The Writers' Union of Canada (TWUC) is investigating following a tense incident at an event it was hosting at the Vancouver Writers Fest (VWF).
A reception for writers was marred last Wednesday evening when a party attendee voiced his disagreement with remarks made in a speech by an Indigenous author.
"We expect Union staff members will be treated with the respect they deserve at all times, and whenever they are working on our behalf. We are taking reports of this incident very seriously,” TWUC executive director John Degen told The Globe and Mail by email on Friday.
Rebecca Benson, who is Tuscarora from Six Nations, is the union’s equity, membership and engagement co-ordinator. During the event, she outlined TWUC’s new equity policy and programming and subsidies for writers, according to people who were at the festival. According to TWUC, the guidelines recognize “various historical and structural inequities,” and were introduced to promote full participation of members in the organization’s activities.
Benson also “spoke articulately and with passion about her own background and acknowledging the land we were standing on,” according to author Claudia Dey, who was in the room.
Author Alan Twigg, a recipient of the Order of Canada, and publisher of BC Bookworld, a trade journal, then spoke out from the audience. According to Cherie Dimaline, a Métis author of The Marrow Thieves and guest curator at VWF, Twigg said he didn’t realize that he was going to an event where someone was going to lecture him about how to think. Dey described his tone as hostile. Benson offered to speak with Twigg privately, but he continued with a raised voice, according to Dey.
Others in the room shouted Twigg down. “The room became immediately traumatized by all of this,” says author Dave Bidini, who was there.
“We all wanted to dwell in the glow of this young person’s words. We wanted them to sink in, when he just started to stamp his boots on the ground.”
The incident comes at a polarized time in the Canadian literary community with a number of high-profile, divisive controversies. The inclusion of Indigenous voices has been top of mind at many writers' festivals this year. Haisla and Heiltsuk author Eden Robinson has said that her indigenous peers are often the target of angry comments at public gatherings. (In response to Twigg’s comments, which she witnessed, she says she is is taking steps to remove her name and biography from BC Bookworld).
Benson declined to comment for this story. Degen called her “a respected colleague who is doing excellent, necessary work for the Union and its members.”
Reached by e-mail on Thursday, Twigg told The Globe, “I was literally not allowed to make a constructive suggestion. Nobody in that room knows what it was I was hoping to say.
“Mostly I feel sorry for the person that I hoped to address. She, likewise, was prevented from speaking further. Her self-elected ‘protectors’ generated the potentially humiliating impression that she was merely capable of serving as a mouthpiece for TWUC ideals, but was incapable of speaking in public beyond a prepared speech.
“I hope the next time they send an invitation for a social gathering in the evening, they will let us know in advance that there is an agenda underway, a scheduled speaker and that a seemingly informal event has been designed to serve an overt orientation session as to how some people want me to think.”
On Friday, Twigg issued a public statement, following outrage on social media.
“There was to be no freedom of speech at this gathering. One organizer threatened me with removal if I persisted in trying to speak my mind,” he wrote.
He added: “I am truly sorry if anyone’s feelings were hurt during the upheaval that arose from the denial of free speech.”
After the incident, VWF artistic director Leslie Hurtig addressed the crowd from the lectern, reiterating the festival’s support for TWUC’s new equity policy “and the importance of acknowledging the lands we were on,” she recalls. Hurtig had not been in the room during the fracas but she rushed there after she was alerted to what had happened.
"These are values that the Vancouver Writers Fest shares with The Writers’ Union of Canada and we were really happy to share that space with them last night,” Hurtig told the Globe on Thursday.
After she addressed the crowd, Hurtig privately approached Twigg. “I encouraged him to put his concerns into a letter to The Writers’ Union of Canada and reminded him that this was a party being hosted to roll out the new equity policy.”
Bidini says Hurtig was in an uncomfortable position. But he is calling on festivals in general to forcefully deal with and work to prevent these kinds of clashes. “They have to make writers feel comfortable about going to these events, especially Indigenous writers, without fear that they’re going to be attacked.”
Dimaline says “this disruption only underlines that the TWUC equity co-ordinator is necessary and that they are on the right path."