Whistler Writers Festival invites book lovers to enjoy fine Indigenous writing for its 20th anniversary
(This article is sponsored by Tourism Whistler.)
There’s something magnificent about autumn in Whistler. The falling leaves along the Valley Trail are like a magical potion to city dwellers craving to connect with the natural world. In the Village, visitors can stroll to a spa or visit family-owned Armchair Books and the local library rather than face the hassle of hopping into a car. Guests during this time very much appreciate the slower pace and the great value of room rates.
Fall in Whistler holds another attraction for lovers of literature and poetry. That’s because for the past 20 years, the community has been hosting the Whistler Writers Festival, which takes place from October 14 to 17 this year. The event will have in-person and online components, both drawing an impressive crowd of readers, writers, and book lovers.
This year’s lineup might be its strongest yet, featuring A-listers such as Scotiabank Giller Prize 2021 longlist nominees Omar El Akkad (What Strange Paradise) and Cedar Bowers (Astra), two-time Giller winner M.G. Vassanji (What You Are), and Booker Prize longlist nominee Mary Lawson (A Town Called Solace). Other high-profile authors and poets this year include George Elliott Clarke, Ivan Coyote, Joy Fielding, Shaena Lambert, Canisia Lubrin, Linden MacIntyre, Alexandra Morton, Alix Ohlin, and Howard White, who founded Harbour Publishing.
“Right from the start, it’s been about balancing those high-profile names with authors who are emerging,” Whistler Writers Festival founder and artistic director Stella Harvey said. “A lot of times, I’ve had feedback from participants who say I came to see so-and-so but I discovered this author. That’s always been important to me.”
The Whistler Writers Festival also offers workshops for aspiring writers, most of which are in-person but also available via livestreaming.
Harvey is especially proud of the number of the first-rate Indigenous writers at this year’s festival. This reflects her longstanding belief that the Whistler Writers Festival must be an inclusive event so that whoever attends can see themselves reflected back to them on-stage.
The headliner for the Saturday Night Gala is Thomas King (The Inconvenient Indian) in conversation with Anishinaabe journalist Tanya Talaga. King, whose father is Cherokee, was the first person of Indigenous ancestry to deliver the Massey Lectures, which led to his 2003 book The Truth About Stories.
Harvey quipped that King is like a hero to her. But she’s also excited by other Indigenous writers at this year’s festival, including Darrel J. McLeod and Lisa Bird-Wilson. McLeod, who is from the Nehiyaw (Cree) First Nation, won the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for Mamaskatch. His new book, Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity, examines how personal and historical trauma influenced his life, which included working as a school principal, treaty negotiator, and senior official at the Assembly of First Nations.
“He’s incredibly courageous and open in terms of his life experiences—sexual abuse, separation from family and his culture—and somehow he finds his way,” Harvey said.
McLeod will also lead a conversation with Talaga at the festival about her books Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City and All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward.
Meanwhile, Bird-Wilson, a Saskatchewan Métis and nêhiyaw writer, won several awards for her 2013 book Just Pretending, including the 2019 One Book, One Province honour. Her latest novel is Probably Ruby. One of the most famous Indigenous writers at the festival is Tomson Highway. His father was a caribou hunter and world championship dogsled racer; he describes his mother as a “bead-worker and quilt-maker extraordinaire”. Highway is also a nationally renowned playwright, novelist, and pianist who wrote the libretto for the first opera in the Cree language. His memoir Permanent Astonishment is a finalist for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writer’s Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
Whistler has become a cultural hub in recent years, thanks in part to the opening of the spectacular Audain Art Museum in 2016. Designed by Patkau Architects, the permanent collection showcases a stunning collection of Indigenous masks and other Indigenous works, including The Dance Screen (The Scream Too), a finely carved red cedar dance screen by Haida Chief 7idansuu (James Hart). It also includes internationally renowned contemporary British Columbia artists such as Jeff Wall, Emily Carr, Dana Claxton, Marianne Nicolson, and Stan Douglas.
Those interested in exploring Indigenous culture will also be attracted to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre, which is in the Upper Village. It evokes the feeling of a Squamish Longhouse and Lil’wat Istken (earthen dwelling). The building’s Great Hall offers incredible insights into the cultures of these two First Nations, featuring hand-carved cedar welcome figures and a series of cedar canoes, some suspended from the air, all in a bright space revealing mountain and forest views.
For those who want to experience the forest in all of its glory, the Whistler Writers Fest has that covered, too.
CBC Radio host Grant Lawrence will moderate a walk with festivalgoers and three writers—McLeod, White, and Ohlin—through the woods in Lost Lake Park. Harvey noted that participants will stop at various places along the trail for author readings and to sip hot chocolate.
“That event is incredibly popular,” Harvey said. “It goes on whether there’s rain or shine.”
The Whistler Writers Festival runs from Thursday, October 14, to Sunday, October 17. Book your literary getaway at whistler.com/writersfestival. Fall offers great value on accommodation with rooms from $129 per night plus a free $100 dining voucher when you book a stay of three nights or more.