Massey Lectures

Massey Lectures at your library bannerThe 2020 Massey Lecture is going to be presented soon! Due to the covid-19 pandemic, this year’s lecture will be presented digitally in November (although it will also be broadcast as usual by CBC Radio). 2020’s lecture, titled Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society, is by Ronald J. Deibert; Deibert will be talking about how toxic the internet has become, especially thanks to social media.

For those who aren’t familiar with them, the Massey Lectures were created 59 years ago, in honour of Vincent Massey, the first Governor General of Canada who was born here in Canada; there has been a lecture almost every year since then, presented by distinguished people who are experts in their fields. The lectures are also published as a book by the House of Anansi Press. The Thunder Bay Public Library has copies of many of the older Massey Lectures, both as physical books and as eBooks on Cloud Library; they are on a wide range of topics, so there is sure to be something for everyone. Visit or CloudLibrary on your favourite device to browse and place holds on these books and many others!

The first Massey Lecture that I read was Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, which was recommended to me a few years ago. Wright details the 10,000 year history of human culture, examining why some civilizations have collapsed and others have endured. He also cautions that we need to change our ways because, unlike in the past, there is nowhere else for us to go should our civilizations collapse. This book is a must-read, and its message is even more urgent than when Wright delivered these lectures 16 years ago.

I’m sure for many people here in Thunder Bay, Tanya Talaga brought the Massey Lectures to light when she delivered the first of her 2018 lecture series at the Community Auditorium to a packed crowd. In All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward, Talaga speaks about the high incidence of suicide in Indigenous communities around the world. The statistics she shares are heartbreaking; Indigenous people have much higher rates of suicide, especially among their youth. Indigenous youth are growing up amidst intergenerational trauma, which has unfortunately normalized suicide. Talaga calls on Canada as a nation to do better, ensuring that all children in our country have equal access to education, healthcare, clean water and other necessities. 

I really enjoyed reading The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King, which I discovered in the Indigenous Knowledge Centre. King was the first Indigenous person invited to present a Massey Lecture. You can tell that King is, first and foremost, an oral storyteller; his language and tone through the whole book is very relaxed and easy going. He uses this to great effect, showing how, thanks to tone and word choice, some stories can be imparted with more weight and gravitas, even though there is nothing more weighty in the story itself compared to another.

Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, presented by Margaret Atwood in 2008, was another one with a very conversational tone. Atwood isn’t an expert on debt, but was interested in the topic, and so wrote her whole lecture on it. Rather than getting into the nuances of personal finance, she approached debt from a literary perspective, looking at the primate sense of fairness, the apparent sinfulness human culture has ascribed to debtors and creditors, and how, over time, what has been considered sinful has changed (particularly in terms of spending money). 

While these are the highlights of the ones I have read, there are many, many others, including The Lost Massey Lectures and More Lost Massey Lectures, which collect some of the older lectures that were out of print (including one by Martin Luther King Jr.)!

Shauna Kosoris – If you have a comment about today’s column, we would love to hear from you.

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