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The Writers' Development

Trust at a Turning Point

By Ramsay Derry
Volume 11 Number 6

When you look at Canada's various cultural activities you can see that most of them, classical music, opera, theatre, dance, and the visual arts, have a significant educational base. There are schools or colleges of music, theatre, dance and art. These arts also have identifiable constituencies -- fairly clearly defined audiences, with the most active of these people becoming members of relevant organizations, working on fund-raising committees and often taking significant part in the furthering of the organization. They can on occasion become powerful lobby groups to effect government and arts council policies.

But when you look at the literary scene in Canada the picture is a great deal blurrier. There is no easily identifiable educational base, and the huge constituency of people who have at least some interest and pleasure in Canadian literature is extremely hard to identify, let alone gather together into an effective power group in support of the literary arts, especially at a national level. There are a number of professional organizations related to the literature -- the Writers' Union, the League of Canadian Poets, The Canadian Authors Association, and several others which have a very specific and essential role in supporting and aiding their members. There are also the publishers associations, the C.L.A. and the Booksellers Associations, again with specific functions relating to their own interests.

What there was not, until the Writers' Development Trust came into being, was a broadly based support organization for Canadian literature -- one that drew its membership and its support from the writers themselves, from the publishing, bookselling and library worlds, and from corporations and private individuals.

The Trust was established in 1976 mainly by four of the country's outstanding writers -- Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton, and Graeme Gibson. It is incorporated as a registered nonprofit organization -- an important fact since this means that it can receive tax deductible donations in support of its own projects, as well as those that are appropriate for it to sponsor. The founders had a clear general purpose for the Trust: it was to promote interest in, and to advance the development of Canadian literature and Canadian writers.

An office for the Trust was established, and a small staff -- never more than two people -- began to develop the purpose of the Trust into specific projects. A number of programs were set up:

  • the Writers Centre was established, with the aim of providing several of the individual writers' organizations with a base of operations including the Trust itself, sharing of office services, and acting as centre for writers to meet.
  • in collaboration with the Four Words Foundation, The Dream Class was set up in Metropolitan Toronto high schools. This exciting program allows promising students to take part in a year-long writing program under the general direction of poet David Young, and novelist Graeme Gibson. Other well known writers visit the class during the year. The results of the Dream Class can best be seen in an anthology of the students work which was recently published by Coach House Press and well reviewed by William French in The Globe and Mail.
  • for two years the Trust has organized and run a Writers Retreat. This program financed in part by the Ontario Arts Council, allowed both established and beginning writers to take part in a one to three week writing retreat at a Muskoka resort. The program was extremely popular and the participants universally enthusiastic about the opportunities the program gave them. This Retreat project was seen as a precursor to a long-range aim of the Trust to establish a permanent writers and artists colony.
  • an Awards Night was held to announce the winners of a number of the literary awards now presented in Canada, to encourage the establishment of more awards, and to celebrate Canadian literary talent.

The Canadian Literature Resource Guides have been one of the most successful and satisfying of the Trust's projects. They were conceived with the specific purpose of providing teachers at various levels with detailed guides to available published Canadian literature. They were put together by committees of teachers and writers and careful attention was paid to the regional makeup of the Committees. The first ten guides were published soon after the Trust's founding and had a thematic structure. Subsequently, the teaching and resource guide to Canadian plays, Spotlight on Drama was published in 1981.

Now the Trust has underway the important Canadian Children's Literature Resource Guide. Once again regional sub-committees have been established and both the Canadian Society of Children's Books Authors, Illustrators and Performers, and the Children's Book Centre have members on the organization committee. The Chairman of the Committee and Project Co-ordinator is Dr. Johan Aitken, head of the English Department of the Faculty of Education at the University of Toronto and an internationally known specialist in Canadian children's literature.

This project needs further funding if it is to be completed, and a campaign is now underway to raise the money. However, to some extent this is affected by the financial condition of the Trust itself which is at present in a difficult situation. The fact is that it has proved extraordinarily hard to get steady long-term financial support for an organization like the Trust. Individual projects tend to have more appeal to foundations and to corporations, but without a solid financial base for the Trust, it has proved to be almost impossible to raise money effectively for its various projects. The Trust has had some quite spectacular fund-raising events, such as the famous Night of One Hundred Authors held last autumn, but as experienced fund-raisers know, special events can be tremendously effective, but they should not be depended on to provide the regular overhead costs of an organization.

It's possible that the Trust will become a comparatively passive organization, concentrating chiefly on acting as a clearing house for projects initiated elsewhere. This would be, in a limited way, a useful function, but it certainly will not do much in broad terms to help Canadian literature and Canadian writers.

However, if it is to do the job it set out to do, it needs a large and active membership drawn from both the general public and from those involved one way or another in the world of books and writing. It needs the demonstrated support of writers themselves, and it needs to be able to persuade grant-giving bodies -- both private and public -- that Canadian literature can benefit from a central support organization. In the next months the Trust's board of directors and current members will have to make up their minds which direction to take.

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