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Breaking down the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize shortlist

Since 2000, the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing has recognized non-fiction books on political subjects relevant to contemporary Canadian political life. Administered by the Writers’ Trust of Canada, the prize numbers Kamal Al-Solaylee, Jane Jacobs and General Roméo Dallaire among its 17 past winners, and has honoured books on subjects ranging from the lives of prime ministers and public servants to critiques of Canada’s policies on health, foreign intervention, the environment and trade.

Before this year’s winner is announced on May 9 in Ottawa, The Globe and Mail presents a stump speech by each of the candidates vying for the $25,000 prize – a snapshot of how the nominated books will resonate with readers of politics in 2018.

Christopher Dummitt for Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life (McGill-Queen’s University Press)

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Using number of terms served as the criterion, William Lyon Mackenzie King is the most successful Canadian prime minister in history. But he suffered a dramatic decline in posthumous reputation thanks to revelations in his private diaries. Kept in intimate, obsessive detail, King’s diaries numbered 30,000 pages. He ordered them (mostly) destroyed after his death. They were not. This is their story.

The takeaway: Attack ad! (Though of the candidate’s own creation.)

Literary bona fides: Also shortlisted for the J.W. Dafoe Book Prize. Books about Canadian prime ministers have won the prize 29 per cent of the time.

Timeliness: 7 (out of 10). Even in the pre-internet age, “private” thoughts, once written down, could always come back to haunt a candidate.


Carol Off for All We Leave Behind: A Reporter’s Journey into the Lives of Others (Random House Canada)

When an Afghan family becomes endangered by her reporting, veteran journalist Carol Off crosses the line of journalistic separation to become personally involved in their flight from Afghanistan. Her quest to help bring them to safety in Canada takes more than a decade thanks to the Byzantine procedures that must be navigated by refugee claimants both in Canada and overseas.

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The takeaway: Bureaucratic immigration policies must be improved.

Literary bona fides: Winner of the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. Off is also a three-time nominee for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize.

Timeliness: 9. Massive global migration of refugees continues, though Canada’s immigration policies have shifted since the time in which the book is set.


Sandra Perron for Out Standing in the Field: A Memoir by Canada’s First Female Infantry Officer (Cormorant Books)

Canadian Forces Captain Sandra Perron, the Canadian military’s first female infantry officer, ascends quickly from being a teenage cadet to serving two tours of duty. She proves herself academically and physically equal to her male counterparts but endures constant harassment, including a rape. After 13 years she feels she can no longer fight the entrenched misogyny of the Canadian Forces and quits what was once her dream job. This is her memoir.

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The takeaway: The Canadian military must value difference, and listen to and empower women in service.

Literary bona fides: Winner of the 2017 Mavis Gallant Prize for Non-fiction.

Timeliness: 10. A military #MeToo book.


Ted Rowe for Robert Bond: The Greatest Newfoundlander (Creative Book Publishing/Breakwater Books)

When the colony of Newfoundland is conferred Dominion status in 1907, native Newfoundlander Robert Bond gets a new job title. Can the man who was the final premier of the colony and first prime minister of the new Dominion claim to be the greatest Newfoundlander? Author Ted Rowe intertwines the stories of the colony and the man to make the case that he can.

The takeaway: Know your Canadian history.

Literary bona fides: Winner of an Independent Publisher Book Award.

Timeliness: 5. Robert Bond’s political successes are a century in the past, but candidates are still wise to learn from the policies of their predecessors.


Tanya Talaga for Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City (House of Anansi Press)

Journalist Tanya Talaga visits Thunder Bay to write a story about an upcoming federal election, but comes away with something more political: the story of seven Indigenous high-school students who died in the northern city between 2000 and 2011. The seven were hundreds of kilometres from their families, forced to live in a foreign and unwelcoming city in order to access a high-school education. This is a book about the realities of Canadian racism and the systemic flaws of its education system for those living in remote communities.

The takeaway: Canada must face its ongoing human-rights violations against Indigenous communities.

Literary bona fides: Winner of the RBC Taylor Prize.

Timeliness: 10. An essential piece of the conversation about ongoing injustices in Canada.

Becky Toyne is the “Should I Read It?columnist for Day 6 on CBC Radio and a regular contributor to Globe Books.

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