A Little Festival Grows

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.

Growth

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.

Future

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.

A Little Something in Something So Big

The pandemic is big. We are little. But we’re doing what we can. In Lakefield, our little Ontario village, most of us wear masks when shopping at our one grocery store; picking up mail at the post office; or lining up outside our one hardware store and in the often-outrageously long LCBO queues. We wave and weave widely around each other on daily walks. We’re hunkered down. But last Saturday, for just a bit, we broke free.

There’s not much I can do to help. I can’t make masks. Beyond staying home, I can’t help doctors and nurses. But I know how to sing and play the guitar a little. Plus, Terry lives across the street and he’s a drummer. Mike lives one street over and he plays bass. An idea was born.

Flyers were put in people’s front doors. They said that on Saturday at 4:15 there would be a William Street Concert and Sidewalk Dance. People were invited to bring lawn chairs (and stay six feet apart) or just open their windows. We had no idea if anyone would come or if the police would shut us down – there is one patrol car that commutes in from Peterborough.

William St Concert

It was terrific. Families gathered close and neighbours sprawled on lawns at respectful distances. Others were on front porches and between songs we heard others clapping and hooting from back decks. Mike, Terry, and I had never played together before so we did old, no fail, rock ‘n’ roll songs. A lot of folks sang along and danced in their places but for our last two songs (I Saw Standing There and Birthday) the street filled with socially-distanced dancers.

William St 2

It was only an hour. But it was glorious. There was laughter and singing and dancing and wide smiles. We actually saw friends who for weeks were only thumbnails in Brady Bunch Zoom calls. When it ended, we all retreated to the safety of our houses and yards knowing how lucky we are to have houses and yards and to live in a little place like this even in the middle of something so big.

Inventing Home

Where are you from? Where do you live? They are the two most popular questions to ask travellers, party guests, and game show contestants. The answer allows a stereotyped categorization. It can spur a conversation or, perhaps, the decision to not bother starting one. It’s odd though, because while often seen as the same question they are two totally different inquiries. Ask yourself the two questions. Do you get two answers?

I am from Hamilton. It is known as Canada’s steel town although with the slow death of the industrial revolution the nickname means less all the time. Home to Huron, then French, and then British settlers, it is named for Robert Hamilton, a War of 1812 veteran, who built his estate at the west end of Lake Ontario. The place grew quickly as railways passed through on their way from the American border to Toronto. The pig iron plant arrived first. Then came the Steel Company of Canada (Stelco) and then, the smaller Dominion Foundry and Steel Company (Dofasco).

Dofasco Dofasco

My great grandfather was among Dofasco’s first employees. He got my grandfather into the foundry and he worked there for over 40 years. He never said a bad word about Dofasco. He always spoke of the bosses as Mr. This and Mr. That. My father worked there too. He tells stories of playing in the Dofasco baseball league and bowling league and hockey league. I recall as a child going to the Dofasco Christmas party. It was a massive affair where an entire building was emptied and then opened for the thousands of employee families. There were treats and games and Santa Claus and a wrapped present for every kid.

Stelco is gone now. Dofasco is all but gone too. Their shadows remain but they were bought and sold a couple of times and are now just cogs in transnational corporations with no ties to Canada let alone the city. Corporations may be constitutionally people but they neither have a home nor care much about those who do. With the steel plants went the others. Hamilton is not the same.

Go to any city. Go downtown near the river or the harbour at the lake. You know the places I mean in whatever city has entered your mind. The big old buildings are nearly all empty. Or they have been turned into fancy boutiques, offices, or condominiums. The places to shop and eat are elsewhere and everywhere the same as everywhere else. You can picture that street too can’t you? Walmart, Costco, McDonalds, and the Tims have taken care of it. Online shopping took care of what remained.

So that is where I am from – a ghost. I still have family there, I’m a proud McMaster University alum, and a great deal remains that I find invigorating and beautiful. But it’s a city re-inventing itself as surely as when Robert Hamilton created it in the first place. It will succeed. There are too many good people for it to fail. No one is sure how just yet, but a consensus will grow. It will enable enough people to recognize that a city, like a well-lived life, is not about money and stuff.

A community rests on shared values and the places where people from up and down and across town meet to enjoy the same things at the same time. Hamilton, and for that matter every city that is going through the same period of existential angst, will come out the other side when enough people say enough to driving out of town to have fun and to driving past boarded up shops once owned by folks they knew to stores the size of football fields to save fifty cents on toilet paper. The city will begin to move when people move by getting out of their cars and walking. When people start to walk they will need some place close to walk to and some version of Walmart won’t put a store there, or a book shop, or a pub – but a neighbour might, in an actual neighbourhood. In walking, neighbours will start talking and the rest will take care of itself. It won’t be easy, but then Robert Hamilton didn’t have it easy either.

Where I live is different. I live in a village of 2500 people called Lakefield. Lakefield was created on Ojibwa land just a few years later than Hamilton. It became known not for stinky steel but silent canoes. It was home to several canoe manufacturers including Walter Walker who made canoes and paddles for ordinary folks and royalty with the same dedication to excellence. It has always been an artistic place. Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie lived and wrote in Lakefield as did Margaret Laurence. The Leahy band lives nearby as does Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins. First-rate painters, children’s book authors and illustrators, and sculptors call Lakefield home as do highly respected architects and film makers. The Lakefield Literary Festival and world-renowned Lakefield College School are here.

A river runs through the centre of my Village and it is only right that it does. It is a metaphor that speaks of perpetual movement and things that never change. Margaret Laurence wrote The Diviners here and, if you recall, the novel begins by speaking of a river that runs both ways. It does you know. It really does.

Canoe-and-Paddle-e1413940425220

Last week a new pub opened in Lakefield called the Canoe and Paddle. It is fashioned to reflect the look and feel of a pub one might wander into on an English afternoon or Halifax night. It is owned and run by folks from the village. Last Thursday my little rock band played the pub’s first night of music. It was music for neighbours by neighbours. Last night I walked across the bridge to stand with a pint and enjoy a Celtic band play one lively reel after another. The place was packed. As I looked around the room I realized that I knew nearly every face. Everyone glowed with the happiness of a Saturday night among friends, with neighbours, and in a community that understands the meaning of the word. The pub will do well. The Canoe and Paddle has reminded us that we understand what doing well means.

Hamilton is where I am from. Lakefield is where I live. It’s good to be home.

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