James Bartleman talks about being a literary ‘late bloomer’

James Bartleman

On Oct. 30, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author James Bartleman reading from his novel As Long as the River Flows. Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) sent the following report to YFile.

Martha learned to obey the nuns without question and the punishment stopped, but she still missed her mother and was desperately lonely.  One night, she closed her eyes and pretended she was back home in bed, drinking in the wild smell of the balsam needle mattress and snuggled up under soft bearskin covers between her parents… 

from As Long as the Rivers Flow
by James Bartleman


James Bartleman is a late bloomer. It was only after he retired from an extensive career in public service, including serving as the 27th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 2002 to 2007, did he discover his “true vocation” of writing. On Oct. 30, Bartleman was the featured author at the Canadian Writers in Person reading series.

James BartlemanJames Bartleman

A natural storyteller, Bartleman started the evening with a story from his career in the Foreign Service. In January 1999, he went to Cape Town, South Africa to attend Nelson Mandela’s last session of parliament. He was in his hotel room when he answered his door to an assailant who then tried to zap Bartleman with a taser. Although Bartleman fought back, breaking his foot and hurting his hand in the process, the large man eventually overwhelmed him, tied him up,viciously beat him and demanded money. Bartleman was well dressed for the event and the man had mistakenly assumed he was a wealthy target for extortion. It was only when Bartleman appealed to him on a human level and established a relationship with the man that he was able to stop the beating and convince him to leave. He survived the incident but the violent episode sent Bartleman into a deep, suicidal depression.

Since he had struggled with depression throughout his life, Bartleman began healing by writing about his childhood as the son of a white father and an Aboriginal mother who also suffered from depression. The result was his first book, a memoir published in 2002 titled Out of Muskoka, in which he comes to terms with his identity and First Nations roots. When he was chosen to be Lieutenant Governor of Ontario that same year, he carried forward his experience with depression into his mandate as a way of reducing the stigma of mental illness, fighting racism and discrimination, and promoting literacy among First Nations children.

Bartleman also made a special effort to get to know First Nations people living in small isolated communities in Northern Ontario. He discovered a graveyard where hundreds of people were buried after meeting violent deaths, and many were teen suicides. When he asked one of the elders why this was happening, he was told it was because the children had no hope. Considering the history of the relationship between First Nations and the Canadian government, particularly residential schools, and after talking with many of the people in these communities, Bartleman was not surprised. He swung into action raising money and donations to establish a network of libraries filled with nearly two million books, literacy camps and writing awards for First Nations children, and to promote awareness of the injustices these communities had suffered.

As Long as the Rivers Flow book coverThese experiences inspired Bartleman to write his first piece of fiction, As Long as the Rivers Flow, a novel that traces the experiences of Martha, who is a victim of residential school abuse.  As with his experience with the assailant in Cape Town, Bartleman believes that people need to get to know each other on an individual level to create change. He deftly portrays the interior life of his characters, they become more like friends and less like stereotypes. His novel concludes with a healing circle where everyone is allowed to share their story. “If you read literary novels, which deal with moral issues, you will understand yourself better, he said. And, you will understand ‘the other’ better, and you will grow. That is the real key and the magic of reading novels.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. At 7pm on Nov. 13 in Room 206 of the Accolade West Building, the Suzanne Desrochers will read from her debut novel Bride of New France.