Written on the Occasion of the 35th Anniversary of the Writers' Union of Canada

See also Achievements, Current Campaigns and Current and Past Chairs


by Christopher Moore

Who speaks for Canadian writers? In 1971 the answer seemed clear: no one. That year an Ontario royal commission held public hearings on the state of the book trade – and not a single writer or writers’ organization was asked to testify. Farley Mowat organized seven other writers to raise writers’ concerns before the commission, and some of them, notably June Callwood, Graeme Gibson, Margaret Atwood, Ian Adams, and Fred Bodsworth, then retired to a pub to discuss the events of the hearing over hotdogs and beer. Some of them had never met before. They decided that they must meet more often, and the nucleus of The Writers’ Union was formed.

“Really, it was Graeme who said, ‘We need a writers’ union’,” was June Callwood’s recollection of that discussion in the pub beneath the Park Plaza Hotel in Toronto. “He was the sparkplug.” Gibson and others set about talking to other writers. With seed money from the Ontario Arts Council, they hired Alma Lee, who had been working at House of Anansi Press, to begin contacting writers across the country. “How hard it was in those days to find one hundred professional writers,” recalled Lee. “We really went trolling from one end of the country to the other.”

After a planning session at Ryerson Polytechnic in Toronto in December 1972, eighty writers attended a conference in June 1973 at Neil-Wycik College in Toronto, where the outline of the new writers’ organization took form. Margaret Laurence, newly returned to Canada and widely recognized as Canada’s most prominent novelist, agreed to serve as interim chair. Margaret Atwood promoted the Union in the notes to her 1972 book Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. The ad-hoc organization set about drafting a constitution, writing policy statements, and securing Canada Council support for a founding convention.2

That convention, at the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa, founded The Writers’ Union of Canada on November 3, 1973. The delegates elected novelist Marian Engel as the new organization’s chair. The other writers elected to the first National Council were Harold Horwood, Rudy Wiebe, Graeme Gibson, Robert Harlow, Terrence Heath, John Metcalf, George Payerle, Heather Robertson, Andreas Schroeder, Ray Smith, and Kent Thompson. Five of these were regional representatives, responsible for presenting the concerns of their regions to the Council and for enacting the Union’s policies in their own areas. The first membership dues were $100. Alma Lee became the first executive director and sole staff member of the Union, running the new organization first from her own home, then from a one-room office on Sultan Street in the Bloor-Belair neighbourhood of mid-town Toronto.

They called it The Writers’ Union of Canada. In truth, the Union has been more akin to a guild or professional association than an actual trade union, but the initial meeting chose the name “union” to convey a sense of militancy and to stress the need for Canadian writers to unite. It was to be a union directed at writers’ professional concerns, not at teaching them to write. The Canadian Authors’ Association, founded in 1921, already served “craft” interests through a national network of branches in which aspiring and established writers could hone their skills and seek markets. The Writers’ Union was to be a union for published writers – open to writers who had published a book of fiction or non-fiction (or, from 1983, poetry) with a commercial or university press within the last seven years or (if published earlier) still in print.

As its first priorities, the new National Council identified standardization of publishing contracts and a Public Lending Right to remunerate writers for the use of their books in libraries. The first Union committees focussed on contract issues, on writer-in-residence programs at Canadian universities, and on reading tours for Canadian writers.

“Writers are a tribe,” said Margaret Laurence, and the early Union was a gathering of her tribe. The Union’s constitution, shaped by the Newfoundland writer Harold Horwood and the poet-lawyer Frank Scott, made the Annual General Meeting the key decision-making forum of the new Union as well as the body at which National Council members were elected. In the early years, “tribal” solidarity (and travel subsidies from the Canada Council) brought a very large proportion of the Union’s members to Annual General Meetings. The list of early chairs and council members featured many of Canada’s most prominent writers. In the Union’s first decade, its chairs included the novelist Timothy Findley, poet Robin Skelton, and non-fiction writer Charles Taylor. (“We are out of the woods!” proclaimed Skelton in 1982 when he became chair in succession to June Callwood, Harold Horwood, and Margaret Atwood.)

The three-day annual meetings played an important role in bringing the still small Canadian writing community together, often to engage in lively and even raucous parliamentary sessions to set Union policy. Andreas Schroeder, chair in 1976-7, recalled a motion to condemn the oppression of dissident writers in the Soviet Union, which was vigorously supported by (among others) Jan Drabek, himself once a refugee from the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, and just as passionately opposed by a member then living in East Germany, who insisted the only writers jailed in the Soviet Union were anti-social crooks. Graeme Gibson remembers this as a civil debate on a fundamental issue, but Schroeder, who was in the chair, remembers shouting, calls to order, and gavel-pounding. The motion to support oppressed writers in the Soviet Union passed, with one contrary vote.3

The early 1970s were the right time for a new national writers’ organization. The 1960s had seen a tremendous development of new Canadian writing and new Canadian-owned publishing houses, but except for the Canada Council (founded in 1957) and the Ontario Arts Council (founded 1963), there were few institutions or public programs to support writing and publishing. The air of nationalism and social activism, along with specific crises like the sales of Ryerson Press and Gage Publishing to American interests and the near-bankruptcy of leading Canadian publisher McClelland & Stewart, helped transform the cultural-policy scene throughout Canada. Ontario implemented the first recommendations of its own Royal Commission on Book Publishing in 1971, the Canada Council began funding Canadian publishers in 1972, and Canada introduced the first rules on foreign takeovers of Canadian cultural industries in 1974. The Association of Canadian Publishers (which, like TWUC, had grown out of the publishing crisis that launched the Ontario Royal Commission) adopted its permanent structure and name in 1976. Quebec writers launched UNEQ, the Union des écrivains québécois, in 1977. A network of regional publishers’ organizations and writers’ guilds grew rapidly, as did genre-based national organizations such as the League of Canadian Poets (founded 1966), the Periodical (later Professional) Writers’ Association of Canada, and the Playwrights’ Guild of Canada. The long-established Canadian branch of PEN, the international writers’ organization for free speech and support of writers in prison, revitalized itself as PEN English Canada and PEN Quebec in 1983.

The Writers’ Union itself helped launch several of the new cultural organizations and institutions. In 1975, it was among the founding members of the Book and Periodical Development Council, later the Book and Periodical Council, BPC, an industry-wide umbrella group. (Despite, or because of, its weighty official name, the BPDC was “Sylvester” to its insiders in the early years.) In 1976, Union members Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton, Graeme Gibson, Margaret Laurence, and playwright, novelist, and screenwriter David Young formed the Writers’ Development Trust to advance interest in Canadian literature and to support Canadian writing. The Writers’ Trust, originally conceived as a fundraising arm for the Union’s own projects, grew into the leading charitable organization for Canadian writing. The Trust’s fund-raising galas, the Great Literary Dinner Party and Ottawa’s Politics and the Pen, would become prominent events on the social scene, and eventually the Trust would administer literary prizes that paid Canadian writers over $100,000 annually, as well as a fund for writers in financial difficulty and a writers’ retreat in Pierre Berton’s childhood home in the Yukon.*

Through the 1970s and 1980s the Writers’ Union was active on many fronts. In the early years, promoting Canadian writing was a controversial act. “Canadian Literature” remained almost unknown as a subject of academic and critical study. Union members picketed bookstores that dumped foreign editions of Canadian works into Canada and joined the 1812 Committee to campaign for stronger Canadian cultural policies. The Union agitated for more Canadian books in Canadian schools and university courses. When teachers complained that there were no texts from which to teach Canadian Literature, the early Union’s can-do spirit kicked in: Union members organized teams of teachers as consultants and wrote ten texts (published by the Writers’ Trust) on key CanLit themes. The Union scrutinized the amount of book reviewing being done by Canadian media and campaigned to improve women writers’ access to publication and reviewing. In partnership with the Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council, it promoted public readings by Canadian writers for Canadian audiences, eventually supporting hundreds of readings a year. The readings programs helped build the network that linked writers and readers, as well as booksellers, librarians and other reading hosts, across Canada - and incidentally demonstrating the existence of the substantial audience that would later support writing festivals all over the country.

The Union’s early ambition to negotiate standard contract terms for the benefit of writers was never fulfilled, in the face of publishers’ deep reluctance and fears of being judged anti-competitive. The emergence of literary agents, largely unknown in Canada when the Union was founded, addressed some writers’ contract concerns, but the Union developed a model contract, and it provided contract advice services, a grievance process, and eventually a system of royalty audits on behalf of its members.

"Must… write Alma, tell her to form a collection society instanter,” wrote Marian Engel to herself in 1976, and that seems to have been the germ of collective licensing for writing in Canada. The campaign to build a collective that could license the photocopying of copyright work was eventually taken up by the Book and Periodical Council. The Union helped lobby for changes in the Copyright Act in 1987, and the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency, or CanCopy (later Access Copyright), came into being in 1989. It eventually became a multi-million-dollar enterprise providing schools, public institutions, and corporations with access to the rights they need. Writers’ Union nominees have sat continuously on its board to assert the principle of “access and rights” and to defend creators’ interests.4

From the beginning, the Union lobbied governments on public policy concerning literature and the arts. It lobbied the Secretary of State (later the Department of Canadian Heritage) on cultural policy. It consulted with the Canada Council and provincial arts councils on their granting programs and helped bring about the Canada Council’s first non-fiction writing grants in 1984. It was active in free speech and anti-censorship activities, notably in the 1987 resistance to Bill C-54, an “anti-pornography” measure that threatened literary expression. It urged education ministers and universities to integrate Canadian writing into programs of study, and it lobbied finance ministers on taxation of writers’ incomes and External Affairs (later Foreign Affairs) on international promotion of Canadian writers.

Public Lending Right, a program that would compensate writers for the use of their books in public libraries, was a founding goal of the Union, but it took thirteen years of unrelenting effort before Ottawa was persuaded to adopt the system. Victory was achieved in 1986, when Canada became the world’s eighth PLR country. In May, Union chair Matt Cohen welcomed Secretary of State Flora Macdonald to the Union’s Kingston AGM to celebrate the launch of PLR in Canada. Members gave her a standing ovation (and then carried Andreas Schroeder, who had worked tirelessly on the campaign, from the hall on their shoulders). Within twenty years, PLR was making annual payments that totalled nearly $10 million to more than 15,000 writers.

The Writers’ Union, an organization of individuals who were often temperamentally resistant to organization, was rarely tranquil in its early years. Margaret Laurence herself resigned to protest one Union policy, and a proposal to link members’ dues to their taxable incomes provoked walkouts in 1979. In 1999, disagreements between the executive and other National Council members would prompt resignation of the chair and both vice-chairs. Gender-equity issues promoted by the Status of Women Writers committee were often debated in the 1970s and 1980s.

By 1988, its fifteenth anniversary, when The Writers’ Union published a new edition of Who’s Who in the Writers’ Union, it was recognized as an organization that spoke vigorously for writers’ interests, encouraged links among Canadian writers, and provided vital support to their professional endeavours. (The last printed Who’s Who, which appeared in 1993, soon gave way to online biographies on the Union’s website.) Executive directors Alma Lee (1973-77), Ellen Powers (1977-1980), Mary Jacquest (1980-84), Penny Dickens (1984-2002), Deborah Windsor (2002-2010), Kelly Duffin (2010-2012), and John Degen (2012-present) have run the Union’s operations from a small office in Toronto (for many years at 24 Ryerson Avenue in the Bathurst and Queen area). The Union also has a branch office in Vancouver, long managed by Judy Villeneuve. After Ontario, British Columbia is home to the largest contingent of Union members, but members in Quebec, the Maritimes, and the Prairies have maintained strong regional branches of the Union, even without local staff. Another vital asset to the Union has been Marian Hebb, its longtime legal counsel and expert in copyright law and other creator-side legal matters. Formed to promote the very idea that cultural policy was necessary to Canada, the Writers’ Union had become one of many institutions participating in the making of cultural policy.

In the late 1980s, however, governments began cutting back on support for arts organizations. To ensure self-sufficiency, the Union responded with a membership drive. The drive was successful: membership grew rapidly in the late 1980s and again in the later 1990s, though not up to the campaign’s slogan, “2000 by 2000."5 With the reduction of travel subsidies, the Union’s Annual General Meeting now attracted smaller numbers both absolutely and as a proportion of total membership. By the 1990s it was more evident than ever that the Canadian writing community included a great diversity of backgrounds, interests, languages, and genres. The growth of the Union and of the writing community in general meant the Union was ceasing to be “the tribe” it had once claimed to be.

In 1989, Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, an Anishnabe writer and Union member, effectively launched the Appropriation of Voice controversy at a Writers’ Union AGM in Kitchener, Ontario with her argument that the stories and cultures of the First Nations (and, by extension, other minorities) should not be appropriated by non-native writers. The debate about writers’ identities and writers’ responsibilities went far beyond the Union itself and generated extensive media comment, particularly over the Union-facilitated Writing Thru Race conference in Vancouver in 1994. The Union found itself attacked simultaneously for excessive political correctness and for representing only the white liberal mainstream of Canadian writing.

What the Union had really done was provide the launch pad and forum for an important debate, one that reflected the remarkable flowering of minority voices in Canadian writing. Some writers who had joined the Union just to work with its new Racial Minorities committee and take part in the debate became long-time members. To ensure that the Union itself would be neither exclusionary nor negligent about the needs of writers outside the mainstream, the Union formed the Social Justice Task Force and adopted the report that grew out of its discussions in 1998.

The changes in the Canadian writing community were generational as well ethno-cultural. By the 1990s, writers shaped by the much more commercial writing and publishing industry that had grown up in Canada since the 1970s simply assumed the existence of cultural programs and policies for which the early members of the Union had campaigned. New writers continued to join the Union, but their perspectives and priorities did not always fit the model of political activism that had given birth to the Union and inspired its original members.

By the 1990s, the Union was neither one homogeneous tribe nor the only forum addressing writers’ concerns, but it retained a central role among Canadian writers’ organizations. It had many committed activists. (“Not everyone likes endless tedious procedural debate on obscure questions of cultural policy,” joked Bill Deverell, the only two-time chair of the Union, “but those who do, like it A LOT!”) Many loyal members might rarely attend or participate in meetings but readily supported the Union’s work on behalf of writers. Others came to annual meetings for the professional development workshops, or simply to meet and mingle.

The Union continues to work on cultural policy matters and on serving professional writers’ interests. When Canada launched a diplomatic campaign for an international “Instrument on Cultural Diversity” to support national cultural policies in the midst of global free-trade initiatives, the Union helped found creator organizations to support the initiative but also to insure creators’ concerns were not neglected. When big-box bookstores undermined the network of independent booksellers that had done so much for Canadian writing, the Union warned against bookselling monopolies. When governments cut cultural funding, it lobbied for continued funding for the Canada Council, Public Lending Right, and other arts programs. Each time new censorship campaigns began, it fought for free speech. It advocated for copyright law reform and for putting copyright income deductibility and income averaging into the Tax Act. It lobbied to protect writers’ digital rights from exploitation and supported writers’ interests in the landmark class action case Robertson v Thomson. As “born-digital” books extended writers’ freedom to become their own publishers, the Union’s membership committee acquired new flexibility in determining membership criteria.

Legislation on Status of The Artist, a concept developed by UNESCO and endorsed by Canada that empowers artists to bargain collectively on wages and working conditions, became a Writers’ Union objective in the 1990s. Canada and the provinces of Quebec and Saskatchewan have enacted Status of the Artist legislation, and the Union became an authorized representative, but since much of the legislation relevant to writing and publishing is provincial, Status of the Artist legislation in Ontario, home to much of the publishing industry, remains an important goal.

In a crisis, the Union can still play a unique role on behalf of Canadian writers. When the book distribution giant General Publishing went bankrupt in 2002, there was much concern for publishers’ losses, but only the Union intervened to point out the losses writers were also suffering, and it secured a compensation fund (administered by the Writers’ Trust) to assist members and non-members alike. The Union also supports its members individually, running a national series of professional development seminars for writers, maintaining a library of manuals on everything from ghostwriting to incorporation, and running a very effective grievance process to address writers’ difficulties with publishers. As digital publishing has emerged, it has advised on “print on demand” programs through which writers can bring back and market their out-of-print works.

In the early 21st century, most National Council members are elected directly by the whole membership, and as the Union continues to grow in numbers and evolve in purpose, annual meetings see more professional workshops and less policy debate. A highlight of every annual meeting continues to be the Margaret Laurence Lecture. Funded by the Writers’ Trust, this lecture by a senior writer on the subject “A Writer’s Life” has been given every year since 1987, when it was inaugurated by Hugh McLennan.

There remains much for a professional writers’ organization to do. In 1946, Northrop Frye declared, “An authors’ association simply has to… go ahead on trade union lines, working to get better publicity for its members, to equalize income tax so that it will be based on the average of several years instead of on the individual year, to standardize copyright laws, to arrange for pensions for elderly authors and scholarships or prizes for young ones, and so on.”6 The Writers’ Union of Canada has not resolved these enduring challenges, but it ensures that all continued to be addressed.

When Margaret Atwood wrote the entry on The Writers’ Union for The Canadian Encyclopedia, she concluded, “One of the most important achievements of the union is to have fostered a spirit of professionalism and self-respect among writers. This organization, founded by writers for writers, has enabled them to meet and know one another and to take collective responsibility for decisions which affect the ways in which they are seen and treated. Since the 1960s the public's image of the Canadian writer has changed - though the change is incomplete - from defective freak to acceptable member of society, and the union has reflected and fostered that change.” 7

1 Christopher Moore drafted this text in February 2007, building on an outline history printed in the 1993 Who’s Who in the Writers’ Union of Canada, probably drafted by then executive director Penny Dickens. Thanks to Andreas Schroeder for his contributions.

2 The origin story is based on the 1993 text. The quotation from June Callwood is added from a speech she gave on receiving the Writers’ Trust Distinguished Service award in March 2007. The quotation from Alma Lee is from an interview with Christopher Moore, March 2007 (transcript on file at the Union).

3 Personal communications to CM from Schroeder and Gibson.

4 Marian Engel, quoted from a diary excerpt in Kathryn Carter, ed., The Small Details of Life: 20 Diaries by Canadian Women (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2002), at page 435.

5 Writers Union of Canada membership numbers, various years:
1973 43 (Initial paid membership, according to 1993 Who’s Who)
1977 205+ (205 members listed in 1977 Who’s Who in TWUC)
1981 322+ (322 members listed in 1981 Who’s Who in TWUC)
1988 605 (605 total, 586 listed: 1988 Who’s Who)
1993 1103 (920 listed + 103 “further members” in Who’s Who)
1996 915 (data 1996-2007 supplied by TWUC office)
1997 1028
1998/9 1169
2000/1 1344
2004/5 1426
2005/6 1506
2006/7 1639
Assuming all data are accurate (!), note the rapid membership growth 1988-93 (82% in five years), the puzzling decline/stability of membership 1993-97, and the renewed growth since (63% 1997-2007).

6 Quoted from Alvin A. Lee, ed., Collected Works of Northrop Frye, Volume 12: On Canada (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2003)

7 Margaret Atwood, “Writers’ Union of Canada,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, (1st edition, Edmonton, Hurtig Books, 1985) and www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca

*This paragraph has been edited for accuracy.