Katherena Vermette, Tomson Highway and Cherie Dimaline were among the honorees at the 2021 Writers’ Trust of Canada Awards, an annual event that recognizes the country’s best writers and books of the year.
The Writers’ Trust of Canada is an organization that supports Canadian writers through literary awards, fellowships, financial grants, mentorships and more.
The organization was founded in 1976 by Margaret Atwood, Pierre Berton, Graeme Gibson, Margaret Laurence and David Young.
It also gives out seven prizes in recognition of the year’s best in fiction, nonfiction and short story, as well as mid-career and lifetime achievement awards.
The Writers’ Trust Award ceremony was livestreamed on Nov. 3, 2021. It was hosted by writer JJ Lee, author of The Measure of a Man.
WATCH | The 2021 Writers Trust Awards ceremony:
Katherena Vermette, Tomson Highway take home top prizes
Vermette received the Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, a $60,000 award, for her novel The Strangers.
The Strangers follows the women of the Stranger family, as they grapple with alienation, disconnection and racism in Winnipeg. Cedar goes to live with her estranged father after a series of foster homes, while her older sister Phoenix gives birth in a youth detention centre and their mother Elsie struggles with addiction.
“They are very disconnected — not only by the systems that were imposed upon them and separate them very deliberately, but also by their own pain and trauma.”
The Atwood Gibson Writers’ Trust Prize jury praised Vermette for her “cathartic and disturbing” novel.
“Vermette offers up a beautiful, raw testament to those living on the margins,” said jury members Rebecca Fisseha, Michelle Good and Steven Price.
“The Strangers offers vital insight into the colonial brutality that still haunts the lives of the Métis.”
Vermette’s other books include her debut novel The Break and the poetry collections North End Love Songs and river woman. She also wrote the story of Annie of Red River for This Place: 150 Years Retold.
The four remaining Atwood Gibson Prize finalists will each receive $5,000. They are Rivka Galchen for Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, Miriam Toews for Fight Night, Guy Vanderhaeghe for August into Winter and Alix Ohlin for We Want What We Want.
Last year’s winner was Gil Adamson for her novel Ridgerunner.
LISTEN | Katherena Vermette discusses The Strangers:
17:18Katherena Vermette on The Strangers
Highway, a celebrated Cree novelist, composer and playwright, won the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for his memoir Permanent Astonishment.
Permanent Astonishment follows Highway from his birth, in a tent pitched in a snowbank in northern Manitoba, and through his childhood and early teenage years in a large, nomadic caribou-hunting family. Highway recounts the beauty of northern Canada, his years in the residential school system and the inspiring union of his parents, Joe and Balazee Highway.
Highway is a novelist, children’s author, playwright and musician. His work includes the Canadian theatre classics The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing, the novel Kiss of the Fur Queen and the children’s novels Caribou Song, Dragon Fly Kites and Fox on the Ice. He now lives in Gatineau, Que.
“I needed to assess my life. [Writing a memoir] is a good way to assess your life,” said Highway in an interview with CBC Books.
“You don’t sit down to write a masterpiece … that’s the last thing on your mind. You do it just to clean up your mind. It’s like housekeeping for your soul or your spirit.”
The Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize jury described Highway’s memoir as a “mesmerizing story.”
“Highway’s writing delights in tales of eating muskrat tails, speaking Cree (and learning English), preparing for a Christmas concert, and listening to Hank Snow on a transistor radio,” said the jury, comprised of Kevin Chong, Terese Marie Mailhot and Adam Shoalts.
“While unstinting about the abuse he and others suffered, Highway makes a bold personal choice to accentuate the wondrousness of his school years resulting in a book that shines with the foundational sparks of adolescence: innocence, fear and amazement.”
The four remaining finalists of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Fiction will each receive $5,000. They are Jordan Abel for Nishga, Ken Haigh for On Foot to Canterbury: A Son’s Pilgrimage, Darrel J. McLeod for Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity and Ian Williams for Disorientation: Being Black in the World.
Last year’s winner was Jessica J. Lee for her memoir Two Trees Make a Forest.
LISTEN | Tomson Highway discusses Permanent Astonishment:
Q18:32Tomson Highway on Permanent Astonishment and his ‘uniquely Canadian’ childhood
4 lifetime achievement awards given out
Cherie Dimaline took home the $25,000 Writers’ Trust Engel Findley Award, which recognizes the accomplishments of a fiction writer in the middle of her career.
Dimaline’s most recent book is Hunting by Stars, the highly anticipated sequel to The Marrow Thieves. The book takes place in a dystopian timeline where residential schools have re-emerged and Indigenous people are being hunted for their bone marrow to unlock the secrets to dreaming.
The Marrow Thieves was the No. 1 bestselling Canadian book in the country’s independent bookstores in 2018. It won the Governor General’s Literary Award for young people’s literature — writing, was featured on Canada Reads and is now being adapted for television.
In a recent interview on The Next Chapter, Dimaline confessed that “peer pressure” from her fans convinced her to write a sequel.
“A lot of young Indigenous readers reached out, really wanting to know for sure what happened to these characters that they loved,” she said.
“I normally don’t advocate for caving in to peer pressure. But in this case, I will say that was a huge part of it!”
“Cherie Dimaline is a fearless and transformative storyteller,” said the jury, comprised of David A. Robertson, Kerri Sakamoto and Russsell Wangersky.
“Her devotion to craft and character manifests prose, both rich and earthy, that transcends genre and threads together Indigenous heritage with historical and contemporary realities … Dimaline continues to forge a fresh pathway into the landscape of Canadian literature.”
LISTEN | Cherie Dimaline discusses Hunting by Stars:
19:42Cherie Dimaline on Hunting by Stars
Frances Itani received the $25,000 Matt Cohen Award, which honours a lifetime of distinguished work.
The Ottawa writer is a Member of the Order of Canada and author of 18 books. Her body of work ranges widely from historical fiction to children’s books and poetry.
“It is quite wonderful to have this work recognized by my peers and by my country,” said Itani in her acceptance speech.
“The apprenticeship never stops. I am always learning and digging and researching. And I’m halfway
through my next novel now.”
Itani won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best book in 2004 for her novel Deafening, which was translated into 17 languages. Her bestselling novel Tell went on to be shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Her latest novel is called The Company We Keep. The book follows a bereaved widow named Hazzley, as she sets up a “conversation group” for strangers, all of whom are grieving in their own ways.
“Frances Itani was a nurse for eight years before she took a writing course from W.O. Mitchell,” said the jury, comprised of Patsy Aldana, Wayne Grady and Olive Senior.
“Time after time, Itani tells an intimate, universal and poignant story. Her sculpted prose, quietly breathtaking, leaves us haunted and yearning for more.”
LISTEN | Frances Itani discusses her novel The Company We Keep
All in a Day11:49The Company We Keep
Linda Bailey was awarded the Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People, a $25,000 prize, in recognition of her lifetime achievement in children’s literature.
The Vancouver writer has published over 30 books for young readers, including picture books and middle-grade novels, and has won nearly as many prizes.
Her work includes Carson Crosses Canada, a picture book about a feisty elderly woman and her dog on a road trip, as well as Mary Who Wrote Frankenstein, an award-nominated nonfiction book about Mary Shelley, and most recently Princesses Versus Dinosaurs, a silly clash of storybook characters.
“Warm, humorous, and fun are the best words to describe the works of Linda Bailey over a career that has spanned three decades,” said the jury, comprised of Hadley Dyer, Marthe Jocelyn and Mahtab Narsimhan.
“Bailey’s highly imaginative, propulsive plots frequently send characters — two, four and six-legged — on journeys across uncharted territory or time, driven by burning questions or a yearning to escape the ordinary.”
Weyman Chan received the Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize, a $25,000 award given to a mid-career poet in anticipation of his future contributions to Canadian poetry.
The Calgary writer was chosen for his “urgent, unflinching and redemptive poems” that “span generations and geographies from Calgary to China.”
Chan’s most recent poetry books include Human Tissue: A Primer of Not Knowing, Chinese Blue and Hypoderm: Notes to Myself. In 2008, he was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award for the book Noise from the Laundry.
“Chan’s writing bursts with lyricism, wonder and quiet ache,” said jury members Gillian Sze and Shane Book.
“His poems are as concerned with notions of longing as with belonging. In Chan, we find a remarkable voice in Canadian poetry — necessary and distinct.”
Chan said it was an “incredible surprise” to win in his acceptance speech.
“My greatest appreciation – poetry lives!” he said.