While the Lakefield Literary Festival was launched as a remembrance of Margaret Laurence, it has become a celebration of the rich literary heritage of Lakefield, Ont and the surrounding area. This heritage includes the works of Catharine Parr Traill, Susanna Moodie and Isabella Valancy Crawford, among others, all of whom lived and wrote in Lakefield. Book lovers from across Canada and the United States have discovered this unique literary venue, and its reputation with the reading public and with authors is now well established. The festival is held on the weekend closest to Margaret Laurence's July 18 birthday.
In 1993, Ron Ward and his family acquired Margaret Laurence's large yellow brick retirement house at 8 Regent Street, Lakefield, which she occupied from May 1, 1974 until her death on January 5, 1987. The family's intention was to do something with the house that would promote Lakefield and the literary aspects of Lakefield. The first public event organized by the Ward family, assisted by local volunteers, took place on July 29-30, 1995. The group hosted a banquet entitled "Remembering Margaret: The Lakefield Years." The weekend included a Saturday afternoon walking tour of spots important to Lakefield's literary heritage, followed by dramatic performances and remembrances. In the evening a banquet and further reminisces took place at Lakefield College School. CBC host Shelagh Rogers acted as master of ceremonies at the first banquet and continued as a host until 2002. Rogers also returned for the 15th anniversary of the festival, in 2009.
One of the key organizers of the Lakefield Literary Festival from the beginning has been Shelley Ambrose, currently co-publisher of The Walrus magazine, who was a summer resident in 1995. The most active of the Lakefield volunteers was Brenda Neill, who became co-chair with Ambrose in 1998. Neill tirelessly built the literary festival organization at the grass roots level, while Ambrose provided the strategic direction and booked many of the authors.
Over the years, additions to the festival have included displays at Christ Church Community Museum, the Young Writers Contest and young adult readings, a children's tent, gala dinners, boat cruises, feature films, and readings in the park with authors - in one case with the writer arriving in a birch bark canoe. Sunday services at the Lakefield United Church and Christ Church, Douro provide an emphasis on spiritual and literary links. Uniquely, the festival's events are sponsored entirely by local businesses in the community.
A list of presenters at the Lakefield Literary Festival shows an impressive representation of the Canadian literary scene: Gil Adamson, Margaret Atwood, Joan Barfoot, John Bemrose, Michelle Berry, June Callwood, Stevie Cameron, Karen Connelly, Michael Crummey, Deborah Ellis, Michael Enright, Joe Fiorito, Sheree Fitch, Charles Foran, Camilla Gibb, Graeme Gibson, Katherine Govier, Charlotte Gray, Richard Gwyn, Peter Gzowski, Rawi Hage, Elizabeth Hay, Helen Humphreys, Frances Itani, Wayne Johnston, Janice Kulyk Keefer, Mark Kingwell, Dennis Lee, Jean Little, Ann-Marie Macdonald, Roy MacGregor, Linden MacIntyre, Alistair MacLeod, Rohinton Mistry, Donna Morrissey, Michael Ondaatje, Kenneth Oppel, Charles Pachter, Nelofer Pazira, Helen Carmichael Porter, Andrew Pyper, Paul Quarrington, Nino Ricci, Bill Richardson, Noah Richler, Diane Schoemperlen, Merilyn Simonds, Drew Hayden Taylor, Molly Thom, Jane Urquhart, Brian Vallée, Budge Wilson, Michael Winter, Richard B. Wright, Alissa York and other authors.