to fail.

He leaves Esther; his remaining sister, Bettie Bagnall; his daughters, Sabrina and Rosamond; son Hrothgar; seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

“Robin was an activist, and for the most part, academics dislike activists in their midst,” his former student Ms. Wayne said. “He paid dearly for his activism, for wanting to see change implemented rather than just talked about.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Wacousta was the first Canadian novel. This version has been corrected to indicate that it was among the first but not the very first.