Six years after the Indigenous Voices Awards (IVAs) were first launched, the conversation about Indigenous literature in Canada has grown exponentially – instead of focusing on a handful of big names, it is a much larger conversation that features many more voices.
Deanna Reder, co-chair of the IVAs and a Cree-Métis scholar at Simon Fraser University, credits multiple factors for this, including the long-term effects the Idle No More movement has had on “galvanizing the next generation” – as well as the awards program itself.
“I think we have to give credit to the IVAs: it’s community building as well as the celebration of writing,” she says.
The IVAs grew out of a successful Indiegogo campaign launched in 2017 as a response to a group of Canadian media professionals who joked on Twitter about backing a prize for cultural appropriation in literature. The Indigenous Literary Studies Association and Cherokee writer Daniel Heath Justice worked to develop a structure for the annual awards, which seek to “support and nurture the work of Indigenous writers in lands claimed by Canada.” Granted to published and unpublished works in French and English and published works in Indigenous languages, the IVAs have helped foster and develop Indigenous literature in Canada.
As Reder points out, “we awarded Billy-Ray Belcourt a prize before he was famous.” Other major talents to have been nominated include Joshua Whitehead and Tenille K. Campbell.
“A lot of that generation is now contributing by sharing the awards with their friends and communities, their networks, so that has been very organic,” Reder says.
The reach of the IVAs is also measurable in more easily quantifiable ways: at least seven of the award recipients in the unpublished category have gone on to publish their highlighted work in book form.
Speaking about the awards’ origins, Reder says it is inspiring to see that something so positive grew out of such controversy.
“It wasn’t one person that wanted to change this, but when that controversy happened in 2017, people looked around – all kinds of people, hundreds of people … all these individual donors looked around and said, no, there isn’t enough support for Indigenous writers. Who’s kidding who?” Reder says. “All these individual donors, I hope they feel really proud that they contributed to this.”
To mark the first five years of the awards, Reder and her co-chair and SFU colleague Sophie McCall asked previous IVA jurors Jordan Able, Carleigh Baker, and Madeleine Reddon to put together an anthology of the work of IVA finalists and winners.
The result is Carving Space: The Indigenous Voices Awards Anthology, out now from McClelland & Stewart, which takes its title from a Lee Maracle quote. Contributors include Whitehead, Campbell, Belcourt, Tanya Tagaq, Cody Caetano, Francine Cunningham, and Jesse Thistle.
“It reflects our desire to celebrate everyone,” Reder says of the anthology. “We try to work against prize culture that celebrates only the stars by instead valuing everybody for the positions they come from, and giving them equal space. The anthology has done a great job of that.”
Recently, the IVA leadership has grown to include Marie-Eve Bradette at Laval University as the team addresses gaps in the reach of the awards.
“While we’ve been very happy with our successes, we have to acknowledge that there are gaps. For example, we have never been able to access unpublished writers in French,” Reder says. The addition of Bradette to the leadership team has meant that the IVAs are now a bilingual organization, and every communication that goes out can be sent in both English and French.
The IVAs plan to continue to grow: a leadership change is expected to be announced in the fall, Reder says. Details are still being finalized, but Reder says the next generation will be taking over leadership, and the IVAs won’t look exactly the same.
Reder is happy to see Carving Space join the literary landscape of Canada, and hopes to see even more change in the days ahead.
“We’re still not so far away from thinking of this as the ‘New World,’ and thinking about ‘us and them,’” she says. “There is a lot of work still to be done, but this is an offering to change.”