Today’s graduates, trained with the tools of language and words for their future professions, must use them wisely while being acutely aware of how they’re used by others, said author Joan Barfoot.
Barfoot spoke to 369 graduates from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and the School of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies at the Tuesday, June 19 morning session of Western’s 299th Convocation.
Western conferred an honorary Doctor of Literature upon Barfoot in recognition of her contributions to Canada’s cultural and literary landscape.
“Whatever you do, words will be your basic tools, speaking them, writing them and very, very carefully listening to them,” Barfoot said. “It will be your job, as it is mine, to resist superficial words and comfortingly simple answers and rules.”
Barfoot grew up on what she describes as a “thin-soiled, gorgeous, rocky farm” just outside Owen Sound. The harsh landscape of the Georgian Bay area and her Scottish Presbyterian upbringing, she notes were important influences on her work.
After graduating from Western in 1969 with a B.A. in English, Barfoot worked as a reporter and editor for various newspapers, including the Toronto Star and London Free Press. A celebrated author who credits journalism as good preparation for a writing career, Barfoot lives in London, where she has written 11 novels, among them Abra, which was published in 1978 and received the Books in Canada First Novel Award. Her second book, Dancing in the Dark, was made into a film and received three Genie awards.
The Writers’ Trust of Canada chose Barfoot as the recipient of its Marian Engel Award, which recognizes achievement by an author judged to be at the middle of her career.
She told students their education has instilled in them and will continue to foster “curiosity, imaginative empathy, critical thought, intelligent debate and the courage to dissent,” all of which will make their lives more fun.
“We have to keep alert to slithering mutations of words, and be always questioning the sly, deliberate misuses of propagandas, institutions, politicians – all the various individuals and agencies intent on sliding us, without our noticing, toward their points of view,” she said.
“Be skeptical, only sometimes cynical, and paranoid only when absolutely necessary – but always skeptical. Ask questions, wonder, dig further and ask more questions. Read,” Barfoot added, noting reading helps us understand the proper meanings of words while reminding us that we are not the only human beings on Earth.
“Analyze and question rules, change the rules, break them if need be, while understanding there are consequences and penalties for that. Witness. Don’t settle. Do as little harm as you can. Have fun, because it is fun, aiming to have a smart and conscious and curious life.”
In her citation, Philosophy professor Kathleen Okruhlik said Barfoot’s work skillfully embodies the human experience.
“In all her work, Joan Barfoot is clear-eyed in her recognition of human imperfection and our ability to hurt one another grievously. Through her characters, however, she also portrays the power of compassion and the possibilities of unexpected love,” she said. “And sometimes, as she has shown us through her novels, it is fiction that best lends itself to the working out and revelation of truths about the human condition.
“Joan Barfoot’s work stands as a reminder of the importance of literature, and of the arts and humanities more generally, in helping us to understand that condition and to respond to it with clear-eyed compassion.”
Also during the ceremony, the status of professor emerita was conferred upon Classical Studies professor Bonnie MacLachlan.