Why I left The Writers’ Union of Canada

Posted by on May 26, 2021 in Books, Brian's Blog | Comments Off on Why I left The Writers’ Union of Canada

One of my literary heroes, the late Prairie social historian James H. Gray, was a founding member of The Writers’ Union of Canada. He and fellow historian Pierre Berton were among the nonfiction writers who joined forces with Canada’s novelists in 1973 to form this national authors’ group. They wanted to collectively address such shared concerns as the predominantly foreign ownership of Canadian publishing houses and the importation by Canadian booksellers of cut-rate American overruns of Canadian books.

I joined TWUC in 2000. I had just published my first book of biography and social history, Building a Province: 60 Alberta Lives, and was pleased to accept Audrey Thomas’s invitation to join the club. What writer wouldn’t want to be part of an organization that included among its members such important Canadian authors as Berton, Margaret Atwood, June Callwood and Alice Munro?

Over the next seventeen years I played an active role in TWUC, serving on the national council for nine of those years and participating in many ventures aimed at making life better for Canadians who endeavoured to make a living with their pens. During that time, the membership of the Union grew from 1,250 to more than two thousand.

We didn’t win all our battles but we scored some significant victories. I’m particularly proud of the support we gave to Heather Robertson when she sued The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and other Canadian media organizations for electronically archiving freelance articles and then selling them without credit or additional payment to the writers. The landmark court judgment resulted in Canada’s freelancers receiving compensations ranging from $1 to $55,000. I was among the beneficiaries.

I made many good friends through TWUC. I have many fond memories of the conversations we had in the bars after the meetings. That’s where the important stuff of the Union always took place. But while those conversations will continue, my involvement with TWUC will not.

Gray considered leaving the Union when it decided authors with modest incomes should pay less for their annual membership dues than their wealthier counterparts. He objected to the requirement that members submit an accountant’s statement as proof of income earned.

I considered leaving the Union when it decided the freedom of its recently hired magazine editor to determine what goes into its membership publication was more important than the freedom of a member to write for the magazine on certain subjects. For more on this, I invite you to read my earlier post on the issue, How I responded to being censored by The Writer’s Union of Canada.

Gray finally left because he didn’t want to be associated with an organization operating on the principle that “the membership cannot be trusted to tell the truth.”

I left because I don’t want to be associated with an organization that now lets a contract employee decide what members should be allowed to write in a publication they subsidize with their membership dues. That’s not the Union I joined in 2000. Nor is it the Union I want to be a part of any more.

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