Literary Prizes in English | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Literary Prizes in English

Until the 1920s there were no annual literary awards in Canada for writers in English. The first such prize was the Québec Literary Competition prize, awarded 1923-70 by the Province of Québec.

Until the 1920s there were no annual literary awards in Canada for writers in English. The first such prize was the Québec Literary Competition prize, awarded 1923-70 by the Province of Québec. The oldest literary prize still being awarded is the Lorne Pierce Medal, sponsored by the Royal Society of Canada and first awarded in 1926. In 1928 the Royal Society began offering the Tyrrell Medal for contributions to Canadian history. These 2 medals were presented annually until 1966, when a $1000 prize was added to each award and they became biennial.

No other literary awards established in the 1920s are still being offered. The Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire National Short Story Competition lasted 1923-33, and the IODE National One-Act Play Competition lasted 1923-36. The Montreal Poetry Contest sponsored by the Montréal branch of the Canadian Authors Association (CAA) was offered 1925-46, and the Maclean's Magazine Short Story Awards were presented 7 times between 1927 and 1955.

Of the awards established in the 1930s, the Governor General's Literary Award have become pre-eminent in Canada. Launched in 1937 by the CAA, with the first awards being given for 1936, they were originally made in 3 categories: fiction, non-fiction and poetry or drama. In 1959 the Canada Council took over partial responsibility for the awards, created matching categories for works in French, and added a $1000 prize to each award. Finally, in 1971 the Canada Council took over full responsibility for the awards, the value of which increased to $2500 in 1966, to $5000 in 1975, and to $15 000 by 2000. In 1975 the Canada Council established the Children's Literature Prizes for 2 writers, in English and in French; in 1980 the award was extended to include illustrators of children's literature. In 1981 a separate category for drama was created. The Canada Council awards a total of 14 literary prizes, including those for translation. BMO Financial Group has been the major financial sponsor of the Governor General's Literary Awards since 1988. In 2007, the prize money was increased to $25 000, as part of the celebration of the Canada Council's 50th anniversary.

Two other awards from the 1930s had great longevity. The Alberta Poetry Contest was established in 1930 by the Edmonton branch of the CAA and published winners in its Alberta Poetry Year Book series from 1930 to 1990. The various awards offered 1934-69 by the Dominion Drama Festival were once prominent, but the festival (renamed Theatre Canada) became noncompetitive in 1970 and disbanded in 1978. The Canadian One-Act Playwriting Contest, established in 1937 by the Ottawa Little Theatre, ran its 68th competition in 2007.

The most familiar award created in the 1940s is perhaps the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal (est 1947), awarded for humour. In 1973 the Manufacturer's Life Insurance Co added a cash prize, for which various companies, including the Hudson's Bay Company and J. P. Wiser Distillers, assumed responsibility over the years. TD Bank Financial Group became the sponsor of the $10 000 award in 2004. Other prizes established in the 1940s include the Book of the Year Medal for children's books, begun in 1947 by the Canadian Association of Children's Librarians; the IODE Provincial Chapter of Ontario Short Story Competition, established in 1948; the Eaton Short Story Competition, set up in 1948 by the Winnipeg Women's Canadian Club and the Winnipeg branch of the CAA (the name was adopted in 1960 when The T. Eaton Company began contributing a cash prize); and the Nova Scotia Poetry Contest, created in 1949 by the Nova Scotia Centre of the Poetry Society of England. Also established in the 1940s were the Ryerson Fiction Award, presented by Ryerson Press 14 times between 1942 and 1960; the O'Leary Newfoundland Poetry Awards (1944-55); and the IODE Annual Book Contest (1946-57), sponsored by the Alberta branch.

The 1950s saw the establishment of the University of Alberta National Awards in Letters, Music, and Painting and the Related Arts; the University of British Columbia Medal for Popular Biography; the University of Western Ontario President's Medals, which are awarded in recognition of periodical publications and are meant to complement the Governor General's Literary Awards; the Chauveau Medal of the Royal Society (annual until 1966, when a $1000 prize was added and it became biennial); and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador Arts and Letters Competition. Several others, such as the Maclean's Magazine Novel Award (1953-57) and the Beta Sigma Phi Award (1956-67), awarded for a first novel, lasted only a few years.

The most prestigious awards to come out of the 1960s were the Molson Prizes, made possible by a grant from Molson's to the Canada Council. Two prizes of $50 000 each are awarded annually for distinguished achievement in any area of culture. Among other prizes established in the 1960s are the Vicky Metcalf Award for children's literature; the Beaver Trophy, awarded by the HBC in Edmonton; the CAA, Vancouver Branch, Award; the Alberta Playwriting Competition; and the Dr William Henry Drummond National Poetry Contest. The Doubleday Canadian Prize Novel Award (1961-67), worth $10 000, was another first-novel award that did not survive.

The growth in the number, value and prestige of literary awards is undoubtedly a correlative of both our increasing awareness of our national literature in English and of the increasing quality and quantity of that literature. Although most of these new awards are single, several associations have established series of awards that are intended to compete with the Governor General's Literary Awards. In 1973 the Canadian Authors' Association began to award a series of silver medals to replace the Governor General's Awards, which they had administered before 1971. In 1975 Harlequin Books added a $1000 prize to the medals. The prize, later increased to $2500, was funded by Harlequin Enterprises for more than 20 years, and then supported by Chapters and Mosaid Technologies Inc.

In 1979, CBC producer Robert Weaver established what were then called the Canadian Literary Awards. The CBC Literary Awards, as they have been known since 2000, are valued at $6000 and sponsored by the Canada Council and Air Canada. In 1982 the Writers' Development Trust and the National Book Festival sponsored the first Writers' Awards, which have since grown to 11 annual awards and $150 000 in total prize money. In Alberta in the late 1970s the Edmonton Journal set up the Edmonton Journal Awards, and in the early 1980s the Writers Guild of Alberta Awards were established.

Several other single, general awards came into being in the 1970s and 1980s: the City of Toronto Book Award (1973- ); the IODE Book Award (1974- ); and the Canada-Australia Literary Prize (1976-), which is given to a Canadian every second year. The British Columbia Book Prizes were first awarded in 1985. The Ottawa Book Awards were established in 1986, and the first Vancouver Book Award was presented in 1989.

First-novel prizes continue to be popular. The much-publicized $50 000 Seal Books First Novel Award helped to launch new authors in the late 1970s and the 1980s. The Books in Canada First Novel Award, first awarded in 1977 and previously supported by SmithBooks and Chapters, is now sponsored by Amazon and worth $7500. Many provincial book awards include prizes for first books and promising writers. The Canadian Booksellers' Association Libris Awards (1972- ) honour Canadian authors, publishers, and booksellers. Perhaps the most interesting fiction award is the International 3-Day Novel Writing Contest, which originated at Vancouver's Pulp Press in 1977. This annual event takes place on the Labour Day weekend, and attracts writers from around the world.

Many awards for poetry are incorporated into the general awards series, such as the Writers' Trust Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award and the Canadian Authors' Association Poetry Award. The League of Canadian Poets also administers two poetry prizes: the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, for work by a female poet; and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, for a first book of poetry. The Malahat Review literary magazine has sponsored a long-poem contest since 1988. Canada's best known and most lucrative poetry prize is the Griffin Prize. The $100 000 award, established in 2000 by the Griffin Trust, is divided between a Canadian poet and an International poet.

Several distinct awards have also been established for drama, juvenile literature and non-fiction writing.

The Canadian Authors' Association has presented an award for best English-language play since 1976; this prize was named in memory of playwright Carol Bolt in 2002. Other prestigious drama prizes include the Chalmers Award, administered by the Chalmers Fund, and Toronto's Dora Mavor Moore Award. Canada's richest theatre arts prize is the $100 000 Siminovitch Prize, awarded annually since 2001 to a playwright, director, or designer.

In addition to the national Governor General's Awards, various provincial book prizes recognize the growth and excellence of Canadian children's literature, such as Ontario's Red Maple Award, Alberta's Rocky Mountain Book Award, and Nova Scotia's Ann Connor Brimer Award. Juvenile literature awards also include a number of prizes administered by the Canadian Library Association. The Mr Christie's Book Awards were presented from 1989 until 2003. Mordecai Richler's Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang was the first winner of the Ruth Schwartz Memorial Award (established in 1976, and renamed the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children's Book Award in 2004). The Vicky Metcalf Award, now valued at $15 000 and administered by the Writers' Trust, was first presented in 1963. The TD Canadian Children's Book Award, established in 2004 by the Canadian Children's Book Centre and the TD Bank Financial Group, gives $20 000 each to the best English and French children's books of the year.

Non-fiction prizes established in the 1970s include the Sainte-Marie Prize in History; the Alberta Non-Fiction Award; the Evelyn Richardson Memorial Award (for residents of Nova Scotia); and the Saskatchewan Native Writers' Contest. The Writers' Trust has awarded a non-fiction prize since 1987, which is valued at $15 000 and has been sponsored by Nereus Financial since 2006. The Canadian Booksellers' Association Libris Awards have included a non-fiction category since 1988. All provincial and many city book awards now include a non-fiction prize. The Lionel Gelber Prize (established in 1989) annually awards $15 000 to the best work of non-fiction on international relations. The Charles Taylor Prize, established in 2000, offers $25 000 and promotional support for the best work of literary non-fiction. Also established in 2000 was the $15 000 Shaughnessy Cohen Award for Political Writing.

A number of lucrative awards have appeared since the late 1980s. The Trillium Prize/Prix Trillium, established in 1987, is awarded to books published or written in Ontario and is worth $20 000. Winners have included Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Jane Urquhart and Anne Michaels. James A. Michener donated all Canadian royalties from his 1988 novel Journey to establish the Journey Prize. The award is for the best short story in a literary journal ($10 000 to the writer and $2000 to the journal). The Scotiabank Giller Prize, given to the author of the best Canadian novel or short-story collection published in English, awards $40 000 annually. Named in honour of journalist Doris Giller, the award was founded in 1994 by her husband, Jack Rabinovitch. Past winners include Mordecai Richler, M.G. Vassanji, and Margaret Atwood. In 1997 Rogers Communications established the Rogers Communications Writers' Trust Fiction Prize ($15 000). Another award established in 1997 was the W.O. Mitchell Literary Prize ($15 000). This award not only honours a body of work, but also recognizes those who serve as mentors to other writers. The $20 000 Matt Cohen Award, given for a lifetime of distinguished work by a Canadian writer, was established in 2000. In 2003, the Writers' Trust set up the Timothy Findley award, a $15 000 prize for a male writer in mid-career.

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