Canadian Writers in Person celebrates 10 years

Ten years ago, John Unrau launched Canadian Writers in Person at Atkinson College. It was an introductory literature course with a difference – students got a chance to meet the authors of the works they were studying in class.  

John UnrauIt was even better than that. The readings were free and open to the public – because they were funded in part by the Canada Council for the Arts – and often drew big crowds, especially when popular writers such as Alistair MacLeod read. More than 100 – up to 12 every year – of Canada’s literary stars have come from far and wide to read from and talk about their work with students and members of the York community.

Left: John Unrau

Now in its 11th year, the Canadian Writers in Person lecture series promises appearances by Elizabeth Hay and Lawrence Hill next term. “It is one of Toronto’s best-kept secrets,” Unrau likes to boast. “It’s a better deal than the Harbourfront reading series.”  

On Dec. 8, the lecture series will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 206 Accolade West Building at 7pm by launching the Canadian Writers in Person Film & Digital Archive. The U50 project begins with the screening of a new interactive documentary and the launch of a digitized film archive of authors reading over the past five years. A panel, including writers Anthony De Sa, Lien Chao and Afua Cooper, and digital culture Professor and hypertext author Caitlin Fisher, will talk about what it means to write in Canada and the value of the Canadian Writers in Person series. A collection of course posters will be on display in the lobby and a reception will cap the evening.

Unrau taught Canadian Writers in Person for the first five years, then retired and passed the baton to feminist film scholar Gail Vanstone.

Since her first class in 2004, she has filmed – and still films – every author who has read in the series. Stephen Cain continued this practice when he replaced Vanstone during her sabbatical. Aware that before the advent of digital technology records of writers visiting York were often lost, she seized this chance to capture on film these Canadian writers appearing at York. Using a studio-quality camera, she filmed hundreds of hours of authors reading and stashed the footage in her office closet. Then, as a member of the U50 committee, she seized another chance to do something special with them.

The U50 committee was seeking ideas for 50th-anniversary projects. "Here was a perfect opportunity to work on my material," says Vanstone. She proposed making a documentary about Canadian Writers in Person. It would feature interviews with Unrau and others involved with the course and incorporate footage of some of the authors she had filmed. 

                               Right: Gail Vanstone

Vanstone hired Carolyn Steele (BA Hons. ’90, MA ’91), a doctoral candidate in communication & culture, to produce the documentary. She would have to digitize the original film, so it could be incorporated into the documentary, as well as do the interviews. Steele had developed the award-winning Career CyberGuide for York’s Career Centre and is doing her thesis on interactive media and documentary film. She was ideal for the job. 

Steele began working on the project last April and spent hundreds of hours digitizing and editing up to 200 hours of original footage. At the same time, she began taping interviews.

"Initially, the focus was to be on the writers, but as people began to tell her stories of how the course developed, the focus shifted," says Vanstone.

Steele ended up producing a 40-minute interactive documentary featuring only the interviews. Unrau talks about deciding to pay authors more than the Canada Arts Council honorarium. Vanstone explains why she decided to film the authors. Co-professor Leslie Sanders muses on the value of the course. Harriet Lewis (BA ’69, MA ’71), University secretary & general counsel who studied English at York, describes the dinners she hosted to raise money for the series. Current series teaching assistant Chris Cornish (BA Hons. ’04, MA ’09) remembers how the course influenced his life.

Left: Reading series posters designed by Erik Morin

In the end, the film captured the story of how the series evolved and the archive documented the writers reading. Nevertheless, Steele did transfer hundreds of hours of film of authors reading into digital bits and bites. And those digitized film archives are now accessible to all on Artmob, a searchable online database for Canadian cultural content. Steele divided the footage into two parts – the reading and the class discussion – for each author.  

"I was hugely happy with the way this came together," says Vanstone.

As Vanstone continues to film writers who participate in the course – using a digital video camera now – the database archive will continue to grow. The documentary, original film and digitally archived materials will be placed in the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections of Canadian Literature at York.  

To attend the Canadian Writers in Person celebration, RSVP online or by phoning Nora Priestly at ext. 33121 by Dec. 4.  

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer