RBC Taylor Prize nominees on the importance of truth-based storytelling in an era of fake news
The $30,000 literary award will be presented Monday to the best Canadian work of literary non-fiction
The annual RBC Taylor Prize, a $30,000 literary award to be presented Monday to the best Canadian work of literary non-fiction, is named for Charles Taylor, a writer-historian who believed a well-read and well-informed public contributed to a thriving democracy. The current era of alternative facts and cries of "fake news" from the White House no doubt has Taylor rolling over in his grave. The five shortlisted authors for this year's prize spoke to The Globe and Mail about telling the truth in a hyperdivisive, truth-blurring era.
With Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City, Toronto journalist Tanya Talaga provides an account of the lives and deaths of Indigenous teens near Thunder Bay.
I like to say many hands wrote Seven Fallen Feathers. We went to great pains to ensure accuracy. You'll notice the healthy endnotes section. I was lucky to have the eagle eyes of my editor Janie Yoon, aided by her sharp questions. I had hundreds of pages of inquest exhibits and testimony compiled electronically. Those documents were, in many ways, the backbone of the book. Two lawyers involved in the inquest also read over the manuscript and were constantly on the other end of the phone.
President Donald Trump's repeated attacks on the fourth estate is an attack on democracy itself. His constant belittling of journalistic work done by The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN by calling it "fake news" is childish and dismissive. It is a simple ploy to explain away and distract from the truth of the reports. Sadly, that type of language easily appeals to, and is understood by, his voters. But Trump's constant badgering erodes the journalism needed to uphold the pillars of free society – the very thing his office is supposed to protect.
The full title of the Canadian edition of Albertan Stephen R. Bown's book is Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on Bering's Great Voyage to Alaska. The American edition, however, comes with a more boastful subtitle – one with a Trumpian superlative flair that Bown explains.
Publishers often tweak the title to what they think will appeal to what their marketing departments want. In the United States, the subtitle to my book is Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition. I remember chatting with the American publisher about it. She told me people wouldn't be as interested in the world's second-greatest expedition.
It's a weird time we live in. There's so much information available that there's almost too much. And there's no filter on it any more. It allows for a distortion of facts and ideas to have a much greater hold than it ever used to have. I'm old enough, at age 50, to see how research has changed. If you have the skills and you know what to ignore and what to accept as valid, you can find almost anything. But if you're not wary and you don't know how to sift between what's reputable and what isn't, you can easily fall prey to fake news.
Toronto investigative journalist and historian Max Wallace chronicles the final days of the Second World War with In the Name of Humanity: The Secret Deal to End the Holocaust. To him, fake news is nothing new.
I'm of a generation of journalists influenced by Woodward and Bernstein. It's about being a truth teller – the person whose job it is to dig beneath the propaganda and come up with the truth.
"Fake news" is the catchword of the day. But I've spent the last decade writing and researching about the Holocaust. The more you look into the past, history repeats itself. The ultimate fake news was the atrocity propaganda of the First World War, which portrayed the evil Huns as boiling babies to make soap and hanging priests from the church bells. That propaganda was later discredited, so when people began hearing the same kind of horrific stories coming out of Germany during the Second World War, they just didn't believe it. They just thought it was more of the same atrocity propaganda.
People like Donald Trump very effectively use this. When the truth comes out, they can label it "fake news," and people are confused. I've always considered it my mission to sort out the truth and distill it in a way people will believe it. But it isn't easy. There's definitely more challenges than ever.
With Yardwork: A Biography of an Urban Place, Hamilton's Daniel Coleman explores the Niagara Escarpment from his own backyard.
My book is about a place where I live and a land we live on, and its human and ecological history and ongoing tensions and conflicts within that land. Getting it right has to do with me being pretty conscious of living in a whole set of relationships in this place, to which I am accountable. If I'm telling the story of my block, I've got neighbours who can check me. I have to get it right. I have an immediate sense of audience and my responsibility to them.
One of the gifts of this book and writing about the place where I live in Hamilton is encountering Six Nations folks who have long stories about this place. They've become my friends. So, there's an accountability, too, of telling the story about the history of this place that doesn't repeat the erasures involved within the Canadian settlers story.
Getting it right gets into the details of trusting your information. Right behind my house is a little family cemetery, which is the Binkley's. I live on Binkley Road. At the public library, I researched who they were and when they arrived from Pennsylvania after the U.S. Revolutionary War. I had written what I could, based on that research. Then I had this niggling feeling that I needed to find surviving family members who might have collected family history. It took a couple of years, but I finally found someone. She handed over a treasure trove of binders. Reading it, I realized there was information in the public record that wasn't quite the accurate story of the family. My original research had it wrong.
Based on his experiences at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and Black Lion Hospital in Addis Ababa, Dr. James Maskalyk wrote Life on the Ground Floor: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine. To The Globe, he speaks of a hopeful prognosis.
If you want to create the grounds for change – real change, the change that allows a better world to incrementally creep into view – it must be done in a collaborative way, rather than making further divisions. When you fall into the equivalence of tribal divisions, there's a lot of finger-pointing that goes back and forth about how the other side is wrong, without a shared sense of purpose about responding to the challenges that are unique to your time and era. Which, in our case, is an ecological one. There are climate refugees.
The question we should all be asking ourselves is, "How can we care for as many people as possible, with a fragile and finite ecosystem?" And rather than making barriers, how to allow people to access safety or freedom or medicine. I think we have the ability to respond to these challenges.
But because of an attempt to distract and divide, which I can only assume is the point of this political manoeuvring that is happening, we lose momentum. We lose power. We lose the shared sense of a human predicament that we have, regardless of what country we grew up in or what political fealty we hold.
What hopefully comes out of this is that the pendulum can swing to a place where people are going to grow weary of the public spectacle, and just actually want to get on with their lives and engage meaningfully with the beautiful and difficult parts of being a human being in the 21st century.
The shortlisted authors for the RBC Taylor Prize speak at the Ben McNally Authors Brunch, Feb. 25, at Toronto's Omni King Edward Hotel (benmcnallybooks.com). The winner will be announced Feb. 26.