Isabel Huggan (nee Howey) was born in Kitchener, Ontario on September 21, 1943, to Catherine Innis MacLennan and Cecil Ronald Howey. Huggan was one of two children, including a younger sister, Ruth. Shortly before Isabel was born, her father changed the spelling of the family name from Hooey to Howey. After completing her primary and secondary education in Elmira, Ontario, Huggan studied English and Philosophy at the University of Western Ontario, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1965. Following graduation, she moved to Toronto where she worked for the Macmillan Publishing Company, leaving after a year to travel Europe. Returning to Canada in 1967, Huggan began teaching English, Creative Writing and Theatre in Ontario High Schools (Oakville, Timmins, Clarkson, and Scarborough).
On December 31, 1970, she married journalist Robert David Huggan. In 1972, they moved to Bellville, Ontario, where she worked as a reporter and photographer for the local newspaper for three years. It was after the birth of her daughter, Abbey, in 1977, that Huggan decided focus on her writing career. By this point, she had already published various poems and short stories in Canadian literary magazines, and her short story "Celia Behind Me" won first prize in a National Film Board contest for women scriptwriters in 1976. Following the success of "Celia Behind Me", Huggan wrote more stories about its main character, Elizabeth Kessler. The Elizabeth Stories, published in 1984 by Oberon Press, chronicled the upbringing of Elizabeth over a ten-year period.
Moving to Ottawa in 1980, Huggan taught for several years at the University of Ottawa and for the Ottawa High School Board until Robert was offered a position in Kenya, which saw them move from Canada in 1987. That position lasted three years and led to postings in France (1990-1993) and the Philippines (1993-1998). The family returned to France in 1998 following the end of Robert's position in the Philippines.
While living abroad, Huggan held positions as editor, writer, and teacher at a variety of organizations; using her skills for writing in a monthly column for the Ottawa Citizen, facilitating writing workshops, and participating in speaking engagements. In 1993, Huggan published her second collection of stories entitled, "You Never Know". However, it was her third collection that caused the most buzz, with "Belonging: Home Away From Home" (2003), a book Huggan describes as a ‘memoir and fiction,’ winning the Charles Taylor Literary Non-Fiction Prize in 2004.