March 19, 2019

Aritha van Herk invested into Order of Canada

'Fearless' creative writing professor receives honour in recent Ottawa ceremony
University of Calgary Faculty of Arts prof Aritha van Herk, left, is invested as a Member of the Order of Canada by Governor General Julie Payette, March 14, 2019 in Ottawa.

Aritha van Herk is invested as a Member of the Order of Canada by Governor General Julie Payette.

Sgt Johanie Maheu, Rideau Hall © OSGG, 2019

Aritha van Herk isn’t quite sure why she was invested into the Order of Canada. The Governor General’s letter that came in the mail last year didn’t spell out why the long-time professor in the Faculty of Arts was being recognized for making “extraordinary contributions” to Canada.

A peek at van Herk’s extraordinary contributions include award-winning novels about a fiery female pig farmer and a randy underwear saleswoman (Judith and No Fixed Address), celebrating Alberta’s history in an award-winning work of non-fiction (Mavericks: an Incorrigible History of Alberta) and hundreds of essays, chapters and other works from feminism to ficto-criticism, a genre she is credited with inventing. 

“I think I am getting the Order for being eclectic,” says van Herk, who is both humbled and honoured by the recognition. “I have always been interested in conveying ideas to many different people. It must be the pedagogue in me or more likely because I think that intelligent ideas should be shared. Canada is about diversity. And a writer has to be diverse.”

Her current list of projects includes a travel piece, a creative biography about Canadian writer Robert Kroetsch and a novel with a deliciously “reprehensible” character. “I work on different projects because when you get to a difficult stage on one it’s good to put it aside and let it marinate. I focus on revising another, get a draft of that done, and then return to the first, refreshed.”

Van Herk’s interests beyond the page are equally diverse. She lends her time to a number of committees and boards across the country and is a vocal advocate for causes including the West, women and Canadian winters. “There is no bad weather, just bad clothing,” she says. 

She’s fearless, says PhD student Jane Chamberlain, who was TA for van Herk’s creative writing class for MBA students. “A discussion dipped in and out of issues around mortality and she said ‘Let’s stop tip-toeing around. Let’s talk about death.’” The MBA students valued the “wrenching discussion” as much as learning about writing, says Chamberlain.

“Her novels were the first to open my eyes to the fact that works of fiction could be set in Western Canada and could feature recognizable people, places, and ideas,” says another of her PhD students, Dawn Bryan, who describes her supervisor as “meticulous, curious and generous.”

Van Herk was in Ottawa last week to be invested into the Order of Canada. It’s the latest in a decades’-long list of awards and accolades, including Member of the Alberta Order of Excellence, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and of the Glenbow Museum, and recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Athabasca University.  

As for writing, van Herk has more topics she wants to tackle including guilt, rage, privacy and place. “I have so many ideas. If only I have 50 more years to get them down,” she says. “I think if you are going to be a writer who has any effect in Canada, you have to be flexible. If you sit in a little corner and say ‘I am a poet,’ you will have a very dull life and I think you will reach very few people.”

Cumming School's Tom Feasby invested into Order of Canada

At the same ceremony, Dr. Thomas Feasby, MD, was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada. His citation reads: "Tom Feasby has brought visionary leadership to clinical and academic medicine in western Canada. Professor of neurology and a former senior leader at the universities of Calgary and Alberta, he was influential in building and expanding their medical programs and areas of expertise. Notably, the University of Calgary has risen to the national forefront of clinical neuroscience and stroke research thanks to his passion and dedication. A renowned mentor, he has nurtured the careers of many leading clinician-scientists."

Feasby was appointed to the Order in December 2017.