Home » Alberta’s Historic Literary Spring
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By Shaun Hunter
The spring of 1921 was momentous for Alberta writers. One hundred years ago, novelists, poets, and nonfiction authors joined their colleagues across Canada to form the country’s first national association of writers.
A proposed federal copyright bill sparked the founding of the Canadian Authors Association (CAA) in Montreal. Stephen Leacock and others were enraged that printers would be able to produce copies of writers’ works without their permission. A national organization could fight the bill and improve economic conditions for writers.
On March 12, 1921, Leacock and others met in a classroom at McGill University and hammered out a constitution. From the outset, they saw their organization as a national enterprise with branches a mari usque ad mare, including a French-Canadian section, and a branch in the United States where many Canadian writers had chosen to work.
The Authors Association was also fuelled by the spirit of nation building in post-World War I Canada. CAA founders saw the 1920s as a new era for cultural growth. A modern Canadian ethos demanded a distinctive national literature.
At the McGill meeting, two of Alberta’s most prominent writers were elected to key positions: Nellie McClung as regional vice-president, and Emily Murphy as a council member. Well-known suffragists, McClung and Murphy were also successful and prolific authors. Like her contemporary L. M. Montgomery, McClung was a household name among Canadian readers. Magistrate Emily Murphy, writing as Janey Canuck, penned magazine articles and had published several popular books.
On April 26, 1921, McClung and Murphy hosted a literary dinner at Edmonton’s elegant Macdonald Hotel. There, writers mingled with the premiers of Alberta and BC, the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta, the Mayor of Edmonton, and the Authors Association national president, writer John Murray Gibbon.
After dinner, seventy people formed a provincial branch of the CAA, electing Nellie McClung as chair, and Mount Royal College founder George Kerby as vice-chair for Calgary. As the Edmonton Journal reported, the organization’s objectives “will be to create a spirit of mutual helpfulness among its members, to secure the cooperation of publishers, librarians and booksellers, and generally to aim at elevating the status of Canadian writers.”
At the Macdonald Hotel, a contingent of five Calgary writers argued for a southern Alberta branch, and on May 7, they got their wish. Sixty-five city writers, editors, and journalists gathered for lunch in Calgary’s Tapestry Room on the sixth floor of the Hudson’s Bay. After the meal, CAA president Gibbon spoke frankly to the assembled crowd about the realities facing the Canadian writer. According to the Calgary Herald, he remarked that “the rewards of authorship in Canada were very meagre, so meagre in fact that few could live on the proceeds, but were obliged to make their writing a sideline to their other work.”
Gibbon also blew sunshine into the Tapestry Room that mild May afternoon. Calling Calgary “the city of Romance,” he said: “no place of the age and size of Calgary, within the Empire, had a larger number of writers to its credit, or had furnished more inspiration, and material, for their writings.”
By the end of the luncheon, the Calgary branch of the CAA was born, with three bestselling writers at the helm: George Kerby as chair, Winnifred Eaton Reeve (aka novelist Onoto Watanna) as vice-chair, and Sergeant Ralph Kendall, author of two popular Mountie novels, as a member of the executive committee.
In short order, planning meetings were organized in both cities.
In mid-May, the Edmonton executive met at Nellie McClung’s home. There they discussed plans for a high school writing contest, a display of Alberta books at the Provincial Library, and the upcoming visit of the editor of Maclean’s magazine.
At Calgary’s first branch meeting, attendees agreed to open membership to non-writers interested in promoting Canadian authors and literature. They also agreed to pursue ways to feature Alberta authors during the CAA’s first national Book Week that November.
In spring 1921, the Alberta branches launched a new chapter in the province’s literary history. Writers attended monthly luncheon meetings at venues like the Board of Trade offices in Edmonton’s McLeod Building and the sunroom at Calgary’s Palliser Hotel. They heard talks on the writing craft (English style and language, writing screen scenarios) and on issues of wider concern (movie censorship, Canadian literature and national identity, and western rights to natural resources).
Alberta writers shared works-in-progress, forged friendships, and, on occasion, triggered rivalries. (The feud between Winnifred Eaton Reeve and Laura Salverson in 1924 played out in the pages of the CAA’s monthly magazine Canadian Bookman… but that is another story.)
By the end of the year, both Alberta branches had organized local Book Week celebrations, promoted the importance of Canadian literature with members of other civic clubs, and hosted poet Bliss Carman—the Leonard Cohen of the 1920s—on his cross-country performance tour.
Far from the country’s cultural centre in Toronto, Alberta writers were now part of a national literary conversation. In the pages of Canadian Bookman, they published their work and connected with colleagues, publishers, and booksellers. At the association’s annual conventions, they built relationships with literary colleagues, and established their own reputations.
Organizers in central Canada were impressed. Canadian Bookman put it this way: “So splendid a response from the West must come as a revelation to our Canadian Authors in the East… Canadian literature is not merely a product of Eastern culture, but is just as vital and strong on the Pacific and in the Prairies.”
It was a rosy view but the literary seeds planted that spring of 1921 would grow through the decades. Both CAA branches continued their activities—in Edmonton until 2020, and in Calgary as the Calgary Writers’ Association from the late 1980s until the early 2000s. Their legacy? Writing contests, publications, and festivals featuring Alberta writers; professional development, programs for young writers, promotion, and advocacy. In 1980, the newly-formed Writers’ Guild of Alberta would plant itself in the ground the CAA Alberta branches had tilled.
This year, we celebrate the centennial of that significant season when writers set out to create a literary world in Alberta. A century later, we continue to reap the fruits of that storied spring.
Shaun Hunter is the author of Calgary through the Eyes of Writers (Rocky Mountain Books, 2018). As the 2020 Calgary Public Library/Heritage Calgary historian in residence, she created a digital literary map of Calgary marking more than 500 sites in the city’s storied landscape. You can find Shaun at shaunhunter.ca.
Feature image credit: May 9, 1921, Calgary Herald newspaper article, accessed via Newspapers.com.