Spain Remembers

Spain Remembers

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Sleeping Giant Writers Festival wins the Sheila Burnford Award.

Text of speech by Joan Baril when presenting the Sheila Burnford Award to the Sleeping Giant Writers' Festival on behalf of the Northwestern Ontario Writers' Workshop.

I’m here to present the Sheila Burnford Award.

The Sheila Burnford Award, was instituted last year. Simply put, its aim is to recognize the importance of individuals and organizations that support writing and literature. The first recipient of the Burnford award was the Thunder Bay Public Library.

First, I want to say a few words about Sheila Burnford. She was born in Scotland in 1918, lived in several places in England, was an ambulance driver in the Second World War and after her marriage moved to Port Arthur where she wrote most of her books. She moved back to the UK and died on 20 April 1984, in Hampshire, England, age 65.

She was the author of 9 books. The most famous, The Incredible Journey, has gone through multiple printings, has been widely translated, and is still available everywhere. This year, I saw the latest edition front and centre in a children’s book store in San Francisco. This novel is now a classic.

From this novel, the Disney Corporation made three movies: Incredible Journey which premiered in Port Arthur at the Paramount Theatre in 1963 and remade as Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey in 1993. This is a great movie and I know because I’ve seen it at least ten times. When you have grandchildren, you do these things. It too has become a classic and still available in every video store all over the world, translated into many languages.

The third movie, Homeward Bound II Lost in San Francisco was released in 1996, using the same Burnford characters but never gained the popularity of the original Homeward Bound. If you want a sample, both are available in whole or part - where else - on Youtube.

Also still in print: Bel Ria Dog of War, One Woman’s Arctic in which Burnford describes her two summers in Pond Inlet on Baffin Island, Mr. Noah and the Second Flood, and Without Reserve. All her books have gone through several editions, audio books etc

But there is no doubt about it that the Incredible Journey is her masterwork and still beloved by children as shown by the many admiring comments at Amazon and Chapters web sites although one child did state : the Incredible Journey is good. It has a lot of punctuation. I predict a future as a literary critic.

Now to this year’s Sheila Burnford award. It goes to The Sleeping Giant Writers Festival, its founders and volunteers.

Marian Toews, a GG award winner, the delightful Richard Scrimger, Jeanette Lynes, (who wrote about the wartime Canada Car in Fort William) Ian Brown ( whose book Boy From the Moon is a top ten seller) David Carpenter and Johanna Schneller – where would you ever meet such a group of distinguished writers? In Thunder Bay – at this year’s festival of course.

Where would you have met Arthur Black, or participate in a dynamite workshop such as the one given by Heather Summerhayes Cariou, or try to impress Antansas Seleika with the first page of your novel, or listen to a story by Alistair McLeod or hang out with the most friendly guy in the world, the late Paul Quarrington? At the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival of course. And you do get a chance to meet the authors as well as hear them, talk to them after the workshops or at lunch or the banquet. How did I feel last year? I felt honoured to chat with Lynn Coady, one of my favourite short story writers. I felt inspired by Fred Stenson’s information on writing an historical novel.

Now, I have attended other writers’ festivals in various parts of the continent – San Francisco, Chicago etc. . A few years ago, I attended a large literary festival, one of the largest in Canada. It was held in two huge buildings, and one ran through frigid echoing corridors to get to the next workshop on time. After each workshop, the writers disappeared (probably to a jolly hospitality suite with an open bar etc) and we, the plebs in the audience, studied the site maps of the two buildings and hustled to the next venue or tried to find a coffee and were not always successful.

It was then that my mind often turned to the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival.

No comparison.

This festival, the largest literary festival in Northern Ontario, is now in its seventh year. The writers love it. Last year web meister Jackson Stone picked them up at the airport in his old limo and gave them a tour of the city. They get together at a preliminary meal and they bond. They remember Thunder Bay and they want to come back. They love our festival. We have no problem getting writers now.

The first year, 2004, had four presenters – Greg Hollinshed spoke on fiction, Joe Fioritto, a Fort William native son on non-fiction, Patricia Smith discussed a writers’ life and Claude Liman, another local resident, discussed poetry. The first festival was held at the Prince Arthur Hotel with a total cost of – for workshops, opening reception, Saturday night readings and banquet - 149$. Not much different from today. The cost this year is $189 – a bargain and only 40 $ more because it includes the loathsome HST but let’s not go there tonight. For your registration, you get 6 presenters and part of the festival is again the Prince Arthur where it has been for the first five years. Last year it was at the Old Fort.

That first year must have been nerve racking, wondering if anyone would come or if they would be laughed out of town. Aldo Roberto told me the team mentioned the name of Greg Hollinshed, a name he admits he had never heard before, and the general consensus was that Hollinshed, who was teaching at Banff, would be too busy to come. At this point the team had not even firmed up the dates of the festival but Aldo phoned Hollinshed anyway who indeed was too busy.

Aldo asked him what he was doing?

 Hollinshed said he was going to his camp in Muskoka for the summer.

Aldo asked if he planned to drive from Banff to Thunder Bay and when Hollingshed said yes, Aldo suggested he make a stop here for the festival.

What date do you think you will be passing through Thunder Bay?

When Hollinshed figured out some dates, Aldo said, “What a coincidence. Those are the dates of the festival.”

According to Cynthia Cooper who looked after registration with Viv Hay and Marion Poutinen (and anyone who has had anything to do with a large public forum or assembly knows how much work goes into registration alone) , there were 90 participants. Last year there were 150 registrants, 300 to hear Peter Mansbridge, the featured speaker.

Such success is not done with magic. It is not the work of the elves and the pixies. No, over the years we see a team of dedicated volunteers with good ideas and hard work. People who mean what they say and put in the countless hours to make it happen. They have created their own magic – as we all know.

Before I talk about these marvellous people, I want to mention community support because Thunder Bay has dedicated supporters of the arts – not only the Sleeping Giant Writers festival but other artistic endeavours. Where would we be without our local public library (and I mention here Barb Philp). Many of the team members told me that our library were one of the first organizations to jump on board. Thunder Bay Telephone (here there and everywhere in the cultural scene) the Chronicle Journal, Dougal Media, Lakehead University Bookstore, Ontario Arts Council, (it could not be done without them) TD Canada Trust, Prince Arthur Hotel and of course Marg Philips of the Northern Women’s Bookstore. There are others of course and I apologize to those I have left out, but without the ongoing year after year support of these and other organizations, no festival. Thank you.

Now to the magic makers. I spoke to several members of the volunteer team, and please note they were, and are, all volunteers. The theme of every conversation was praise, praise for the team, praise for each other. Not a dissenting voice. Praise for everyone’s hard work. “We all got along,” said Dorothy Colby which in itself is a marvellous testimony. Aldo told me, “We knew from the first we were going to make mistakes, but we knew we would learn from the mistakes and keep on going”.

Dorothy Colby, Laurie Wourinen, Aldo Roberto, Cynthia Cooper, Marion Poutinen, Mary Frost, Debbie Debkker, Viv Hay, Nancy Angus, Jackson Stone and others – and I deeply apologize to those whose names I omitted - and to all the volunteers, over the years, you were the magic makers - as busy as the legendary elves, as visionary as the pixies, as tough as any hobgoblins and as kick ass as any northern Ontario troll. You had to be.

You are the visionaries, the dreamers and the doers. We are the recipients of your vision, your dream and your hard work. To you we say thank you and, of course, we’ll see you August 27, 28, 29. Registration is open.

Thank you.

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