As authors gather in Vancouver this weekend for the Writers’ Union of Canada’s annual general meeting and OnWords conference, it is inevitable that discussions about cultural appropriation and equity will dominate. And that is exactly what the national advocacy organization wants to happen.
TWUC executive director John Degen anticipates approximately 200 of its 2,000-plus members will attend the June 4 meeting. “We’re expecting some very engaged and vocal members, which is great,” he says. “It’s what we do at our conferences and AGMs. We hash things out.”
The AGM takes place less than a month after TWUC’s quarterly magazine, Write, published an op-ed by now-resigned editor Hal Niedzviecki, in an issue dedicated to Indigenous authors, stating, “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say there should even be an award for doing so – the Appropriation prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.” Ironically, the issue was the result of a motion passed unanimously at TWUC’s 2016 AGM in Winnipeg to support the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s report and to increase opportunities for Indigenous storytellers. (TWUC has since republished the issue’s content on its website, with additional fees paid to contributors.)
The editorial caused an international backlash, including scrutiny of the magazine’s editorial process and of TWUC’s role within Canadian writing communities. Behind the scenes, the organization’s staff, national council, and volunteers were busy planning an AGM and conference focused around equity and diversity, kicking off with a panel discussion called Writing the World Now, moderated by Waubgeshig Rice, who served as a guest editorial adviser for Write, and who tweeted about his disappointment over Niedzviecki’s note. Toronto cultural consultant Charles Smith – who was hired by TWUC in January to create an implementation plan consolidating the discussions that have already taken place since the organization passed its equity policy in 2014 – will be hosting two members-only sessions titled Toward an Equitable Union.
“He’s taking all the discussion and policy work that we’ve done over the last three to four years on the issue, and figuring out how to make it real within our programs, within our leadership, how we make decisions,” says Degen. “That project has been going on for close to a year. All of this was aimed toward the AGM anyway, and I think what’s happened in the last two weeks is that the accelerator pedal has been pressed down a little harder and that’s not a bad thing.”
Shortly after Write contributor Alicia Elliott brought Niedzviecki’s editorial to public attention via Twitter, TWUC’s volunteer-run equity task force released a statement on May 15 comprising 10 demands for how the union should “rectify this truly dire situation, and to begin (again) the work of respect and reconciliation.” Degen anticipates that that the 10 demands, which includes affirmative-action hiring for the next editor of Write and any future TWUC office staff, as well as a paid equity-officer position, will be discussed point-by-point by the organization’s national council prior to the AGM, and then again with members at the meeting. “I think it will be a large part of what we do in Vancouver,” he says. “I would say all those points that came out were all things that have been discussed already, and have been on the table since the formation of our equity policy.”
Task-force co-chair Heather J. Wood hopes that positive changes will happen sooner than anticipated, in part because of the public debate over appropriation that occurred online. “TWUC has been trying for a long time to address these issues but sometimes it’s amazing how some things can fall through the cracks, or that some institutional things are harder to change than you think,” she says. Wood admits that initially she felt “a little like the work we had been doing was going get undone or be for not,” but going into the AGM, she is more optimistic. “A lot of people on the national council and most of the people in the union do want to see change.”