Denis Salter: Obituary



“Did you brave the waves of the Pacific? That would be quite special. It was my first ocean.”

– Denis Salter, 2008

It is with great sadness that we announce the sudden and unexpected death of Denis William Salter at his home in Montreal on Friday, April 22, 2022, at the age of 73.

Beloved husband of Susan “Susie” Still; father of Nicholas (Ariella), Anna (Hector), and Natasha; and grandpa to Lior and other grandchildren he looked forward to meeting soon; Denis will be deeply missed by dear family and friends, near and far, who felt the warmth of his intellect, and thoughtful smile, often with a twinkle in his eye. He and Susie recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

Denis’ obituary from his family has been published on the Dignity Memorial site: https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/montreal-qc/denis-salter-10725505

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Born in Princeton, British Columbia, to parents Vera Eve and Arthur Salter, Denis grew up in remote mining communities, where he completed much of his grade school education in a one-room schoolhouse. As the only child at home–his stepsiblings Dorothy and Brian being much older–and with few recreational activities nearby, Denis developed an intense love of reading and a keen interest in observing the people and places around him. Decades later, he would fondly recall the complete set of the Encyclopædia Britannica that his father had given him at age 12, a venerable gift which he carried with him from place to place in his adult life and later shared with his own children: “Let knowledge grow from more to more and thus be human life enriched”. Those of us who know Denis certainly came to appreciate the great comfort it gave him to be surrounded by books! And more books! As an ardent supporter of Denis’s love of learning, his father would spend Sundays helping him collect empty bottles around the mining camp, leftover from the weekend’s parties; they would thoughtfully invest the earnings in a Canada Savings Bond for Denis’s future education. Denis, himself, would later spend his summers working in the mines to further fund his undergraduate degree in the English Department at the University of British Columbia.

It is there, at UBC, that he acquired his lifelong passion for theatre, and met Susie, who was attracted to Denis’s avid enthusiasm for the arts; as a nineteen-year-old, he impressed her by spontaneously reciting a Shakespearean sonnet to cheer her up after her long day in the lab!? They would go on to support each other in the pursuit of their respective studies at the University of Toronto (MA/PhD for Denis and MD for Susie), taking turns paying each other’s way in their professional journey from Toronto to Halifax to Calgary (where they started their family) and eventually to Montreal, where Denis joined the Drama and Theatre Division of the English Department at McGill University. As a dedicated scholar and teacher, he cared deeply about impeccable research and writing, fostering collaboration and collegiality within and outside of academia–and encouraging students to do the same–supporting local theatre companies in Montreal and across the country, and, above all else, practicing good pedagogy.

Denis loved teaching and was always up for taking on new challenges, even towards the end of his career. He was especially proud of some of the courses he taught during his final years at McGill related to political and Indigenous theatre, informed and enriched by his work with alt.theatre: cultural diversity and the stage magazine over the years, working closely with dear colleagues who, like many others he met through the world of theatre, became lifelong friends. An innovative and caring teacher, he said his last semester of teaching, before retiring in 2021, was especially wonderful, despite Zoom! Shortly before retiring, he had the honour of receiving the Canadian Association for Theatre Research Lifetime Achievement Award for his work on Canadian theatre and “extensive scholarship celebrating the history and character of theatre in Canada”, exploring themes of “multiculturalism and diversity, indigeneity, and gender in both historical and theoretical contexts.” (https://catracrt.ca/dr-denis-w-salter/)

Although he lived in many places across Canada, Denis was especially drawn to the East Coast. He loved spending time with Susie and his kids, together with family and friends, at their beloved cottage on the South Shore of Nova Scotia, his home away from home since the early 1980s. No matter how much time he spent there, he never tired of watching the ever-changing moods of the shore, the sea, and the sky with Susie from their deck. His presence there will be deeply missed, and always felt, by all those who had the pleasure of enjoying a tranquil afternoon with him by the sea, listening to the sounds of the bay and braving the cold Atlantic for a swim together.

Donations can be made in Denis’s memory to the following organizations/initiatives he supported (please see donation section below for links):

Teesri Duniya Theatre Co.

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

The Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Fund

Welcome Hall Mission

Or any other organization which you think Denis would have liked to support. Thank you!

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Tributes:

By Ted Little, Vancouver Island. May 2022

It is with deep sadness that I write to inform our members that Denis Salter died at his home in Montreal on Friday, April 22, 2022. With Denis’ passing, we have lost a gifted teacher and mentor, a valued colleague, a diligent scholar, and a dear friend. Denis was a caring and generous man. He was perennially excited by new research and supportive and curious about the ideas of others. He took great delight in asking, “What if, what if, what if? He would often quote Leonard Cohen’s, There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. Denis sought this light across a wide range of research interests—teasing out interconnections and often using the security of his position as a tenured academic to advocate for others, and to shed light on artists, authors, students, and thinkers whose work might not otherwise be seen or heard.

For Denis, CATR was an extended family of like-minded souls bound together through an ethos of sharing and caring with a history stretching back years and years and years. Denis’ part in the story began in the early 1970s when he came to Toronto to undertake an M.A. at the Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama. There, together with what he described as “a cohort of intellectually insatiable friends,” Denis attended seminars, including those led by Ann Saddlemeyer and Robertson Davies. There, he encountered the “efflorescence” of new Canadian plays and new Canadian theatres springing up in Toronto and across the country. There, as Denis put it, was “The character-forming and character-altering confluence of time, place, and ideas” that would eventually find expression in CATR. Denis sensed that “a huge cultural epistemological shift” was underway; a shift born of many things, not the least of which was resistance: “resistance to the borrowed theatre of a cluster of cultures that made up an imperium dedicated to the continued colonization of our minds, bodies, imaginations, and souls; resistance to the stuffy, stultifying, soul-destroying behemoth known as ‘Toronto the Good.’” For Denis, this led to the epiphany that he had “arrived where he was meant to arrive.”

Denis’ service to our association was extensive: from 1983 to 1985, he served both as Executive Secretary and Officer-at-Large representing the Prairie Region (continuing in the latter post until 1987); he served as Vice-President from 1985 to 1986, and President from 1987 to 1989; he was a member of the Professional Concerns Committee from 1994 to 1996, and Chair of that committee from 1996-1998. He served as a member of the Richard Plant Best Essay Prize committee from 2004 to 2006; was a member of the Organizing Committee for our Conference at Concordia University in Montreal in May 2010; he served on the editorial board for Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches Théâtrales au Canada from 1993 to 2015 during which time he also assessed manuscripts and advised regarding potential referees. Over the years, Denis regularly presented papers at our conferences, organized panels, and sat as a panelist and roundtable participant on numerous occasions. He was a two-time winner of the Richard Plant Best Essay Prize, and in 2020, our association awarded Denis a Lifetime Achievement Award.

With Denis’ passing, I am reminded of the need for the kinds of sharing, caring, and deep thinking that characterized Denis’ relationships with others over all the years I knew him. I feel extremely fortunate to have met him through CATR to have worked closely with him as a colleague on alt.theatre: cultural diversity and the stage, and to count him as a friend.

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By Erin Hurley, Montreal. April 2022

Denis was my first mentor. As an undergraduate honours student, he was my professor in advanced theatre history classes and my thesis supervisor.  His intellectual guidance – always patient, always precise, always generously offered – was a precious gift; his personal example of an academic made a huge and important impression on me. Denis welcomed me to his family home during the final stages of my thesis; he and I worked at the dining room table amidst children and food and life. He clearly relished his full existence as a scholar, a partner, a parent, a citizen. In all my training, he was one of two mentors who showed me such a life might exist. 

During my PhD years, we would see each other at conferences. One memory of these contacts has particularly stayed with me. We attended a session in which a graduate student was searching to understand post-colonial theory and its relevance to theatre studies. After responding patiently to some of his queries (Denis had recently published an article on Canadian theatre historiography and postcolonialism), Denis said to me, “Wasn’t it brave of that student to ask about what he didn’t know?”. Such encouragement of intellectual bravery was part of his genius and his ongoing impact. 

If he was always a pedagogue willing to share his findings, his ruminations, his keywords, his theatrical ephemera, he was also always a student – curious, inventive, resourceful. His incredible teaching and learning in Indigenous drama and theatre that made such a huge – and already much missed – contribution to our department and the D&T curriculum is but one example of his example of commitment to social justice in and through theatre and to lifelong learning.  

Already I have been missing dear Denis this year, since his retirement. I am deeply grieved at now having to miss him now forever. He was simply a wonderful person. I am so grateful to have known him.

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By Moira Day. May 2022

As a long time member of CATR (or ACTR as it was for most of Denis’ time with us), Denis was unforgettable as a friend, mentor, and moving spirit in the profession. He was one of the first people I met when I joined the Association as a grad student back in the early 1980s – and his warmth, kindness, and encouragement to a young scholar trying to find her way into the profession are all important reasons why I am still here almost forty years later. And I’m sure that was true of many of us who encountered Denis over the years. One was always impressed by Denis’ brilliance and erudition as a scholar, his perceptive wit and grounded common sense as a colleague, and his ability to open the door and push young scholars gently but firmly through the doors of opportunity. My infinite gratitude to a friend, colleague, mentor, early pillar of strength in our profession – and peace to great mind and spirit too soon gone.

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Denis Salter Nécrologie

Par Ted Little, île de Vancouver. Mai 2022

C’est avec une profonde tristesse que j’écris pour informer nos membres que Denis Salter est décédé à son domicile à Montréal le vendredi 22 avril 2022. Avec le décès de Denis, nous avons perdu un enseignant et un mentor doué, un collègue précieux, un érudit diligent et un ami proche. Denis était un homme attentionné et généreux. Il était constamment enthousiasmé par les nouvelles recherches et soutenait et était curieux des idées d’autres. Il prenait un grand plaisir à demander : « Et si, et si, et si ? Il citait souvent Leonard Cohen : « Il y a une fissure dans tout, c’est comme ça que la lumière entre. » Denis a cherché cette lumière dans un large éventail d’intérêts de recherche – taquinant les interconnexions et utilisant souvent la sécurité de sa position d’universitaire titulaire pour défendre les autres et pour projeter la lumière sur les artistes, les auteurs, les étudiants et les penseurs, dont le travail, ne seraient peut-être pas autrement vus ou entendu.

Pour Denis, l’ACRT était une famille élargie d’âmes partageant les mêmes idées liées par une éthique de partage et de bienveillance avec une histoire qui remonte pendant des années et des années et des années. Le rôle de Denis dans l’histoire a commencé au début des années 1970 lorsqu’il est venu à Toronto pour entreprendre une maîtrise au Centre d’études supérieures pour l’étude de l’art dramatique. Là, avec ce qu’il a décrit comme « une cohorte d’amis intellectuellement insatiables », Denis a assisté à des séminaires, y compris ceux dirigés par Ann Saddlemeyer et Robertson Davies. C’est là qu’il a rencontré « l’efflorescence » des nouvelles pièces canadiennes et des nouveaux théâtres canadiens qui surgissent à Toronto et partout dans le pays. Là, comme l’a dit Denis, il y avait « la confluence du temps, du lieu et des idées qui forme et modifie le caractère » qui finira par trouver son expression dans l’ACRT. Denis sentait qu’un « énorme changement épistémologique culturel » était en cours ; un changement né de beaucoup de choses, dont la moindre n’était pas la résistance : « résistance au théâtre emprunté d’un groupe de cultures qui constituaient un imperium dédié à la colonisation continue de nos esprits, de nos corps, de nos imaginations et de nos âmes ; résistance au mastodonte étouffant, abrutissant et destructeur d’âme connu sous le nom de « Toronto le Bon ». Pour Denis, cela a conduit à l’épiphanie qu’il était « arrivé là où il était censé arriver ».

Le service de Denis dans le cadre de l’ACRT est considérable : de 1983 à 1985, il a été secrétaire exécutif et agent général représentant la région des Prairies (poste jusqu’en 1987); il a été vice-président de 1985 à 1986 et président de 1987 à 1989; il a été membre du Comité des préoccupations professionnelles de 1994 à 1996 et président de ce comité de 1996 à 1998. Il a été membre du comité du Richard Plant Best Essay Prize de 2004 à 2006; a été membre du comité organisateur de notre conférence à l’université Concordia à Montréal en mai 2010 ; Il a siégé au comité de rédaction de Recherches théâtrales au Canada de 1993 à 2015, période au cours de laquelle il a également évalué des manuscrits et conseillé des arbitres potentiels. Au fil des ans, Denis a régulièrement présenté des communications lors de nos conférences, organisé des panels et participé à de nombreuses occasions en tant que panéliste et participant à des tables rondes. Il a été deux fois lauréat du prix Richard Plant du meilleur essai et, en 2020, notre association a décerné à Denis un prix pour l’ensemble de ses réalisations.

Avec le décès de Denis, je me souviens de la nécessité du genre de partage, de bienveillance et de réflexion profonde qui ont caractérisé les relations de Denis avec les autres au cours de toutes les années où je l’ai connu. Je me sens extrêmement chanceux de l’avoir rencontré par l’intermédiaire de l’ACRT, d’avoir travaillé en étroite collaboration avec lui en tant que collègue sur alt.théâtre : la diversité culturelle et la scène, et de le compter comme un ami.

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Par Erin Hurley, Montréal. Avril 2022

Denis a été mon premier mentor. En tant qu’étudiant de premier cycle spécialisé, il a été mon professeur dans les cours avancés d’histoire du théâtre et mon directeur de thèse.  Ses conseils intellectuels – toujours patients, toujours précis, toujours généreusement offerts – étaient un cadeau précieux ; son exemple personnel d’universitaire m’a fait une impression énorme et importante. Denis m’a accueilli dans sa maison familiale pendant les dernières étapes de ma thèse ; lui et moi travaillions à la table de la salle à manger au milieu des enfants, de la nourriture et de la vie. Il savourait clairement sa pleine existence en tant qu’érudit, partenaire, parent, citoyen. Dans toute ma formation, il a été l’un des deux mentors qui m’ont montré qu’une telle vie pouvait exister.

Pendant mes années de doctorat, nous nous voyions lors de conférences. Un souvenir de ces contacts m’est particulièrement resté. Nous avons assisté à une séance au cours de laquelle un étudiant diplômé cherchait à comprendre la théorie postcoloniale et sa pertinence pour les études théâtrales. Après avoir répondu patiemment à certaines de ses questions (Denis avait récemment publié un article sur l’historiographie théâtrale canadienne et le postcolonialisme), Denis m’a dit : « N’était-ce pas courageux de la part de cet étudiant de lui demander ce qu’il ne savait pas ? ». Un tel encouragement à la bravoure intellectuelle faisait partie de son génie et de son impact continu.

S’il a toujours été un pédagogue prêt à partager ses découvertes, ses ruminations, ses mots-clés, son éphémère théâtral, il a aussi toujours été un étudiant – curieux, inventif, débrouillard. Son enseignement et son apprentissage incroyables en théâtre et en théâtre autochtones qui ont apporté une contribution si énorme – et déjà très manquée – à notre ministère et au programme d’études en D&T ne sont qu’un exemple de son engagement envers la justice sociale dans et par le théâtre et à l’apprentissage tout au long de la vie. 

Déjà, mon cher Denis me manque cette année, depuis sa retraite. Je suis profondément attristé de devoir maintenant lui manquer pour toujours. C’était tout simplement une personne merveilleuse. Je suis tellement reconnaissante de l’avoir connu.

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Par Moira Day. Juin 2022

En tant que membre de long terme de l’ACTR (comme c’était le cas pendant de la majorité du temps de Denis avec nous), Denis était inoubliable en tant qu’ami, mentor et esprit émouvant dans la profession. Il a été l’une des premières personnes que j’ai rencontrées lorsque je me suis jointe à l’association en tant qu’étudiante du cycle supérieur au début des années 1980 – et sa chaleur, sa gentillesse et ses encouragements envers une jeune chercheuse qui tente de trouver sa voie dans la profession sont tous des raisons importantes pour lesquelles je suis toujours ici près de quarante ans plus tard. Et je suis sûr que c’était vrai pour beaucoup d’entre nous qui avons rencontré Denis au fil des années. On a toujours été impressionné par l’éclat et l’érudition de Denis en tant qu’érudit, son esprit perspicace et son bon sens enraciné en tant que collègue, et sa capacité à ouvrir la porte et à pousser les jeunes chercheurs doucement, mais fermement à travers les portes des opportunités. Ma gratitude infinie envers un ami, un collègue, un mentor, le premier pilier de la force dans notre profession – et la paix à l’esprit et à l’âme partie trop tôt.


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