A grassroots initiative to establish a new literary award for Indigenous writers, launched in the wake of the recent cultural appropriation controversy that inflamed Canada's literary and journalism communities, has surpassed $100,000 in funding and announced its inaugural jury.
As of Thursday, the Emerging Indigenous Voices campaign, launched May 15 by Toronto lawyer Robin Parker with a modest goal of $10,000, had attracted more than 1,400 individual supporters and raised more than $103,000, with donations ranging from a few dollars to $3,000.
"It's exceeded all of my hopes, dreams and expectations beyond measure," said Parker in an interview shortly before the six-figure mark was reached. "I'm so gratified and overjoyed. I think it speaks volumes about the fact that Canadians want to be able to take action towards reconciliation, towards making a difference. And this was something people could do to speak and to be heard, and also to offer actual support, money, things that young artists and writers need. But more than that, to say to Indigenous voices: 'We want to hear what you have to say.' "
Early on in the campaign, when it became clear more than $10,000 would be raised, Parker decided to leave the administering of the prize to an outside organization; she reached out to Daniel Heath Justice, a writer and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Literature and Expressive Culture at the University of British Columbia, who arranged a partnership with the Indigenous Literary Studies Association (ILSA), which Justice helped co-found in 2013.
"It's a great organization and, to me, it was a perfect opportunity to really realize the goals that ILSA has set forward," Justice said. "And to do it in a way that was about nurturing and nourishing Indigenous writers in material ways – not just in terms of writing books about their work, or giving papers on their work, or even teaching their work, but, actually, how do we make sure that we're able to make it possible for them to create? So many Indigenous writers .... are doing their work, oftentimes, under really trying material circumstances, and so this was a way to bridge the gap."
The new goal is to raise $150,000, which will allow the prize to become endowed. While Parker said she has "been approached by different corporations" eager to contribute, the campaign will rely on individual donors until the Indiegogo drive concludes at the end of the month. Parker also said she has been approached "by a major publishing house" who has offered "to work with [the] winners and support the award in any way that they can."
The current plan is to announce terms and conditions of the prize at ILSA's upcoming conference in Chilliwack, B.C. While the prize will initially focus on emerging authors, the scope could expand in future years. Justice, for instance, said he would like to see a prize for established writers, too. "For me, that's the ultimate goal: Not just to have a single award, but to have multiple awards every year, that are fully funded, in perpetuity, that can honour the wide range of writers in our communities."
While exact details of the prize are still to be decided, its first-ever jury was revealed: Tlicho author and storyteller Richard Van Camp; Cree/Métis poet Gregory Scofield; CBC broadcaster Shelagh Rogers; Haitian-Canadian poet and editor Rodney Saint-Éloi; and Anishinaabe writer Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm.
"It's so significant that over 1,400 people have reached out and taken action and sent, to me, a very strong message of support not just for Indigenous literature but for this whole issue," said Akiwenzie-Damm, who is also the founder and managing editor of Kegedonce Press, which publishes books by Indigenous authors. "They just put their money down and said, 'Yes, we're with you.' "
"It makes me feel hopeful for the future in a way that I haven't been for quite a while."
Van Camp, whose work appeared in the issue of Write magazine that sparked the controversy (editor Hal Niedzviecki, who since resigned, wrote a column in support of cultural appropriation), said one of the reasons he agreed to serve on the jury is that he knows from his own experience the effect an award can have on a young writer.
"They are life affirming, they're career invigorating, and it's not just you that these awards affect – they affect your publisher, your family, your nation, your community," he said.
"Every time someone believed in me, I remember it. It changed my life forever. I can't wait to be that memory for someone out there who's really searching for validation."