Earthquake mayhem

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Origins of BC Yukon Branch of Writers’ Union of Canada

March 20th, 2008

The earliest entry in my diary about BC. writers comes on October 6, healing 1974, pharm when I attended a meeting of the BC members of the Writers Union of Canada. It was six years after my arrival in this province and I noted that present at George Payerle's house were Andreas Schroeder, recipe George Horwood, "someone named Audrey" (who later turned out to be Audrey Thomas) and an "older couple" (which must have been Christie Harris and her affable husband Tom).

The idea was to prepare for the TWUC general meeting in Ottawa three weeks later. The union had been formed the previous year with Margaret Laurence as its interim president and BC's Robert Harlow, George Payerle and Andreas Schroeder on the council. I read about this inaugural meeting in the Vancouver Sun, decided that with my first novel out I was now a professional writer and joined. In my native Czechoslovakia the Writers' Association at their 1967 congress had started the ball rolling for the Prague Spring — why shouldn't we have a similar blossoming here? Robert Harlow had just moved up to the vice-presidency and an even stronger BC participation was assured.

The most pressing business initially was to secure funding help for the organization from the Canada Council, draft a constitution and hammer together a standard contract for writers which would call for a minimum ten per cent royalty. But underlying it all was the union's determined push for the Public Lending Right legislation which would guarantee an income for writers based on library holdings. The law was passed in 1985 and implimented a year later with a lion's share in the effort going to British Columbia's through the indefatigable Andy Schroeder.

During those early years the head office in Toronto was skillfully administered by Alma Lee, who later became an honorary member of the union and eventually made the wise decision to move to British Columbia, where she started the Writers' Festival.

The BC caucus of the union in the 1970s and 80s had a strong immigrant flavour and it wasn't until later that this flavour became increasingly Asian. Stan Persky, Keith Maillard and Audrey Thomas were American by birth; David Gurr, George McWhirter, Robin Skelton, David Watmough came from English-speaking Europe. Theoretically Christie Harris should be among those, but though she was born in New Jersey, her Irish family was on its way to Canada at the time. Isabel Nanton, John Peter, Ian Slater and Bill Shermbrucker came from other, more remote places within what had been the British Empire.

Then there were the rest of us from non-English places: Andreas Schroeder from Germany, Gabriel Szohner from Hungary and, least and last, li'l ole me. The most exotic seemed Elfreida Read's, who was born in Vladivostok of Estonian parents. She wrote exquisitely about it in her memoir, called A Time of Cicadas.

From the beginning the B.C. contingent was a closely knit group. Already in 1979 the first regional office of TWUC was opened in Vancouver on a part-time basis and to this day it remains the union's only office outside of Toronto. The reason is simple: we soon found out that many of the problems we faced out here on the coast were specific to our region. For more than two decades now it has been administered by Judy Villeneuve, who has been an esteemed member of the Surrey City Council for about the same length of time.

The regional meetings of the union had two main venues during the 1970s. Robin Skelton lived in a large house in Victoria and I was the proud owner of a Tudor-like barn-like structure on Vancouver's West Side. Both could accommodate twenty or more members whose pot-luck offerings were often exotic and always delicious. The neighbours may have complained about alcohol induced noise and marijuana clouds floating in their direction from our porches, but hey, these were creative people who occasionally needed to fuel their creativity.

The flights to Ottawa from Vancouver for the AGMs were always useful in getting to know the other BC members and their views. I recall such trips with Blanche Howard, Keith Maillard, P.K. Page, Susan Crean, Norma Charles, Joan Haggerty and Sandy Duncan. If the aforementioned names are mostly female, it was because during the initial years women were certainly the dominant force.

The trip to the AGM became slightly shorter for the first time in 1980 when the AGM was held in Couchiching near Toronto. Up until then it was felt that Ottawa must be the venue since this was the only way to catch the ear of the VIPs in the government.

The trouble was that the biggest VIP of them all, Pierre Eliott Trudeau — who was a writer of note himself — never showed the slightest interest in us and the ears of his ministers also remained tightly closed. When the membership finally lost patience, it was decided that far more important was for the AGM to be held in the provinces. Initially Toronto and its environs seemed most sensible because most of us had publishers there, but in 1986 the AGM was held in Vancouver to coincide with Expo. The energetic Andy Schroeder became the first president of TWUC from BC already in 1976 and he was followed by the colourful Robin Skelton in 1982. When Robin was vice-president I sat on the Council as the BC representative. The hot issue that year was whether we should admit poets as union members. I, who was strictly a prose writer, was in favour of the motion; Robin, who was wrote in both genres but built his reputation chiefly on poetry, was vehemently opposed. Still, the poets were admitted the following year.

While BC Rep I also earned for myself a bit of notoriety. Dorothy Livesay, fresh from her trip to the Soviet Union, wrote an article about her visit, claimed that already Plato said that the essential role for an artist was to support his regime and its aims, concluding that for Canadian authors "the Soviet pattern would seem to have some parallels."

I responded with a letter to the paper, signed as the BC Rep of TWUC, claiming there were no such parallels. Absolutely not. Someone at the paper tagged it with the headline Poet's Article Shows Her To Be Dupe of Moscow" and we were off: Dorothy sent a letter of protest to the Union. It was discussed at the next National Council meeting and despite the Union's generally leftist orientation I was exonerated — I suspect largely due to the fact that Dorothy was not a member.

The Union's orientation on international issues came up shortly after it was formed and I must say that usually it conducted itself honourably. Very early it passed a resolution on human rights and updated it in 1977 despite an immense lobbying effort of a member called Sydney Gordon, who lived in East Germany and didn't want to hear anything about such rights.

The publication of my strongly anti-Communist book called Report on the Death of Rosenkavalier prompted in 1978 union members George Jonas and his wife Barbara Amiel to invite me for lunch at Toronto's fashionable Courtyard Restaurant. The idea was to sound me out if I would be willing to join an informal effort to oppose left-wing tendencies within the union.

While the meeting must have proved unsatisfactory for the duo (both left the union shortly after), it clarified things for me: I was not your typical libertarian – because of limited intelligence I needed lots of guidance and the laissez-faire approach to business scared the hell out of me. But even more important was my realization that while I was willing to go East for union meetings and conferences with publishers, my allegiances lay primarily with the British Columbia writing community, not the Eastern establishment. And the West Coast writers were far less interested in ideological lines.

Came the mid eighties and the birth of the Federation of BC Writers at whose cradle I managed to stand. If I wanted to write as well as continue to attend various meetings it was only natural that my activity within the the union would have to be curtailed. But by that time TWUC was humming right along on its path to greatness. So much so that the American version of the organization sent emissaries to find out how it's done. I still attend a meeting of the BC Branch now and then, but it's time to let the young'uns take over.

And they are doing well. The AGM was held at UBC this year and the BC organizing committee received quite an accolade for their work.

Essay Date: 2007

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