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Honour Alice Munro by turning properties into tourist attractions, says publisher

The former Laidlaw farm, where Alice Munro grew up in Lower Town a part of Wingham on October 11, 2013, the town where Nobel Laureate Alice Munro's grew up.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

As Canadians celebrate the country's first Nobel Prize-winning author, Alice Munro's long-time publisher is proposing an enduring tribute to the literary giant. In a letter to The Globe and Mail Wednesday, Douglas Gibson calls on all three levels of government to team up to buy the house where she grew up, in Wingham, Ont. as well as her current residence in nearby Clinton.

These Huron County locales, about 200 kilometres northwest of Toronto, have informed Ms. Munro's prose – the majority of her stories take place in fictionalized versions of the area – and Mr. Gibson contends that her homes would be a draw for tourists.

"Arrangements to buy both properties – at a fair price, and an appropriate time – should begin today," he writes. "Parks Canada should be involved, on behalf of the millions of future literary tourists who will surely flock to see 'Alice Munro Country.'"

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The provincial and federal governments, however, are throwing cold water on the idea.

"We believe that local municipalities are in the best position to determine how to manage those properties," Premier Kathleen Wynne's spokeswoman, Zita Astravas, wrote in an e-mail.

Although the Ontario Heritage Act gives municipalities the lead in protecting historic buildings, it is often only possible for cities and towns to do this with financial help from the province.

That's the case in the Township of North Huron, which includes Wingham, says the local mayor. Neil Vincent said the current owner of Ms. Munro's home remodelled it recently to accommodate a hairdressing business. If it were ever turned into a public site, someone would have to put up the money to return it to its historic state.

"We're not that big a municipality, we're not that big a tax base," he told the Globe. "Provincial and federal governments would have to help out considerably more."

The town currently has a section dedicated to Ms. Munro in the local museum. The nearby village of Blyth hosts an annual literary festival in honour of the author, with readings, workshops and a writing competition. This year's contest drew 111 submissions, as well as tourists from as far afield as the U.K. One British couple, Mr. Vincent said, were holidaying in Boston when they heard about the festival, and hopped a plane to take part.

Buying up the houses might be less economical than simply putting more funds into the museum, Mr. Vincent said.

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"I'm not sure it's the best use of the money," he said "Maybe expanding the Alice Munro artifacts and display at the museum might be more cost-effective and give a far bigger explanation of the works."

Federal Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, meanwhile, said Ms. Munro's homes might not qualify as national historic sites. She did not explain why.

"I join all Canadians in congratulating Ms. Munro for winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. She is truly deserving of this prestigious recognition and her contributions to literature are something for all of us to be proud of and serve as an inspiration to all young Canadians," Ms. Aglukkaq said in a statement e-mailed by her office. "Unfortunately, under the current national historic site designation rules, her homes may not be eligible for designation."

Mr. Gibson's idea, however, does have one sympathetic ear.

Lisa Thompson, the Progressive Conservative MPP for Huron-Bruce, grew up south of Wingham. In high school, she and her friends read Ms. Munro's works and tried to figure out which real-life local spots had been fictionalized in her books.

She said it would "behoove" the province to sit down with Ottawa and the municipality – and, of course, Ms. Munro – to see if there are other ways to honour her.

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"[The Nobel] is just a wonderful icing on the proverbial cake for Alice," Ms. Thompson said in an interview. "We need to just revisit what's already being done and if there's anything more that can be done, I think all three levels of government need to, in partnership with Alice, determine what the right recognition is."

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About the Author
Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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