Category Archives: Blog

Bouchercon World Mystery Convention

This winter Tourism Calgary sent me an email out-of-the-blue. They explained they were considering a  bid for the 2026 Bouchercon World Mystery Convention and wanted my help connecting with the Calgary writing community. The bid needed sufficient volunteer support to host this major convention. Tourism Calgary had done an internet search for local mystery writers and my name popped up in various places. They thought the convention could have numerous spinoff benefits for Calgary.  

I’d first heard about Bouchercon at Mystery Writers’ INK, a Calgary writing group I belonged to for many years. Members considered it the premiere mystery writing convention in North America. A couple of them attended Bouchercon 2007 in Anchorage, Alaska. They described their experience as a fun mix of learning, book promotion, and travel. Many Bouchercon regulars plan annual holidays around the convention. 

I was excited by the email and agreed to meet online with two Tourism Calgary contacts, and later with them and the Bouchercon administrator. I learned that Bouchercon is huge. Typically about 1,800 people attend. The majority are mystery fans, rather than writers. Bouchercon is usually held in the USA, although Toronto, Canada, has hosted three times and the U.K. twice. In London 1990, P.D. James was Guest of Honour. Nottingham England’s Lifetime Achievement Guest of Honour in 1995 was Ruth Rendell (not Robin Hood). Other Guests of Honour through the years have included Sara Paretsky, Ian Rankin, Harlan Coben, Laura Lippman, James Patterson, Michael Connolly, Anne Perry, Karin Slaughter, Anthony Horowitz — enough name dropping. 

In October 2017, I attended Bouchercon Toronto. Louise Penny was Canadian Guest of Honour. (Each Boucherson has about a half dozen Guests of various descriptions). I moderated a panel on Noir Mystery Novels to a large audience (scary, both the moderator role and the subject matter). Each convention produces a short story anthology, with the proceeds going to a charity. A highlight for me was my story’s acceptance in Passport to Murder, Bouchercon Anthology 2017. This earned me a seat at the author signing table.  

The Bouchercon administrator told us their organization provides a wealth of support and experience for host cities, but, in addition, Calgary would require a strong Local Organizing Committee. I provided Tourism Calgary with names of people and local groups to contact, including BWL. Our publisher, Jude Pittman, was instantly on board and will be part of the committee. Tourism Calgary sent a survey to local writers and organizations and the enthusiastic response exceeded everyone’s expectations. Calgary is called the volunteer capital of Canada for good reason. The Calgary Public Library, Calgary Wordfest, and the University of Calgary expressed interest in playing roles.   

Tourism Calgary is now preparing a formal bid to host the convention in 2026. In June the Bouchercon administrator will fly to Calgary to assess the city’s hotel and convention capacity. If it meets the criteria, I’m told Calgary stands a great chance of winning the bid when the Bouchercon board votes this summer. 

Since I’ve been with them from the start, Tourism Calgary asked me to chair the Local Organizing Committee. After some angst, I agreed to co-chair with Calgary author Pamela McDowell, my friend for 25 years. Pam and I will be busy, but it will be fun to work together on this big project. 

Looks like Calgary mystery writers and readers are in for exciting years ahead. Stay tuned.     

Bouchercon 2017 was an opportunity to visit Toronto in the fall

When Your Novel Takes a Wrong Turn

I’m a believer in plowing through a novel’s first draft without pausing to revise along the way. When I start writing a book, reaching ‘the end’ is a daunting prospect. Since reworking existing material is easier than tackling a blank page, it can become an avoidance tactic. It might also be a waste of time if I discover I have to delete or radically rewrite a scene after I know what the whole story is about. ‘Write and revise later’ worked for my first four books. It didn’t for my current novel-in-progress.
My first problem with the process occurred when a scene I wrote fell flat and I felt a need to revise it before moving forward in the story. This happened again a few scenes down the road. In one case, my point of view detective narrator needed a partner for the scene. I threw in a random police officer, but found he added nothing to the story. I went back and made him a ‘she.’ To my surprise, sparks flew between her and my detective, who is at a crossroads in his life. Their romance has become a subplot in the novel and a key aspect of his personal story arc. 
I tell myself that modifying my usual approach and following my instinct to jump in and revise comes from having a few novels under my belt; that I now know earlier in the process what a story needs to avoid more complicated revision later. How’s that for self-justification? 

Around the manuscript’s 3/4 point, I realized that a number of scenes in the third quarter would work better if they were set in different locations. This time I stuck with my usual approach since most of the other material would remain the same. Instead of revising the scenes, I made an outline for the changes I plan to make. They will move a critical plot point earlier in the story, but I think the outline can deal with this change. Revising the wayward scenes would have benefits, but I really want to finish the first draft this spring.   
Then, a few chapters later, a long scene fell completely flat, when the story should be building to a thrilling climax. I puzzled over what to do and decided I’d taken a wrong turn at the 3/4 mark. I had shifted the story focus to a character who is much talked about but hadn’t made a personal appearance in the novel. I assumed that since my main characters cared deeply about him, readers would too. But I think readers only engage with the characters they meet in the literary flesh. This might be one reason they tend to be less interested than the writer in characters’ backstories. 
My solution to this problem will be to go back three chapters, to the point where I veered off track. I’ll revise most of the scenes and cut the 2,000 word flat scene. Ouch. But I need to know what happens in these chapters to figure out my characters’ paths to the climax and denouement.  
Each novel has its own journey. This work-in-progress has gone in directions I didn’t expect, in terms of character development, subject matter, and writing process. I’ve found it a challenge to adapt, without steering off course. 

Trying my hand at historical fiction

One thing I like about writing short stories is the chance to explore genres and characters different from those of my novels. Last fall I completed my first work of historical fiction, a 4,500-word story set during the 1918 influenza pandemic. A Deadly Flu is also my first short whodunit and my first police procedural. I’ve featured detectives in secondary roles before, but not as story protagonists. 

My idea for A Deadly Flu took root almost two years ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic revived my interest in that earlier virus, which was formerly and inaccurately called the Spanish flu. I first heard about the 1918 pandemic on an episode of the 1970s television show, Upstairs Downstairs, when the young wife of the wealthy Bellamy family’s son developed a fever and died the same day. 

 During the summer of 2020, I read books and articles about the 1918 pandemic and was struck by its relevance a hundred years later. The prime advice in both pandemics was the same: wash your hands, social distance and avoid crowds. The 1918 Pandemic’s second and mostly deadly wave struck my home city of Calgary from October to December 1918. Business, churches and bars closed. People wore masks and lived in fear. 

 Around this time, I was mulling ideas for my fourth mystery novel, to be set during our current pandemic, and wondered if the 1918 flu might provide a parallel backstory. I developed the idea of a pharmacist who murders her lover by pouring a medicine that mimicked the 1918 flu’s symptoms into his whisky. When he died, the medical profession’s tunnel vision assumed this was another influenza death.

 I began writing the backstory as a suspense from the killer’s viewpoint and enjoyed researching Calgary neighbourhoods of the time, along with its streetcar system, fashion, and particulars of the city-wide lockdown. But by the end of the draft, I realized the events that happened over a hundred years ago wouldn’t add enough interest to the contemporary mystery I had in mind. I set the backstory aside and plunged into the current novel. 

                                       Nov 11, 1918 – Calgary WWI Victory parade 

Then the Crime Writers of Canada put out a call for submissions for its 40th anniversary anthology. Stories had to be set in Canada, feature cold in some way, and be under 5,000 words. I hauled out the backstory and set it during a Calgary cold wave in December 1918, with a detective, rather than a villain, protagonist. A benefit of writing a detective from the early twentieth century is that I didn’t have to know about DNA, data bases, and other modern police gadgetry. Since I only had a short space to establish reader connection with him, I gave him a wound–his wife had died a year earlier in childbirth–and developed a romantic subplot.   

I wrote the story, sent it off, and was thrilled last month to learn A Deadly Flu will be included in the Cold Canadian Crime Anthology, to be released this May. Meanwhile I’ve been working on my novel-in-progress. Inspired by my historical detective, for the first time I’m including the viewpoints of two detectives in addition to my insurance adjuster sleuth. I foresee much research into modern police work. One day soon, I’d like to write a historical novel and, perhaps, develop A Deadly Flu into a novella, a genre I haven’t tried. That’s another thing I like about writing short stories—they can be stepping stones to future books.   

A Romantic Birthday

Since I’d be in Mexico for my 70th birthday, my kids offered to treat me to the ‘experience’ gift of my choice. I said I’d check out options when I got there in December and thought the ideal present should be something I’d enjoy, but wouldn’t splurge on myself. In Puerto Vallarta, I scanned the English language newspaper and spotted an ad for The Iguana Restaurant in the Casa Kimberly Boutique Hotel, the former home of actress Elizabeth Taylor. I decided, this is it! My husband Will and I made a reservation for December 13th, at 6:00 p.m. to catch the sunset. 


In 1964 Elizabeth Taylor and actor Richard Burton had a torrid affair in Puerto Vallarta, during the filming of his movie, The Night of the Iguana. Their romance thrilled and shocked the world and is credited with turning the off-the-beaten-path fishing village into a booming tourist destination. On our four previous holidays in Puerto Vallarta, Will and I had walked by the Taylor and Burton homes up the hill from downtown. A bridge connects their two residences and you can peek at the statue of the lovers in the hotel entrance, but can’t see more than that without staying or eating at the Casa Kimberly. 

Armed with our reservation, this time we made it inside.  

   On our walk up the staircase to the restaurant, we were greeted by Liz herself. 

Our courteous server showed us to our table, which had a fabulous view from the open-air window. 

We had a view of the ocean, although this picture below washes the ocean out and the condominium in the distance blocked our view of the sun sinking into the bay. The cupola stands atop Burton’s former home, now part of the Casa Kimberly Hotel. During dinner, Will noticed people on the bridge and wondered if they’d climbed up from the street for a moment of romance. We found out later this wasn’t the case.    

We started our meal with cocktails and appetizers. I ordered The Iguana Salad and Will chose the bean and poblano soup, which arrived in an interesting two-colour presentation. 

I loved my salad and had a spoonful of Will’s soup, which tasted amazing. Will agreed. For our main courses, he had Cornish hen and I had Diablo Shrimp, which was delicious. I feel like a restaurant critic when I say the subtle flavours blended into a complete dish that tasted Mexican, yet different. 

Of course, I had to check out the restrooms. They turned out to be ordinary, but the walk there passed through the spacious atrium and a Taylor/Burton photo and movie poster display. 

It’s strange how the ghostly presence of these movie stars enhanced the restaurant’s atmosphere, but it did for me even though Elizabeth Taylor was a little before my time. Richard Burton’s career peaked later in his life and I’m more familiar with him as an actor and personality. Incidentally, he was my introduction to the concept of imposter syndrome. In a television interview, he confided his fear that people would discover his acting was no more than what everyone did in their living rooms. Some called him the greatest actor of his day, and I was impressed with his vulnerability.


While I was away from the table, Will asked for the dessert menu. The server wouldn’t give it to him until I returned, because it was my birthday. I chose a chocolate cake for Will and me to share. It arrived with decorations.  

As I took my first bite of cake, fireworks exploded behind the high rise building on the bay. This wasn’t as as special as you might think, since they set off fireworks in Puerto Vallarta every night.  


We left the restaurant feeling our dinner was worth very peso. On our way out, we solved the mystery of the people on the lovers’ bridge. The Casa Kimberly had opened the bridge part way so restaurant patrons could get a glimpse into Burton’s former residence, enjoy a photo opportunity, and end the evening with a touch of magic.  

Canadian Mystery Novels

As I promised on today’s Calgary Public Library Zoom presentation, here’s my arbitrary list of novels set in Canada, to get you started. These are books I happened to stumble upon and they tend to reflect my more recent reading. I’m sure I’ve missed a number of great writers that you’ll discover on your own.

Many of the books are in your local library and you can request ones that aren’t. The books are listed by author name. I don’t always specify book titles. Sometimes I’ve read a later book in a series, while you might want to start with book # 1.

Since I’m a westerner, I’ll travel from west to east on this cross-Canada journey.

British Columbia

William Deverell – Legal mystery series written by a former lawyer. Clever and witty writing that portrays the ‘hippie’ character of Salt Spring Island.

Beverley McLachlin – another retired lawyer writing a legal mystery series, this one set in Vancouver. McLachlin, the former Chief Justice of Canada, grew up in Pincher Creek Alberta, and wrote an interesting memoir. I enjoyed Full Disclosure, book # 1 of her mystery series, and look forward to discussing the sequel, Denial, with my book club in February.

J. G. Toews, Lucky Jack Road (book 2 of her mystery series) – set in Nelson, BC, another ‘hippie’ setting I enjoyed, both on the page and in my travels.

Dave Butler, Full Curl, book 1 of environmental mystery series featuring a national park warden who deals with conservation issues. Book 1 is set in Banff National Park, Alberta.

The Prairies

Jayne Barnard, The Falls series set in Bragg Creek, AB

Dwayne Clayden, Brad Coulter police thriller series set in Calgary, AB, written by a former paramedic and police officer.

Alice Biena, Female PI series with lots of Calgary setting.

David Poulsen, Cullen and Cobb series set in Calgary.

Garry Ryan, gay detective series set in Calgary.

Randy McCharles, Peter Galloway series takes us to the Calgary Stampede and northern Alberta.

Candas Jane Dorsey, The Adventures of Isabel, postmodern style, insight into LGBTQ life in Edmonton.

Sharon Butala, Zara’s Dead, fiction based on a 1962 murder that took place in Saskatoon, SK.

Gail Bowen, long-running Joanne Kilbourn series set in Regina, deals with the challenges of a middle-aged woman and her family.

Helen Humphreys, Rabbit Foot Bill, literary mystery based on a 1947 Saskatchewan murder, which raises questions about mental health issues.

Ontario

Vanessa Farnsworth, The Haweaters, based on an 1877 murder committed by the author’s ancestor. A good look at pioneer life on Manitoulin Island.

Giles Blunt, police detective series set in northern Ontario.

R. J. Harlick, Ottawa region series deals with indigenous issues. One book in the series is set in the Northwest Territories.

Randall Denley, Payback, book # 2 of a series: well-crafted whodunnit set in the Ottawa Valley.

Maureen Jennings, November Rain, book # 2 of a historical mystery series set in Toronto by the author of Murdoch Mysteries, which became a hit television show.

Katrina Onstad, Stay Where I Can See You, not a traditional mystery novel, but beautifully written and crafted with insight into domestic abuse and class conflicts in contemporary Toronto. Winner of the 2021 Crime Writers of Canada Award for Best Novel Set in Canada.

E.R. Yatscoff, firefighter series set in Niagara Peninsula, written by a former firefighter.

Quebec

Louise Penny, popular Inspector Gamache series mostly set in Three Pines, a fictional village outside of Montreal, and featuring an interesting and sometimes quirky cast of recurring characters. A dark take on the British cozy.

Atlantic Canada

Joan Hall Hovey, And Then He Was Gone, suspense with paranormal aspects, set in New Brunswick.

Kevin Major, One for the Rock, Two for the Tablelands… This series could go to infinity. Dry humour and great Newfoundland setting.

Mike Martin, A Perfect Storm, Book # 9 of a series featuring an RCMP officer living in rural Newfoundland. I enjoyed the book without having read the previous eight in the series.

Clearly, there are many more Canadian stories, including novels by authors I’ve heard about but haven’t yet read. Time for me to remedy this!

Canadian Mystery Novels, eh?

At last year’s Ontario Library Association’s online conference, I sat on a panel about novels set in Canada. The moderator divided the topic into three parts–Canadian characters, settings, and stories–and asked each panelist to discuss one of the sub-topics in relation to one of our novels. To my relief, I was assigned setting, which I considered the easiest of the three. The other two stumped me. When I create characters, I think of them as people, not Canadians, and my stories lean toward the psychological, rather than events particular to Canada.

   
I chose Ten Days in Summer, the most Calgarian of my novels, to illustrate how I include specific setting details and how they shaped the story. The novel takes place over the ten days of Calgary’s annual Stampede Festival, when the whole city goes wild-west. People wear cowboy hats and boots to go shopping. Beer tents and free pancake breakfasts pop up everywhere. I explained how I looked for opportunities to set scenes at Stampede happenings. Paula, my sleuth, first encounters two of the suspects while she’s watching the parade that launches the festival. She later meets one of them in a sports pub featuring an inflatable football player wearing a bandana. Paula’s Stampede clothing style is to wear a different coloured bandana each of the ten days. Does that make her uniquely Canadian?


No, but it does make her Calgarian. I realized the characters in my mystery series naturally reflect the people who live in Calgary. In Ten Days, there’s a wannabe cowboy. I have several Calgary friends who own horses they board on acreages outside the city and ride on weekends. When I lived in Montreal, I didn’t know anyone who did this. Many characters in the series, including Paula, have moved to Calgary from elsewhere. Through its history, Calgary has attracted newcomers during its periodic boom times. In contrast, other locales might be characterized by the absence of family and friends, who have left for greater opportunities. The type of people in any story tells us as much about the place as its landscape. 


I still don’t see Paula and friends as particularly Canadian, although readers outside of Canada might notice behaviours I simply see as ‘normal’. Maybe Canadian novel characters tend to be remarkably polite. 

Reflections on Canadian characters got me wondering about the third aspect discussed on the panel, uniquely Canadian stories. I find these most noticeable in historical mystery novels, especially ones that fictionalize a real murder from our country’s past. In Ten Days in Summer, I had fun making up a crime related to a lessor known fact of Canadian history. King Edward VIII, who famously gave up the British throne to marry Wallis Simpson, was a wannabe cowboy. When he was Prince of Wales, he bought a ranch in southern Alberta, which he visited with his wife after his abdication. My research suggested the Duchess of Windsor was less than enthralled with life on the range. I wove that into an imagined crime that played a small, but pivotal, role in the Ten Days in Summer murder.  

I have read Canadian mystery novels that deal with contemporary events and issues that are uniquely Canadian. Since the time of U.S. Prohibition in the 1920s, our long and friendly border with the United States has prompted cross-border crime that continues today. Disputes over pipelines and clean drinking water on indigenous reserves have resulted in fictional murders. 


People generally read mystery and thriller novels for entertainment, and in the process learn much about a country’s people, place, and stories. When I travel, I like to read novels set in the location I’m visiting. But I also read to learn about myself and my own country.   

   
I became so intrigued with the subject of uniquely Canadian characters, places and stories that I pitched the idea for a Calgary Public Library program. They’ve now scheduled the topic for Wednesday, January 26, 7-8 pm, as part of the CPL’s Books and Ideas series. I’ll be interviewed by Margaret Hadley, a former instructor of Detective Fiction at the University of Calgary. I expect we’ll have a lively conversation. You can register for the program here with a CPL card. Books and Ideas: How Canadian Mystery Novels Connect us to our Country’s People, Places, and Stories | Calgary Public Library (calgarylibrary.ca) Non-members are welcome and can email or call the library at 403-260-2600. 


Hope to see you there, eh?   

Starting a New Novel – it’s scary

One thing I discovered when I began writing novels thirty years ago — I can’t write from an outline. After a few failed attempts, I learned my natural process was to start with some basic ideas for people, locations and storylines, add an inciting event, and then develop the characters and plot in the course of writing. This makes starting each novel a leap in the dark.

 
Last month I plunged into the fourth book of my Paula Savard mystery series. In addition to not outlining, I have a bad habit of doing something different with each book. The first one was an amateur sleuth mystery; book #2 was a classic whodunnit. Book #3 added multiple narrators and two timelines. All three introduced a dead body in Chapter One. Book # 4 doesn’t. 


I didn’t realize why this new story had to start this way until I was a couple of chapters along. At the end of book #3, Winter’s Rage, Paula is so rattled by the story events that she vows to never get involved with another homicide case. Paula needs to be tricked into it for there to be a book # 4. From the start I could see a problem. How would I sustain reader interest without a corpse?


My initial plan was to repeat the style of Winter’s Rage, with a narrator other than Paula relating a past storyline. This backstory would have a murder early on. I circled the idea (procrastinated) by writing this backstory as a short story, but it didn’t work as fodder for my novel. I couldn’t see its  relevance to the main plot I had in mind or that a past murder would make up for the main plot’s meander out of the gate.

Well, I’d stalled long enough. Time for the leap into the novel. I wrote Chapter One, by hand sitting out on my patio enjoying Calgary’s warm fall weather, and continued with Chapter Two. Then an idea hit. I’d insert two secondary viewpoint narrators, two detectives, who know something is going on that Paula doesn’t. Through them, readers would see murder lurking and get into the suspense of Paula becoming involved despite herself.


I hoped.  


The approach worked for me and held my interest through the subsequent chapters. Now I’m 1/4 way through the manuscript and planning to add a fourth narrator, Isabelle, an erratic character established in previous books. One of my detective narrators is also a regular in the series. It helps that I already know these two characters well, but I feel a pressure about finally giving them voices and worry this will mess with how readers and I had pictured them before. Isabelle and both detectives will work at cross purposes with Paula to complicate the plot.   
The story feels like it’s beginning to gel. I’ve outlined the next four chapters and expect they’ll lead to a corpse around the novel’s midpoint. I’m almost sure who the victim will be. The killer is probably one of three suspects and there might be a second murder later in the book.


This discovery stage used to be my favourite part of writing novels. With my first books, I let the stories go wherever they wanted and fixed them up later. This required a lot of fixing. But from experience, I’ve developed a sense of pacing. In this current novel first draft, I’ve rewritten and cut scenes that didn’t work or slowed the story down before moving forward in the plot. This makes writing first drafts harder and they take longer. Now I find the next stage, revision, more enjoyable than the excitement of leaping to an unknown place. Maybe I’m just getting older. 

Over the years I’ve read writing advice books and heard many writers talk about their writing process. I’d estimate the split is about 50/50 between novelists who outline and us “pantsers,” who fly by the seats of our pants. There’s a third group, a minority sometimes called “quilters,” who write scenes they later assemble in order. I don’t understand them, as my process is linear. Although I find myself thinking of part-scenes for the chapters coming up, so perhaps I’m learning to quilt a little. 


I have to take a short break from the manuscript now. Drat! Now that I’ve got the beginning in place I’m less scared and I’m excited to see where the story and characters are going.                       

Do you need a sensitivity reader?

A friend who read a draft of my new novel, Winter’s Rage, suggested I ask someone experienced in transgender issues to read the manuscript. It hadn’t occurred to me that I needed this. While one of my characters in the novel has sex change surgery, I considered it a minor point in the story. But I knew instantly this was sound advice, given current awareness of LGBTQ+ concerns. 


My friend offered to look for a sensitivity reader if I couldn’t find one on my own. As it happened, several years earlier another friend had told me his sister had recently transitioned. I contacted my friend and asked if he could put me in touch with her. He gladly gave me her email address, although he didn’t think she read mystery novels or fiction in general. 


His sister replied right away. She thanked me for making this effort with my book because she was constantly annoyed by people’s thoughtless and cruel remarks and misused pronouns. I gave her the choice of reading the full manuscript of Winter’s Rage or the relevant sections. When she chose the latter, I emailed her five pages with all the pertinent scenes. She came back with comments I wouldn’t have thought of myself. In addition to these being useful for the book, I found it interesting to hear her perspectives. 


On the positive side, she liked that I’d had my protagonist observe my trans person’s physique as not typical for her gender. My reader finds her height can be a problem–she’s 6’3″ in high heels–but she knows other transgender women who have it harder, with barrel shaped chests and very masculine facial features. She found it realistic that my trans character would be depressed and alcohol dependent before discovering who she was. It also sadly rang true for her that my character would experience abuse on social media and from unsympathetic relatives.    
But she questioned my trans character’s close friend saying that she’d miss her as a man. My sensitivity reader had heard that type of remark too often. 


“Tough shit,” she told the obtuse friend. “This isn’t about you.” 


I’d also had my trans character say she’d miss her former self. My sensitivity reader said most trans people she knows can’t wait to shed their old selves. “We love them for getting us this far, but their job is done, and we’re excited to move forward.” I had thought, in that situation, I’d feel nostalgia for a large part of my life I was leaving behind, but bowed to her experience and tweaked my trans character’s sentiments. In addition, my reader thought I’d made the process of changing ID and other documents too simple. I added an explanation that didn’t impact the plot.   

  
My sensitivity reader found no fault with my use of pronouns, but later, during the proof read of the manuscript, it struck me that I might have used ‘he’ incorrectly in one instance. I asked my proof reader for her opinion. She replied that, in her view, ‘he’ was correct in the context. It can be tricky to get it totally right. We also shouldn’t assume all transgender people think alike any more than all women think alike. There might be some who disagree with my decision to leave ‘he’ in that sentence.  


By definition, we fiction writers create characters and situations that go beyond our personal experience. The more feedback we get from readers who fill the gaps in our knowledge, the more true-to-life our stories will be. When we don’t belong to a misunderstood and oppressed group, we’re often unaware of its particular issues. A first step in deciding whether or not to seek out a sensitivity reader is knowing when you need one. 

Why doesn’t our governor general speak French?

When reporters asked Mary Simon, Canada’s newly appointed governor general, why she doesn’t speak French, she replied that she was denied the chance to learn French at her residential day school. This prompted me to Google Simon’s biography. According to Wikipedia, she attended Kuujjuaq Federal Day School, then Fort Carson High School in Colorado and completed high school by correspondence. I would guess her US school didn’t offer French language instruction either.

Like Mary Simon, I grew up in Quebec. I entered English elementary school a few years after her. From grade two onwards, French was part of my daily instruction. But this was in Montreal. I’m sure the reason Simon’s day school didn’t teach French was due to its remote location. It would be hard enough to attract an English speaking teacher to the far north, never mind an additional French specialist or a teacher qualified to teach both official languages.

My understanding is that French isn’t a required subject in many Canadian schools. Most students in English schools don’t emerge bilingual. Even those who take French Immersion usually need to maintain some French in their personal lives or work to be comfortable speaking the language. My French language skills greatly improved after I finished school and worked in an office with mostly francophone colleagues. I lived in a Montreal neighourhood that was predominantly francophone and spoke French on a daily basis. After I moved to Calgary in 1996, my skills dropped off because I didn’t need to speak French anymore.

Evidently Mary Simon didn’t need to know French for her previous lifestyle and jobs as a broadcaster and diplomat. Otherwise she’d have taken courses, like numerous Anglo Canadians who aspire to particular positions. I doubt Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh left their elementary schools equipped to lead federal political parties. O’Toole has said he learned French in the military. Wikipedia says that Singh, like Simon, attended high school in the US.

Simon’s answer to reporters about why she doesn’t speak French was convenient for deflecting questions, but it wasn’t accurate.

Canada’s WWII Internment Camps

Last week I watched The Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s podcast with Adriana Davies about her new book From Sojourners to Citizens: Alberta’s Italian History. Her discussion of Italian interment during WWII reminded me of my friend’s father’s story about his internment at two camps in eastern Canada.

Joachim “Jim” was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1922. At age 16, he was sent to England through the Kindertransport program that rescued Jewish children from Hitler’s Nazi regime. Initially, Jim worked on an English farm. When war broke out, German youths living in the countryside were declared enemy aliens. The UK boarded them onto boats with German POWs and shipped them to internment camps in Canada or Australia.

Jim landed in a New Brunswick camp, where his main job was cutting wood. He didn’t mind the work and could borrow books from the McGill University lending library. An older internee taught him math. He found the camp food great thanks to an Austrian cook who had been a famous chef in Vienna. The internees who bothered him most were wealthy Austrians who were right-wing but hated upstart Hitler for taking over their country.

Even though he was generally happy at the camp, one day Jim and a friend decided to escape to the United States. After the others had left their woodcutting site, the two youths headed south. The snow and cold made them turn back. When they returned to the camp, the guard just looked at them angrily and said they needed haircuts. They learned they’d been walking in the wrong direction, toward the Bay of Fundy.

Jim’s math studies inspired his desire to attend McGill University. After two years in New Brunswick, he was transferred to the internment camp on St. Helen’s island near Montreal. St. Helen’s Island later became part of the Expo 67 site and is now a city park. Many of the internees at this camp were Italians. Some were fascists. He thinks they were POWs sent from Europe. Jim’s main memory of his short stay was a birthday celebration for Benito Mussolini, the fascist prime minister of Italy from 1922 to 1943. He recalled a cake with the lettering ‘Viva El Duce.’ Jim ate the piece with the ‘V.’

Jim left the camp when a Jewish family in Montreal sponsored his studies at McGill. At the university he met his wife, also a Jewish refugee. They married and had three sons. Jim became a McGill math professor. He died in 2014, a year after he told me his story.

Author Adriana Davies was born in Italy and grew up in Edmonton. In 2010 she received the Order of Canada for her work promoting and preserving Alberta’s cultural heritage. In her WGA online interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6I4_6xvvxYM she talks about the large number of people who left Italy in the early twentieth century. Many came to Alberta to work in the coal mines. They maintained links to the old country and sent money back to their families.

When Mussolini came to power, he realized the Italians living in Allied countries might be helpful to his cause. He recruited the granddaughter of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the hero of Italy’s unification, to drum up support. She went to Alberta, ostensibly to set up agricultural programs, and was lionized by the Edmonton and Calgary press. Fascist cells formed in both cities. This created tensions in the Italian community, between fascists and anti-fascists. Neighbours spied on each other. As war loomed, the RCMP couldn’t always tell who was on which side when they rounded up Italians for internment camps.

Adriana asked, Could the Italian fascists in Alberta have helped Mussolini’s war effort? Possibly, she said, by sabotaging the coal mines or railroads.

I found Adriana’s and Jim’s stories refreshing perspectives on history; a change from the simple view of good and bad. You can watch the podcast with Adriana on the WGA Youtube channel. Writers’ Guild of Alberta – YouTube On the channel, you’ll also find a podcast with me hosting an interview with N.L. Blandford, author of The Perilous Road to Her, a thriller novel dealing with a current issue — human trafficking.