Authors write in isolation and we read in isolation and yet books can bring us all together. Literary Festivals shatter the wall between writers and readers as they meet to explain, question, and enjoy the power of words and ideas. The Lakefield Literary Festival is widely respected for bringing writers and readers together for over twenty-five years.
It began small. Its founding spark was the acknowledgement that the Lakefield area has a thriving arts community and was once home to pioneer authors Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie and, from 1974 to her death in 1987, renowned Canadian writer Margaret Laurence.
In early 1995, Ron and Joan Ward purchased the modest Lakefield house in which Laurence had lived with the notion of creating a writers’ retreat. While that idea failed to materialize, the conversations about honouring Laurence morphed into a two-day event that July that involved a walking tour and performances, readings, and musical selections at a banquet in the dining hall of Lakefield College School. CBC Radio host Shelagh Rogers was the banquet’s master of ceremonies.
The event’s success led to the formation of a group of volunteers who created what became the Lakefield Literary Festival. The enthusiastic group was led by Shelley Ambrose and Brenda Neill. At that time, Ambrose was the personal assistant to CBC Radio personality Peter Gzowski and summered at a nearby cottage. Neill was a retired teacher and long-time Lakefield resident. They were the perfect team as Ambrose’s connections to Canada’s cultural community brought attention and noted authors to the festival and Neill’s local ties inspired a group of eager volunteers. An early sponsor was Quaker Oats, located in nearby Peterborough, with generous donations from many local businesses and individuals.
From those humble beginnings the festival grew. Its mandate became: To commemorate Catharine Parr Traill, Susanna Moodie, Margaret Laurence, and our community’s ongoing literary heritage; to showcase Canadian authors; and to promote the joy of reading among children and adults. A Board was formed and the festival was incorporated as a non-profit organization. The festival has no staff. While authors and those attending the festival come from across Canada, it remains a grassroots organization, run by dedicated volunteers.
The festival came to involve free readings for children in the downtown Cenotaph Park in what became known as the Children’s Tent. There were readings in a local church on Sunday morning, a Village walking tour, a reception, and a Young Writer’s Contest involving students from the area’s secondary schools.
A range of noted authors entertained and challenged audiences including Margaret Atwood, Richard Wagamese, Andy Barrie, June Callwood, Michael Crummey, Michael Enright, Terry Fallis, Douglas Gibson, Graeme Gibson, Charlotte Gray, Lawrence Hill, Wayne Johnston, Thomas King, Roy MacGregor, Linden MacIntyre, Alistair MacLeod, Rohinton Mistry, Lisa Moore, Michael Ondaatje, Adam Shoaltz, Paul Quarrington, Nino Ricci, Bill Richardson, Noah Richler, Drew Hayden Taylor, Jane Urquhart, and many, many more.
In 2019, the Lakefield Literary Festival celebrated its 25th Anniversary. The next year, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world. The Young Writers Contest continued but the festival was suspended.
The festival will return on July 14 and 15, 2023. It will celebrate its core elements with author events on Friday night, Saturday afternoon, and Saturday evening, the Children’s Tent on Saturday morning, and the Young Writers Contest. The adult author readings will take place at the United Church on Regent Street, each followed by authors signing books and a reception in the church auditorium.
In 2023, the festival will continue its dedication to commemorating the area’s literary heritage, celebrating authors, and promoting the joy of reading. The Lakefield Literary Festival’s history is still being made by those who write, those who read, and by the power of the connections between them.