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Birth of a Classic Canadian Writer

For the week of Monday March 18, 2012

On March 22, 1909, Gabrielle Roy was born in St. Boniface, Manitoba. This Canadian writer’s classic works continue to be read, analysed and appreciated today.

Gabrielle Roy, 1909-1983 
© Canada Post Corporation (1996). Reproduced with Permission
Gabrielle was the youngest of a large family and, as her siblings were all much older, she grew up close to her parents, natives of Québec who had moved to Manitoba. Though her family was not rich, they lived comfortably, and Gabrielle was able to receive a good education at the Académie Saint-Joseph in St-Boniface and the Winnipeg Normal Institute. After completing school in 1925, she decided to become a teacher herself, and she taught at various schools for 12 years. In 1937, Gabrielle gave up teaching to pursue acting in Europe. When this proved unsuccessful, she began writing. The publication of several of her short articles cemented her desire to write. She returned to Canada, settled in Montréal, and became a freelance writer for newspapers and magazines.

Her first major work, Bonheur d’occasion, was published in 1945 and was well received by both the public and critics. This emotional novel, set in a bleak Montréal neighbourhood in 1940, showed the struggles of a poverty-stricken family. Bonheur d’occasion’s social realism provided a refreshing, if troubling, contrast to Québec’s traditional literary focus on rural nostalgia. Considered an essential part of Québecois and Canadian literature and internationally praised, this book received the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Prix Fémina in Paris, and was eventually translated into 15 languages. 

Maison Gabrielle-Roy
© Maison Gabrielle-Roy

Much of Roy’s subsequent work dealt with her personal life. Whether expressed in loosely autobiographical short stories or depictions of disillusioned urban life, the general themes of self and identity appeared frequently in her work. Roy’s own identity struggles informed a lot of her work. Despite her success, Gabrielle Roy considered herself an ‘outsider’ in many ways. For example, though her family had a Québecois heritage, she did not write as a representative of that population, but rather as a Franco-Manitoban.

Gabrielle Roy lived in Europe for three years and travelled frequently in her later life. Though much of her writing was done in her isolated cottage in Petite-Rivière-Saint-François in Charlevoix, Quebec, her home in Quebec City was her main place of residence, and she remained there until her death in 1983. Both Gabrielle Roy and her childhood home, Maison Gabrielle-Roy, were designated of national historic significance in 2009.

To learn more about Canadian writers, please read The Alpine Path, The Father of Canadian Literature, Birthday of Writer Mazo de la Roche, E. Cora Hind: Outstanding Journalist and Activist, and The Woman of a Million Books from our This Week in History archives.

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