Robert Dickson, poet, translator (born 23 July 1944 in Toronto, Ontario; died 19 March 2007 in Sudbury, Ontario). This Franco-Ontarian poet contributed greatly to the artistic renaissance of French-speaking Ontario in the 1970s. He was very active in the province’s francophone community (primarily in Sudbury) throughout his career. He received the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in French in 2002.
A great lover of the French language, Dickson taught literature, translation and creative writing at Laurentian University in Sudbury for over 30 years. In the 1970s, he and his friend Pierre Germain created a series of shows called Cuisine de la poésie — a hybrid of poetry, music and performance — in which he appeared as the master of ceremonies.
Dickson published six poetry collections:Or«é»alité (1978), Une bonne trentaine (1978), Abris nocturnes (1986), Grand ciel bleu par ici (1997), Humains paysages en temps de paix relative (2002, earning him the Governor General’s Literary Award that year) and Libertés provisoires (2005). A volume of his selected poems translated by Jo-Anne elder, Human Presences & Possible Futures, was published in 2013 by Guernica Editions.
Dickson also translated works of literature from French to English to give them visibility in English Canada. One of his best-known French-to-English translations was of the play Eddy by Jean-Marc Dalpé (English title: In the Ring). Always a great friend of English-Canadian authors and a great admirer of their works, Dickson also produced English-to-French translations of the novel Frog Moon by Lola Lemire Tostevin (French title: Kaki) in 1997 and the novel Kiss of the Fur Queen by Cree author Tomson Highway (French title: Champion et Ooneemeetoo) in 2004.
Contribution to Franco-Ontarian Culture
What is fascinating about Robert Dickson is that though he came from an English-speaking background, he chose to live his adult life in French, the minority language of his province and his country. Born in Toronto, he visited Paris at the age of 22, and after this trip, he made his second language his first, moving to Sudbury and becoming part of the francophone community of Northern Ontario.
A mentor to many, Dickson had a notable influence on the poetry of Patrice Desbiens. Like Desbiens, Dickson participated in many of the initiatives of the Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario.
Dickson also contributed to a number of films, including Le Dernier des Franco-Ontariens by Jean-Marc Larivière, which received a special mention at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto and a nomination for a Prix Gémeaux in 1997.
Dickson’s first collection of poetry, Une bonne trentaine, was published by The Porcupine’s Quill in 1978 and had a measurable impact on Franco-Ontarian culture at a time when it was bursting with new life. One of the poems in this collection, “Au Nord de notre vie” ("In the North of Our Lives"), was set to music by the Franco-Ontarian folk-pop group CANO and became the unofficial anthem of French-speaking Northern Ontario.
stubborn underground and together
send our rough and rocky cries flying
into the four winds
of possible futures.
Like CANO itself, this poem and all of Dickson’s works from this period are driven by the desire to express francophone identity and use francophone marginality and differences as sources of strength. Abris nocturnes, published in 1986, is a collection of poems in memory of André Paiement, a founding member of CANO, who took his own life in January 1978.
Dickson’s poetry is often described as accessible and idealistic, but it also reveals a certain nihilism and sense of isolation.
so much rock for so little beach
so many boats on the wharf
so many Canada geese without return tickets
so much treatment with so little prevention
so much smoke and so little fire
so much death in snippets
so many guilty but guiltless
“Sudbury,” from Humains paysages en temps de paix relative
The places where the poet lived and to which he travelled — Sudbury, Ottawa, Québec City — appear in his poems, as does Franco-Ontarians’ sense of isolation from the people of Québec, the risk of being swallowed up by them. Dickson evokes this dynamic in another passage of the long poem "Sudbury," punning on the name of a village in Québec, L'Avenir (literally, "The Future"):
the future is plotting in our guts
the status quo is an enormous risk
go toward the other travel toward oneself
Dickson’s final poems are commentaries on the themes of wandering and the anonymity of big cities compared with the gossip of small towns.
Dickson’s contribution to Ontario’s francophone community was recognized on many occasions, and he received many awards, including the Prix du Nouvel-Ontario in 1998 and the Prix du Centre de recherche en civilisation canadienne-française from the University of Ottawa in 1999.
Throughout his life, Dickson strived ceaselessly to enrich francophone life in Northern Ontario, participating in many cultural initiatives and serving on numerous committees and boards, including the board of directors and the editorial committee of the publisher Les Éditions Prise de parole.