Illustration by Jeannie Phan
Illustration by Jeannie Phan

Topics: Spirituality | Culture, Society

6 acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart to their grandkids

Sally Armstrong, Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki and others share incredible wisdom and love.


That impulse to leave first tracks is what I wish for all of you. 


Dear Hearts,

This story began when the first-born among you was old enough to find her way to the beach at the break of dawn. And now all but the youngest of you — my magnificent eight grandchildren or “dear hearts” as I like to call you — join in the same summertime tradition. You creep into my room at the cottage on Baie-des-Chaleurs in northern New Brunswick and nudge me awake, rub sleep out of your eyes and say, “Come on, Nanny. It’s time. Come quickly, quickly, Nanny. It’s dawn.” And the ritual begins.

We tiptoe out of the bedroom, hushing those who speak out loud — magic requires quiet, you see — whispering our way to the sliding door that opens onto the beach. Then, as if you have wings on your sweet shoulders, you fly across the deck, down the steps and onto the shore. Running into the beams of early light, leaping across rocks and shells like gazelles, the wind blowing your hair and the frothy waves splashing your pyjamas, you race to leave your footprints in the sand and let the world know you are ready, awake, watching and learning.

Some of you aren’t old enough yet to have left first tracks in the sand — maybe this summer. But that impulse to leave first tracks is what I wish for all of you: the curiosity to seek the unmarked place. The fun of finding your way with friends. The excitement and anticipation of new starts. The daring to leave your mark. And the enduring joy of tradition.

As you grow, my dear hearts, I watch the tracks you make not only at home, at school and on journeys away from the familiar, but also on the ski hill and at the gym, in the swimming pool and at the drawing board. But it is your thrill at leaving first tracks on the beach that has taught me the most about what I want for you.

At your little ages, between three years and nine years, you need to mind the lessons of first tracks: the freedom to run and the wisdom to check behind to see what mark you made. First tracks are honest harbingers — remember that. Be cautious around those who would make false tracks. Avoid those who would take shortcuts or wipe away your marks. Seek those who see the creativity in putting down tracks — call them inventors or adventurers or dreamers; they are all first trackers. Spare a thought for the ones whose tracks were here before yours.

And don’t forget the magic — the opportunities that come to you every day just as surely as dawn brings a wide-open beach with only seagulls and sandpipers and, if you’re lucky, a great blue heron waiting for you to leave first tracks in the sand.

Sally Armstrong’s most recent book, Ascent of Women: A New Age Is Dawning for Every Mother’s Daughter, was published in 2014.

Illustration by Jeannie Phan
Illustration by Jeannie Phan

At this moment, we human beings are truly walking along the razor’s edge


For you, in the future,

What can I tell you about “the future,” dear imagined great-grandchildren? There is no “the future” as such: there are many possible futures, and I don’t know which future you will be alive in. Nobody knows: all we can do is make informed guesses. But we can safely say that, barring a comet striking the Earth, the conditions you’ll be facing in “the future” will result from the decisions your ancestors have made in the past — the past that is my own present tense.

Let’s hope you — and the human race — will be alive, in this “future” we must pretend to believe in. Let’s hope, therefore, that the decision-makers of the early 21st century made at least some of the right decisions. That they avoided acidifying and poisoning the oceans, thus allowing the marine algae to continue to manufacture the oxygen we need to breathe. And that they took steps to remove the plastic particles that are now so numerous in the water that they are affecting marine life, not to mention human fertility.

Let’s hope they deployed new sources of energy that did not result in a carbon-saturated atmosphere that drove our planet’s temperature past the point of no return.

Let’s hope they made it through the era of the droughts and floods of the early 21st century that decreased the world’s food supply and increased forced labour and sex trafficking, and mass migrations, as people competed for resources and took advantage of social chaos. Let’s hope also that decision-makers recognized the connection between environmental degradation and poverty. And that they acknowledged Indigenous peoples around the world as traditional keepers of the land, and assisted them in their ongoing efforts to protect vulnerable ecosystems.

Let’s hope that, worldwide, all peoples will have finally recognized women and girls as full human beings with great potential to contribute to economic development.

That’s a lot of hope. What are the chances of even one of these hopes being realized? Higher today than they were even 10 years ago, I’d say. But the challenges are also more severe. At this moment, we human beings are truly walking along the razor’s edge.

Suppose that all my hopes are realized, and that by the time you are reading this the human species will be within reach of a stable and prosperous future.

What then? No matter how different your technological and material culture is from that of 2017, you will still be pondering the questions human beings seem always to have pondered: What is my purpose? Why am I on the planet? What is a “good” life? What are my responsibilities to my fellow human beings?

Science can tell you what you are, in material terms. It can measure you, it can analyze your DNA and your biochemistry. But it can’t make ethical decisions for you. You must make those for yourself.

For my final hope, I hope you’ll be living at a time when such questions can still be meaningfully asked. That you’ll no longer be living in an era of fake news and “truthiness,” but in one in which facts and evidence are accepted. And I hope you’ll have among you enough brave and principled people to keep your society from succumbing either to totalitarian or mass mob rule. Perhaps you yourself will be one of these brave and principled people, in which case I wish you strength, luck and steadfast friends.

Dear imagined great-grandchildren of the future: soon you will no longer be thought experiments, but real people. Live well and prosper.

Margaret Atwood’s latest book, Angel Catbird Volume 2, was published in February.

Illustration by Jeannie Phan
Illustration by Jeannie Phan

I often remember my mother telling me in Low German, ‘Son, be thankful.’

Dear Sylvia and Anna and Camilo and Rocio,

Throughout 2017, we will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of our country, Canada. And when I think of our homeland, my first thought is of you, my beloved grandchildren. We are a three-generation family of 10 people, but less than a century ago our various ancestors lived as far from each other as it is possible to be on Earth. One of your fathers was a political refugee from civil war in Chile; one of you was born into orphan poverty in China; both your grandmother’s father and your great-grandparents (my parents) fled Russia because of violent revolution and religious persecution. None of us had any choice about who our parents were, or when or where we were born; but now here we are, together, a close and loving family making plans for a summer wedding when an English-German-Romanian branch will be added to our family tree. How is this possible?

I often remember my mother telling me in Low German, the Mennonite language we spoke, “Jung, sie dankboa” (Boy/son, be thankful). For I was her youngest of seven children, born on our homestead in northern Saskatchewan, and all I knew of their escape from Russia were the many stories they told: stories of how they departed their Orenburg Mennonite village in November 1929 for Moscow, 1,500 kilometres away, in a desperate attempt to leave Russia; stories of the 16,000 refugees already there, all clamouring to get out; of the 11,000 people — including my father’s two brothers and their large families — forced to return to their villages or to prison labour camps; stories of how, suddenly, without explanation on Dec. 1, 3,800 Mennonites — including my parents and their five children — were allowed to leave by train for Germany. And the story of how my family was among the even smaller group of 1,344 persons accepted by Canada. On the CPR ship Metagama, steaming for Saint John, N.B., my brothers Dan, then 9, and Abe, then 12, sang German hymns for the sailors. Eighty years later, Dan tells me, “They gave us thick slices of bread with lots of strawberry jam. Did we ever enjoy that.”

On March 4, 1930, they arrived in Didsbury, Alta., the home of my mother’s aunt who sponsored them. I inherited the yellow German documents — torn and taped, covered with official stamps — that declared them “stateless,” along with their identity pictures. My mother, only 34, looks worn beyond 60.

My parents could never explain why they were seven of the few who “got out over Moscow” or why they were accepted as refugees by the best of all countries, Canada.

Luck? They didn’t believe in it. They had faith in God, in the goodness of God’s mercy, in prayer, in the daily evidence of miracle. And because of that, they were thankful to God every day of their lives.

My sweet grandchildren: through no effort of our own, we are blessed to live in a great nation of peace and human dignity. The Aboriginal people, here long before us, taught that they are the children of a good Creator who loves and cares for them. These were the teachings of Jesus as well, and all my life I personally have tried to live that understanding and that faith. And I believe that, if you are truly thankful, you will discover for yourselves, in your own lives, the meaning of these profound teachings.

May the Creator bless and keep you.

Rudy Wiebe’s latest book, 
Where the Truth Lies: Selected Essays, was published in 2016.

Follow your heart. Do what you love, whether it’s art, music, writing, fixing cars or carpentry.


My Dearest Ones, 

I hope I don’t get too preachy here when I talk to you about what drives us to do what we do and what values should motivate us. Well, I guess it’s inevitable that I will sound kind of preachy, but you can ignore most of it or pick and choose what you think is useful in your lives. What sets people on their life course? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself as I watch you grow older.

Tamo, as the eldest of my grandchildren, your incredible athleticism in hockey, football and snowboarding seemed to be leading you to some kind of career in sports. I was so surprised and so proud when you morphed into a snowboard activist trying to entice young boarders to notice the world around them and how they were affected by it and how they could make it better. Because of your Chilean roots, you could snowboard in Canada during the winter and then continue snowboarding in Chile during our summer. As a result, you were exposed to issues of poverty in South America and to environmental concerns like the plight of sea turtles, and you have since gone on to become an environmental activist. I wonder where that will lead you in the coming years, but go for it!

We know about child prodigies who are found to have incredible talents at hockey or chess or piano. But how do they discover that talent? What encourages them to go on? The story of how Canadian hockey star Wayne Gretzky’s father, Walter, would make a rink every winter so Wayne could play hockey is legendary, but what drove Wayne as a young boy to commit so much to the sport? It had to be fun, of course, but come on — for hours and hours?

Journalists often ask what led me to become an environmentalist. I never thought of environmentalism as a career, and when young people ask me how they can “save the world,” I tell them not to worry about the world. The planet will do what it does with or without us. I tell them, “Follow your heart. Do what you love, whether it’s art, music, writing, fixing cars or carpentry.” Environmentalism is not a specialty or a discipline like medicine or teaching or law. It’s a way of seeing the world and recognizing that we are a part of the biosphere, dependent on nature — air, water, soil, photosynthesis, biodiversity — for our health and well-being, and we need everyone to see the world through that lens.

From my position now as an elder and your grandpa, I can say that I have learned a lot from my mistakes, failures and successes. The most important piece of advice I can offer is please do not shape your life around making money, acquiring power or becoming famous. These ends may be the consequence of working toward something that is important to you, but they should not be your goal. What do you believe in? What do you enjoy? That should guide you in life. If by chance you do achieve money, power or fame, they will not bring real joy, pride or satisfaction. And too often people who aspire to those goals will sacrifice friends, even family, trying to achieve them. But when they become rich, famous and powerful, what do they stand for? What are their values? These are the important questions.

David Suzuki’s latest book, Just Cool It! The Climate Crisis and What We Can Do, is co-authored by Ian Hanington and will be released this month. This letter is excerpted with permission from Letters to My Grandchildren by Suzuki, published in 2015 by Greystone Books with the support of the David Suzuki Foundation.

Illustration by Jeannie Phan
Illustration by Jeannie Phan

If you remain curious, you will never stop learning. You will learn from every experience, good and bad.

Ah, my darlings,

I want to tell you a few things I have learned so far. Maybe these ideas will help as you move from the land of childhood into the land of teenage years and, from there, to the land of adulthood. I know that you are already looking ahead.

Stay fit and keep your body healthy. Be curious about the world. Your brain thrives on variety and wants to learn. Challenge your brain. How do things work? Why do people behave the way they do? Learn languages. If you remain curious, you will never stop learning. You will learn from every experience, good and bad.

Confidence will help you to find out who you really are, but learning to be confident is not an easy task. Trust your instincts and try to stick up for yourself. Sometimes we would like to be brave but don’t feel brave. All we can do is try. If we speak out, if we defend ourselves and others, we become stronger. Don’t worry if you flounder or make mistakes; everyone else does, too. I hope you will always love life and find laughter, even through times of difficulty.

Read every chance you get — any book, all books, on any topic. You will soon find out what you like. If you learn to love literature, that love will stay with you forever. All of you are readers now. All of you know how to tell stories about yourselves, about other children, about other families. Reading helps us to understand our history and our stories. Reading helps us to understand how others feel.

Stay in school. Education helps you to face challenges, make good choices and work out solutions to problems. I hope that each of you will find a life passion, something you will want to do for a long time. But don’t be afraid to change direction. Each path will help you discover where you want to be.

Have a sense of play and fair play. Don’t be discouraged if something happens that is not fair. Do your best to address what you believe is unjust. Talk to friends, talk to trusted adults in your family and community. You will learn whom to trust. Ask for help when you need help. We cannot get through life on our own. We need friends, and true friends are people you can count on, people with whom you can share and laugh and play. Friends will help you, and you will help them in return.

I hope you will always love music. Any kind of music. Music has existed since the earliest human beings; there has never been a civilization without it. Sing. Learn to play an instrument if you have the opportunity. Listen. Watch. Create. All of the arts will enrich your life.

Help others. Many children in the world do not have enough food, or clean water to drink, or medicine when they are ill, or an opportunity to go to school. Some children do not have a home. Find ways to help. If you help even one person, you have done something important.

The decisions you make, the friends you choose, the people you love, the people who love you — all become part of the story of your life. The story of you. Remember that you are important. You matter. When you need help or advice, when you want to share a laugh or a story or two, call me.

I am here for you. Always.

Frances Itani’s latest book, Tell, was published in 2014.

Illustration by Jeannie Phan
Illustration by Jeannie Phan

You know that the biggest people in the room almost always get to tell you what to do. But you don’t accept that


To my grandgirls,

When I started this letter, I thought I would be passing along some things I’ve learned in my life. But I realized that this would be a mistake. You already know much more, and more important things, than I do. So instead, I am writing to tell you what I have learned from you.

You understand the power of protest. I have, from time to time, convinced myself that the world is essentially fair. You know it is not, that life is weighted against fairness. You know you don’t always have an equal say in decisions that affect your life, that the biggest people in the room almost always get to tell you what to do. But you don’t accept that. You know that by raising your voice, by jumping up and down and waving your fists and annoying the bigger people in the room, you stand a better chance of getting what you want than if you sit quietly in a corner reading a book, as the rest of us tend to do. Don’t lose that. I have protested, in my own way, but I have allowed my protestations to be channelled along socially acceptable pathways that have led, for the most part, nowhere.

You understand the importance of asking questions and the inadequacy of most of the answers. I once asked a biologist why a certain animal behaved the way it did, and his answer was, “‘Why’ is a religious question,” as if to say, it doesn’t have an answer. You, on the other hand, know that “why” is the most important question you can ask, and you ask it all the time. And you don’t accept any answer that doesn’t make sense to you. Keep asking the religious questions.

And I like the way you make art, incessantly, out of whatever is at hand — crayons, lipstick, blocks of wood, letters. You make art because you know that art is a way of understanding the world, of making or finding threads of meaning in what appears, to most of us, to be chaos and insanity. You put the sun firmly in the sky, the earth solidly beneath your feet, and your houses, though they might lean a bit, remain standing forever. You know that.

Bill McKibben, a writer I admire, wrote a book called The Age of Missing Information, in which he compared two kinds of knowing. For half of the book, he videotaped every television program he could watch on any channel in one day. He then spent months watching the tapes, and wrote about what he learned from them. He learned interesting and even useful things, like helpful hints for bass fishing and that Type A personalities are five times more likely to have a second heart attack.

For the other half of the book, he spent a day alone at the top of a mountain in New York State and wrote about all the things he learned there. From nature, he learned the important things — things vital to his sense of who he was and his place in the world.

I think the kinds of things McKibben learned from television are the kinds of things you can learn from me. What he learned on the mountain, the important things, are the kinds of things I can learn from you.

And I’ll bet if McKibben had had his grandchildren with him on that mountain, he would have learned a lot more.

Wayne Grady’s most recent book, Emancipation Day, was published in 2013.

This story first appeared in the April 2017 issue of The Observer with the title “Dear grandkids.”


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