#430 Looking back at the GGs

The Governor General’s Literary Awards of Canada: A Bibliography
by Andrew David Irvine with the assistance of Edmond Rivère and Stephanie Tolman

Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2018
$79.95  /  9780776627397

Les Prix littéraires du Gouverneur général du Canada: Une bibliographie
by Andrew David Irvine, with the assistance of Edmond Rivère and Stephanie Tolman

Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2018
$79.95  /  9782760327276


Looking back at the GG Awards

by Andrew David Irvine

Established in 1936 by the Canadian Authors Association, Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards have a storied past. In 1968, Leonard Cohen turned down an award for his book, Selected Poems. At a party following the ceremony, an angry Mordecai Richler brusquely took him aside, saying “C’mere, I want to talk to you.”

As Cohen’s biographer, Ira Nadel, reports, Cohen was taken aback. When Richler asked him why he had declined the award, the only thing Cohen could think to say was “I don’t know.”

“Any other answer and I would have punched you in the nose,” Richler replied.

Phyllis Webb with Leo. Webb won a poetry GG in 1982 for The Vision Tree. Photo by Betty Fairbanks, courtesy Library and Archives Canada

A year later, when Charlottetown poet Milton Acorn failed to win for I’ve Tasted My Blood, his fellow poets were so annoyed they created a new award especially for him. At Grossman’s Tavern in downtown Toronto, they presented him with the first and only People’s Poet medallion. When Acorn’s later book, The Island Means Minago, won a Governor General’s award in 1975, Acorn wore the medallion to Rideau Hall the day of the ceremony.

In 1977, Montreal author Michel Garneau’s award was also not without controversy. When offered an award for his book, Les célébrations suivi de Adidou Adidouce, he declined. Partly he wanted to emphasize that he was writing as a Quebecer rather than as a Canadian. Partly he wanted to emphasize the colonial implications of having the Governor General serve as the Queen’s representative in Canada. Partly he wanted to protest the fact that during the early years of the awards, French-language books had been ineligible for nomination.

Summing up the sentiment of the day, Garneau announced that he was turning his back on the GGs “Parce que la reine d’Angleterre, mon cul!”

Alice Munro won in 1986 for her novel The Progress of Love

Forgotten in the midst of all this turmoil was the fact that, at the time the awards were established, the CAA had tried hard to ensure that they would be given for books in both French and English.

Twice the CAA had approached its sister organization, the Société des écrivains canadiens, hoping that together the two organizations would be able to introduce a program of bilingual awards. Unfortunately, the temper of the times was against them and the offer was declined.

One might worry that controversies like these have the potential to tarnish the reputation of the awards. But as James English has noted of the Man Booker Prize, “Far from posing a threat to the prize’s efficacy as an instrument of the cultural economy, scandal is its lifeblood; far from constituting a critique, indignant commentary about the prize is an index of its normal and proper functioning.”

Carol Shields won in 1993 for her novel, The Stone Diaries. University of Manitoba photo

The same can be said of literary awards quite generally. Controversy provokes discussion. Discussion leads to greater understanding. Greater understanding brings about a better, more informed appreciation of a country’s literature and people.

Today, the Governor General’s Literary Awards remain Canada’s premier literary prize. Like the Pulitzer Prize south of the border, the GGs recognize creative excellence in a variety of categories. In 1936, the first year of the awards, two books received recognition from Canada’s then-Governor General, the world-famous British author, John Buchan.

Today there are fourteen categories of awards, seven in each of Canada’s two official languages.

Roy Miki won a poetry GG in 2002 for Surrender

Over the decades, the awards have recognized books for both adults and children. They have honoured many of Canada’s best novelists, playwrights, non-fiction authors, poets, translators and book illustrators.

Before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013, Alice Munro won the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction three times, in 1968, 1978 and 1986.

Perhaps partly as a result of their sometimes-contentious past, until this year the awards have not been carefully chronicled. Official announcements of award-winning books have often contained errors. To give just one small example, in 2016 the press release announcing the awards stated that His Excellency the Governor General “will honour 14 laureates” in the seven English and seven French book categories being recognized that year.

Patrick De Witt won in 2011 for his novel The Sisters Brothers. Photo by Deborah Dundas, Toronto Star

Although there were indeed fourteen categories of awards in 2016, since each of the two illustrated-book awards was shared between the book’s author and illustrator, there were sixteen laureates that year, not fourteen.

There is nothing special or unique about this error. Anomalies of this sort are an inevitable part of any archival record of significant size. Official records and announcements, merely by being official, bring with them no ironclad guarantee of accuracy.

Instead, it is the historical record as a whole, rather than any single document, whether official or unofficial, that needs to be consulted before coming to a decision about even the most mundane of details. In each case, conflicting evidence needs to be weighed, contradictory announcements need to be evaluated, incomplete accounts need to be reconstructed.

Madeleine Thien won in 2016 for her novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Photo by Bruce Tilley, courtesy CBC

The Governor General’s Literary Awards of Canada: A Bibliography aims to correct these errors. It differs from previous lists of award-winning titles in several ways. It includes five award-winning books, from 1948, 1963, 1965 and 1984 (three in English, two in French) that have inadvertently been omitted from previous lists, as well as a full list of declined awards. It also arranges award-winning titles into historically correct award categories, no small challenge given that these categories have been revised numerous times over the past eight decades.

Jack Hodgins won in 1978 for his novel, The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne. Photo by Don Denton

Of the five titles inadvertently omitted from previous bibliographies, four are from multi-volume works in which multiple titles – but sometimes not the full series – have won awards. Previous lists have typically mentioned only a single title, leaving readers with the mistaken impression that only a single book received an award. The fifth is the first and only book to have received a Governor General’s citation, an award option that existed for three years but that was used only once.

The inaccurate reporting of award categories has also led to the circulation of numerous unreliable lists claiming, for example, that dramatic works were eligible for awards in a “Poetry or Drama” category as early as 1936. In fact, no dramatic work was eligible for consideration until 1959.

John Pass won a poetry GG in 2006 for Stumbling in the Bloom

Not only can this be seen from the press releases announcing each year’s winners prior to 1959, the CAA clearly explained its reasoning behind its decision not to have a category focusing on dramatic works: “The question may arise as to the omission of dramatic works from the Board’s awards. This is due to no oversight. The Board has rightly taken the stand that the text of a dramatic work, though physically in the form of a book, is outside the scope of the Awards, since the real publication of any play lies in its stage, or radio, production.”

Although some of the association’s members believed drama to be an important literary genre worthy of recognition, the majority thought that good theatre could be evaluated only through performance and that no book or script could rise to the level of a live or recorded performance.

George Bowering won a fiction GG in 1980 for Burning Water. Photo by Kris Krüg

As long as the CAA administered the awards, it was this view that prevailed. Awards for drama were not introduced until the Canada Council for the Arts took over the administration of the awards in 1959. To represent the historical record otherwise is to make a mistake of significant proportions.

In some years, institutional memory of award ceremonies has also been honoured more in the breach than the observance. In 2006, the Canada Council announced that “This year marks the 70th presentation of the Governor General’s Literary Awards.” In 2011, an official press release announced that the 2011 awards were “the 75th Governor General’s Literary Awards,” and in 2016 the Governor General’s website announced that “This is the 80th edition of the Awards.”

As a careful counting will show, all of these announcements were made in error. Each was off by a year. The 80th award year, for example, was in fact 2015, not 2016, and the ceremony honouring the actual 80th award-year laureates went unnoted.

The fourteen winning books and sixteen laureates for 2018 will be honoured in Ottawa on November 28, 2018.


Andrew David Irvine

Andrew David Irvine is a professor of philosophy and mathematics at UBC Okanagan. He is a past head of the Department of Economics, Philosophy and Political Science, a past vice-chair of the UBC Board of Governors, a past president of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and a member of the board of directors of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. An advocate of traditional democratic civil liberties, he has written about a wide range of topics, including academic freedom, the rule of law, the Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell and Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards. His play, Socrates on Trial, tells the story of how Socrates was put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens and for failing to honour the city’s gods. Edmond Rivère and Stephanie Tolman both teach at UBC Okanagan.


The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for serious coverage of B.C. books and authors, hosted by Simon Fraser University. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This