Home » The Canadian Authors Meet: A Glimpse into the Week Calgary Became the Literary Centre of Canada
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by Shaun Hunter
On July 4, 1928, the Calgary Herald declared Calgary “the literary centre of the Dominion.” That designation would last for four exuberant days, when seventy writers from Alberta and around the country gathered for the eighth annual convention of the Canadian Authors Association (CAA).
If you happened to be on 8th Avenue that weekend, stocking up on bunting and flags at Mayor F. E. Osborne’s bookstore for the Stampede, you might have spotted a famous Canadian writer. Perhaps one of the country’s leading men of letters, Charles G. D. Roberts, or bestselling novelist Arthur Stringer. Or, you might have recognized one of Calgary’s own literary stars—novelists Nellie McClung, Laura Salverson, or Ralph Kendall, the author of two popular Mountie novels.
City journalist Elizabeth Bailey Price and her committee at the Authors Association’s Calgary branch had prepared a compelling conference program. Along with lectures and business meetings, the schedule included a variety of social events.
To open the convention, Mayor Osborne hosted a reception in the Palliser Hotel ballroom. There, writers mingled with local dignitaries and community leaders amidst bouquets of peonies and Shasta daisies courtesy of the city’s Parks Department. The conference would conclude with a gala black-tie dinner at the Banff Springs Hotel. Over the course of the weekend, writers would have the opportunity to don their dancing shoes three times.
True to form, Calgary weather tested conference planners. Heavy June rains had waterlogged southern Alberta roads, cancelling a visit to the Prince of Wales’ E. P. Ranch south of the city.
Instead, organizers threw together a last-minute driving tour of Calgary and an impromptu tea at Nellie McClung’s Beltline home.
Mud also disrupted a ceremony on the reserve land of the Tsuut’ina Nation. Only the intrepid few who knew the back route saw Chief Joe Big Plume honour Association president Charles G. D. Roberts as “Writer Chief.”
Another kind of weather also hovered over the Calgary conference—a disturbance whipped up by the young Montreal poet F. R. Scott a few months earlier in the pages of the McGill Fortnightly Review. In his poem “The Canadian Authors Meet,” the modernist Scott lampooned the Victorian imperialism of the Authors Association. His poem begins: “Expansive puppets percolate self-unction / Beneath a portrait of the Prince of Wales.”
In Scott’s eyes, the group was an enterprise consisting of starstruck hobbyists, Victorian-era imperialists, and tea parties. “The cakes are sweet, but sweeter is the feeling / That one is mixing with the literati.”
It appears that Scott’s critique was on the mind of the Association’s president. Roberts had been singled out in the poem as one of the country’s old guard of writers “measured for their faith and philanthropics, / Their zeal for God and King, their earnest thought.” In Roberts’ speech to conference delegates at Knox United Church, he argued that the Authors Association was not a mutual admiration society filled with boosters.
“We are in effect a Guild of Workers. We include not only those who have arrived, but those who are arriving, and those who are striving earnestly to arrive. It is our business to be broadly and liberally inclusive.”
The Calgary conference program met the CAA’s understanding of literary inclusivity, with talks for writers at all stages working in all genres. Offerings included: “Free Verse” (a controversial poetic form in 1928); “Writing and Publishing a Book”; “Fair Play for Women in Literature” (delivered by Nellie McClung with her singular wit); “Canadian Literature and Canadian Universities”; and “The Copyright Situation.”
Copyright reform may have launched the CAA in 1921 but post-war nation building and patriotism filled its sails. (In Scott’s words, when the Canadian Authors meet: “The air is heavy with Canadian topics.”) In Calgary, conference attendees were inspired by the way writers could help carry out the Canadian national project—and build their own portfolios at the same time.
Canadian history called out for fresh treatment. (“Our textbooks are DRY AS DUST,” one presenter declared in what was later described as the conference’s “most impassioned address.”)
Donalda Dickie, author and one-time instructor at the Calgary Normal School, urged her fellow writers to pen stories for young readers. “[F]ew countries provide richer sources—romantic, historic, geographic, industrial. Moreover, writing for children pays.”
On the subject of “Canadian Books for Adolescent Girls,” Calgary librarian Georgina Thomson offered a comprehensive list, and a caveat. “While there is excellent material at hand, written by Canadians,” the Herald reported, “Miss Thompson pointed out that she would not confine the young girl’s choice solely to Canadian books, ‘Let her have access to the best of the world’s literature.’”
The Herald also straddled this line: despite more than a dozen articles covering the convention weekend, and admonishment for Canadians who ignore their own literature, the paper featured a poem by William Wordsworth in that weekend’s Saturday edition.
Writers at the Calgary conference also had advocacy on their minds. Concerned about inaccuracies on plaques for historic monuments and cairns on the prairies, members resolved to lobby for a “qualified representative of the prairie provinces” to be appointed to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board established a decade earlier.
As the convention wrapped up, the Herald published an editorial from the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.
“Attending conventions is one of the most popular summer games invented and played on this continent. People go to them for a variety of purposes, to nominate political candidates, to consider the needs and grievances of some group or economic class, to pass resolutions, to have a good time and for other reasons.” (That same weekend, Alberta postmasters and the United Farmers of Alberta also gathered in Calgary, while weekly newspaper editors met in Edmonton and movie theatre managers in Banff.)
The Star editorial went on to highlight the main purpose of the authors’ convention in Calgary: to champion the existence of a Canadian literature.
“Canadian readers are used to looking to the United States and Great Britain for books. The Canadian Authors Association has a useful work [sic] to do in making better known the merits of Canadian literature past and present.”
The Authors Association would continue finding ways to connect Canadians to our own stories—work that engages our cultural community almost a century later.
Note: You can read more about the CAA and the 1928 Calgary convention in Lyn Harrington’s Syllables of Recorded Time: The Story of the Canadian Authors Association, 1921-1981 (Toronto: Simon & Pierre, 1981).
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: Delegates to national convention of the Canadian Authors Association at a dinner held in the Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, Alberta, 1928-07. (Image credit: Courtesy of Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections, University of Calgary.)