Writers' Union of Canada

Prose writing in Canada, especially the writing of fiction, had certain problems associated with it until recently. Readership was small: until the late 1960s, readers shunned most Canadian fiction as second best, and most companies were reluctant to publish it unless an English or American publisher could be involved. Lingering puritanism limited subject matter, and conservatism of taste limited publishing opportunities for avant-garde texts. There were few writers' agents, and writers had either to go to the US or Britain for agents who were unfamiliar with Canada, or to do without. The vast distances between cities meant that writers seldom met, nor was a reading circuit available to them. Prose writers frequently lived isolated lives, receiving scant recognition for their work - if it appeared at all. It was common for writers with serious ambitions to leave the country. Like the other arts, fiction was considered a frill of dubious value by most of Canadian society.

By the 1970s, growing national self-awareness and confidence translated into a larger audience for fiction and nonfiction prose. The indigenous share of the trade book business increased to 25%. Publishing houses established in the 1960s contributed to this new growth, as did a more entrepreneurial and Canadian-centred spirit in older houses such as McClelland & Stewart Inc. Soon writers as well as audiences realized they had something of value - and therefore something to lose. Foreign domination was now seen as a threat, and royal commissions were set up by Québec (1971) and Ontario (1973) to investigate the publishing industry.

Out of the Ontario commission hearings grew the idea for a union of Canadian writers. The union initially comprised a small number of authors who felt that writers must work as a unified group if they were to gain any measure of control over the economic conditions influencing them. A planning conference was held in December 1972, and the Writers' Union of Canada was officially founded in November 1973. Since the League Of Canadian Poets (founded 1966) already existed, the union limited itself to prose writers who had published a trade book within the past 7 years, or had a book still in print. It did not, and does not, include journalists and playwrights, who have their own organizations (Periodical Writers Association Of Canada and the Playwrights Union Of Canada). Since 1973 many provincial writers' organizations have been formed to deal with matters that cannot be well handled by a national organization. The union finances itself through membership dues and fund-raising drives. It receives some federal and provincial grant money, especially for its annual general meeting. In 1988 its membership was about 600.

The union has done extensive work on contracts and retains a lawyer to give advice in negotiations; its Grievance Committee helps to resolve problems with publishers; it runs a manuscript-evaluation agency; it gives advice on tax matters; it acts as a clearing house for information and distributes a monthly newsletter. It organizes around particular issues, such as book dumping (the practice of importing from abroad remaindered copies of books by Canadians which are sold at reduced prices while the Canadian edition is still in the stores at full price); through the union's efforts this practice has reached the attention of the public and the government, the latter having announced its commitment to stopping the practice. Union committees work on matters of Copyright protection, liaison with publishers and librarians, and Censorship and repression issues. One major objective - the establishment of a "Public Lending Right" fee which would reimburse writers for multiple use of their works through libraries - was achieved in 1986.

But one of the most important achievements of the union is to have fostered a spirit of professionalism and self-respect among writers. This organization, founded by writers for writers, has enabled them to meet and know one another and to take collective responsibility for decisions which affect the ways in which they are seen and treated. Since the 1960s the public's image of the Canadian writer has changed - though the change is incomplete - from defective freak to acceptable member of society, and the union has reflected and fostered that change.

See also Literature And Politics.