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Oration honouring Richard Gwyn

Friday, May 29, 3 p.m.

Often it is said: “It takes one to know one.” Others suggest that only someone from the outside can see us for who we really are. So when it comes to defining Canadians and knowing what makes us tick, Richard Gwyn has a double advantage. Richard Gwyn is a Canadian’s Canadian even though he spent the first two decades of his life in his native United Kingdom. Having just left home, young Gwyn landed in Newfoundland in the early fifties. His job was to sell subscriptions for a Roman Catholic magazine. Had he peddled his wares exclusively in Catholic-dominated St. John’s, he might have sold a few subscriptions, but Gwyn took the coastal boat to the South Coast of Newfoundland. Although he netted considerable insight regarding Canada’s newest province and its people, he did not manage to snag many magazine sales. Abandoning the coastal boat for a ferry ride to the mainland, Gwyn exchanged his salesman’s receipt pad for a journalist’s notepad. But it was in leaving Newfoundland that Richard Gwyn formed a bond with our province that lasts to this day. Gwyn’s first wife, Sandra, had been expatriated from Newfoundland as a young child. She was working in Nova Scotia when on crossing the Gulf he met her for the first time. With this link, return trips to the province became more common and by the late sixties, Richard Gwyn wrote what is regarded by many as the defining biography of the only living “father” of Confederation, Joseph R. Smallwood. Other books followed. Readers of all stripes, and not just political junkies, were captivated by Gwyn’s account of Pierre Trudeau, who he dubbed “The Northern Magus.” In his fifth book, Nationalism Without Walls; The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian, Gwyn provokes Canadians to think about what it is be Canadian, and he argues how our accommodating “Canadianess” may actually lead to the demise of the values that so many seek and admire in our country. The book is so powerful, that the Literary Review of Canada lists it as one of Canada’s top 100 books. Gwyn’s most recent literary triumph was the first volume of a planned two-volume biography of Sir John A. Macdonald. For this masterpiece, Richard Gwyn was awarded the 2008 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

Richard Gwyn is much more than a master political commentator. Through his regular annual visits to his cottage in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, Richard Gwyn became a profound believer in the rich talents of our people. In concert with his own views and those of his late wife, Richard Gwyn set out to establish a literary prize for Newfoundland and Labrador writers. The Winterset Award is given annually and is the most important literary prize in the province. But Gwyn’s confidence in our achievements does not stop there. Richard Gwyn continues to promote our authors through the Winterset in Summer Literary Festival. Held annually on the Eastport peninsula, the Festival showcases the work of local writers who are joined by book lovers and internationally acclaimed authors to discuss literature and share their mutual passion for the art.

One of Gwyn’s other passions is his black Labrador retriever. The dog is aptly named ‘Nell Gwyn’ after the British temptress from long ago. I have on good authority, that Nell makes a “sook” of Richard Gwyn.

But it is another trait of Gwyn’s that deserves special mention. Richard Gwyn is a persistent man. He persisted in his goal of achieving a permanent endowment for the Winterset Award. Seemingly, every door in Canada will open for him, and once inside, there are few who can resist his charm and not give a donation to a cause that he supports. When he was Chancellor of St. Jerome’s University, Richard Gwyn used his fund-raising talents to good effect as he made the rounds of potential donors in the company of the university’s erstwhile president. During these visits, Gwyn and the president would engage the would be benefactor in polite chit chat, then, with a quick glance or unseen kick to the shin, Gwyn would signal the president to ask for the money. Chancellor, may I suggest that when communicating with our president, you stick with the quick glance; otherwise, the president should be advised to wear shin pads to all of your meetings.

Chancellor, I am pleased to present for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Richard J. Gwyn, one of Canada’s most outstanding political commentators, and a true patron of the arts in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Dr. Donald McKay
University orator