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A hat trick for Aritha van Herk


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English professor awarded Alberta Order of Excellence.

If you know anything about literature and culture in Alberta, your sensibilities about our rogue identity have probably been influenced in some way by Aritha van Herk. The creative writing professor has always been driven to engage with her community and the result is an almost immeasurable impact. She has mentored hundreds of apprentice writers, is an active voice on numerous boards in the literary and cultural communities, has published nine works of fiction and non-fiction, and has single-handedly pushed the word “mavericks” to new peaks of popularity in Alberta’s lexicon.

That is why so many people have surged forward at this time to recognize the personal and professional drive that makes van Herk such an advocate for Albertans past and present and for bettering our province.

This spring van Herk was honoured with a teaching excellence award from the Students’ Union of the University of Calgary. In June she will receive the Writers Guild of Alberta Golden Pen Award for her support for the Alberta writing community. The latter was created to acknowledge the lifetime achievements of an outstanding Alberta writer. It has only been awarded four times since 1994 and places van Herk in league with luminaries W.O. Mitchell, Dr. Grant McEwan, Rudy Wiebe and Myrna Kostash.

And true to her own rural Alberta roots, where it never does just rain, topping it all off in October, van Herk will receive the Alberta Order of Excellence, our province’s highest accolade. The Order is reserved for individuals who have served Albertans with excellence and distinction, and whose contributions stand the test of time.

van Herk’s contribution to Alberta and to Canada’s literary landscape is multi-faceted, but began by inspiring students. In 1983 she was the first woman hired into a tenure track position in creative writing in any Canadian university and she has been an integral force in building the U of C creative writing program into one of the finest in the country. For van Herk it is fitting and most rewarding that the first in this series of accolades she couldn’t have foreseen came from her students.

“One of the greatest gifts and opportunities I have is working with students who go on to become an active part of Calgary and Canada’s literary community,” she says. “Teaching students is an important priority for a university and the classroom is the lab and petri dish where what we can really do comes out.”

van Herk is also quick to acknowledge the Calgary Library and the Glenbow Museum and Archives as institutions central to supporting the distinctive identity of the city of Calgary, although the attention each has given to her own work was coincidental.

“I take part in the initiatives of these organizations because I care about where I live,” she says. The Glenbow and the Library are two institutions I would do almost anything to support in order to ensure their good health.”

The Glenbow turned van Herk’s 2001 book Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta into a permanent exhibition in 2007. Then, despite van Herk’s feeling that the thick book looked too much like homework, it was chosen by the Calgary Public Library for that institution’s first ever One Book One Calgary initiative. That program created a city wide book club during the Fall of 2010, and got thousands of Calgarians talking about who we are. When she set about writing Mavericks, she says, her real and only goal was to educate Torontonians about Alberta. Instead, she branded Albertans with an identity that we always knew we had in us, and she fostered in us a deeper understanding of ourselves.

“It taught me a valuable lesson,” says van Herk. “People want to learn about themselves. Mavericks is about having a dialogue with people on historical, social, and cultural issues that matter to them.”

In 2001, van Herk defined an Alberta maverick as: “a unique character, an inspired or determined risk-taker, forward-looking, creative, eager for change, someone who propels Alberta in a new direction or who alters the social, cultural, or political landscape.”

Accordingly, she just may have transcended into “mavericity” herself.