On the north side of Dupont Street in Toronto, just east of Bathurst Street, stood an old red-brick factory.
Until this week.
Now the former printing shop has been torn down, to make way for what is promised will be attractive “Condos”. So what once was part of a sturdy old industrial part of the central city is swallowed up by the advancing residential Annex from the south.
Why should this matter to people outside Toronto, or to those who are not city planners? Because that old, anonymous red-brick building played a huge part in transforming the world of Canadian books.
The man behind this shift was Barry Broadfoot. He was the former Book Review Editor at the Vancouver Sun who had quit his job in the hope of writing a new kind of book that would transform Canadian History. With a tiny tape recorder in his hand he had criss-crossed the country in his Volkswagen Beetle, asking ordinary people “What happened to you in The Depression?”
Their extraordinary answers became TEN LOST YEARS, 1929-1939: Memories of Canadians Who Survived The Depression.
Along the way, however, there was a major transcribing and typing challenge for Barry, and a major editing challenge for me. In STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS I talk about how the ratio of stories we cut out, messily, was about 40 to1. I also explain that Barry “was a fast, inelegant typist who resented conventions like using upper-case letters at the start of sentences, and his typewriter sometimes made holes in the cheap paper, so the pages were arguably the ugliest ever submitted in the history of Canadian publishing,”
This led to major problems when the manuscript went off to the typesetters in their sturdy red-brick building on Dupont Street.

I go on to explain the process. “In those days, children, people typed manuscripts, then they were edited with marks in pen or usually pencil, and then they went to people called “typesetters, WHO RETYPED THE WHOLE MANUSCRIPT, from beginning to end. In this case, the ill-typed, heavily edited manuscript was so illegible that the typesetter-printer (Bob Hamilton, whom I worked with later) pleaded with me to set up shop in their building so that I could translate the constant tricky words right on the spot.
“And there — if I had any doubt about the power of the stories in the book — I received inspiring confirmation of the book’s appeal. The typesetters — hardened old pros — simply could not get enough of Barry’s stories, and talked excitedly about them over coffee and lunch. It was clear that we were on to a winner.”

And what a winner TEN LOST YEARS proved to be. It sold over 200,000 copies, in hard-cover. It established oral history as an exciting new form of Canadian non-fiction. It made Barry Broadfoot a major new author. And, to be to selfish, it helped to launch my publishing career.
And it left me nostalgic about that old building on Dupont Street, and wanting to honour its passing.




Mavis Gallant died at the age of 91 four years ago, on February 18. She died in Paris, an ex-patriate Canadian writer who was admired by other fine writers around the world. Yet now she is at the centre of a scandal rocking the American literary firmament, from coast to coast.

Not that Mavis has any responsibility here, or is in any way to blame. On the contrary, one side in the noisy fight claims that it is defending her against a modern author who is stealing her work.

The story begins in the pages of “The New Yorker”, the magazine that for decades published Mavis Gallant’s work. In fact, only John Updike had more fiction appear in the magazine over the years than Mavis, and the role the magazine played in revealing her genius to the world is well known. On January 9th this year, however, the magazine published a piece of fiction by Sadia Shepard entitled “Foreign-Returned”.

That is the simple heading for the story. No reference is made to Mavis Gallant there, as in “A Tribute to Mavis Gallant”. There is also no specific reference such as “Based on the Mavis Gallant story, The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street.” To the unsuspecting reader, the story stands alone.

However, in a separate interview with the story’s editor, Deborah Treisman, Sadia Shepard acknowledges “a great debt” to the Mavis Gallant Story “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street”, which she names.

Enter Francine Prose, the well-known American novelist. In a letter that sends lightning bolts from the page she accuses Shepard of stealing from the Gallant story. Her letter appeared in the The New Yorker on January 22, is and worth reading in its powerful entirety.

To summarize, it begins with Prose noting that a few sentences into the Shepard story “I began to get the eerie feeling that I knew exactly what was coming next. And, in fact I did, because almost everything that happens in Shepard’s story happens in Mavis Gallant’s story, The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street, published in The New Yorker, in 1963. Scene by scene, plot turn by plot turn, gesture by gesture, the Shepard story follows the Gallant – the main difference being that the characters are Pakistanis in Connecticut rather than Canadians in Geneva. Some phrases and sentences are mirrored with only a few words changed.”

Prose concludes by arguing strongly that “the correspondences far exceed the bounds of “debt”, or even of “homage, or of a “translation” into a different ethnicity and historical period.”

She ends with the thunderclap: “Is it really acceptable to change the names and identities of fictional characters and then claim the story as one’s own original work? Why, then, do we bother having copyright laws?”

BANG! The debate blew up with a number of writers in the New Yorker and The Los Angeles Review of Books accusing Francine Prose (and many others who criticized Shepard’s story) of racial insensitivity. Jess Row in a letter to The New Yorker actually says “…we’re not talking about the mechanics of story composition; this is a conversation about racial and cultural power and prestige”.

So where does this leave a Canadian reader? Well, I’m far from being a typical Canadian reader here, although I made my living as a Publisher, trying to anticipate the reactions of that elusive reader. But I had the honour to publish Mavis’s work, introducing her to Canadians as one of our best writers with From The Fifteenth District in 1978. We were friends, as I continued to visit her in Paris, see her in Toronto and Montreal, and to publish her magnificent stories. The classic story in question, “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street” appears in two of our books: Home Truths: Canadians At Home and Abroad (1981, which won the Governor-General’s Award), and Selected Stories (1996).

A Canadian reader, I think will see more than an outsider in this classic story with the distinctive title. It concerns a childhood memory shared by Agnes Bruser, who grew up, Mavis suggests, “small, mole-faced, round-shouldered because she has always carried a younger child”, in a hard-striving, large Norwegian family in a small town in the Prairies. The house was so lacking in privacy that her happiest time was to slip out early in the morning in the summer. So early that, in those days before refrigerators, she could see the ice wagon making its deliveries, door to door.

Her memory of that apparently trivial moment, “Once in your life alone in the universe”, is so important to her she remembers telling it to the other Canadian she’s assigned to share an office with in Geneva. In fact, it’s the only real conversation she ever has with Peter Frazier (of the Toronto Fraziers, descended from “granite Presbyterian immigrants from Scotland” who made the family fortune that Peter at first was able to live off, until the old money ran out.)

Peter Frazier is the central character in the story, and he has little in common with Agnes from the prairies. He has never been in the West. He has never felt it necessary to gain a university degree. Agnes is so proud of hers that when she moves into the office that she has been given to share with this other Canadian she hangs her framed university degree on the wall. “It was one of the gritty, prideful gestures that stand for push, toil and family sacrifice.” On her desk she places a Bible.

You may be surprised to learn that in the, let’s say,” parallel” story by Sadia Shepard, what is placed on the desk by the Pakistani woman, Hina, to the alarm of her new colleague Hassan, is a copy of the Koran.

The anti-climactic scene in both stories follows a disastrous party at the home of influential friends from their own community. In both cases the male sharing the office resentfully with the female newcomer set above him finds himself conscripted to see her home, drunk. In her apartment, things could go very badly, but as both stories tell us, in these exact words, “Nothing happened.” Except in Mavis’s marvellous telling, when Agnes clumsily emerges from her bathroom to embrace Peter, she is wearing “ a dressing gown of orphanage wool.” Orphanage wool!

As for the Sadia Shepard story, I’m not qualified by personal knowledge to give an informed opinion. I do know the Connecticut where the story is set, but only through one eight-month academic year in New Haven.  I am amused by her impressions of how men who can do nothing well in the kitchen are expected to spring into action as experts beside the barbecue.  But I can’t express any informed opinion about the accuracy of her portrait of life among expatriate Pakistanis in North America today.  I note with pleasure, however, that Pakistanis feature in the original Mavis story, when a standing weekend invitation by well-placed Canadian friends to stay at their Swiss summer house suddenly ends. “One Sunday Madge said she needed the two bedrooms the Fraziers usually occupied for a party of sociologists from Pakistan, and that was the end of it.” Could this reference have been what inspired Sadia Shepard to write this indebted tribute?

But I must confess that I read “Foreign-Returned” very much as Francine Prose did. Paragraph by paragraph I read saying “Oh, no, she can’t do this! Surely she’s not going to have her get drunk?” I realise, as many clever readers have written, that adapting anything, however closely, will produce something new. But what would you feel about a “new” work, where its advocate says: “And then there’s this great moment, when the magic potion works, and he wakes up with a donkey’s head on his shoulders! Did you ever hear of such a thing?”

Maybe the fanciful title that I’ve given to this article might have solved all the problems of non-attribution, if the original Shepard story had been graced by it. A Publisher’s solution, which I’m glad to offer for future reprints.

As Mavis Gallant’s friend and defender,and her proud Canadian Publisher, let me end by quoting Sadia Shepard. “I believe that creating new work inspired by Gallant honours her legacy and might even bring her new readers, something that Prose and I no doubt agree she deserves.” All very well. But a more definite link with the Mavis Gallant model would send more readers her way, to their great pleasure.


Canadian readers will be pleased to note the difference between the languid Torontonian Peter, waiting for the appropriate job to be awarded to him, a Frazier, and his English wife, Sheilah, from Liverpool. While he stands beside the car on one Geneva evening, looking around admiringly, saying “This is the first snow”, she impatiently accuses him of repeating himself. “She was born in an ugly city, and so was Peter, but they have this difference. She does not know the importance of the first snow – the first clean thing in a dirty year”.

One other coincidental piece of pleasure for Canadian reader: Peter ascribes his mysterious failure to be presented with a job appropriate to a Frazier to the enmity and plotting of a French-Canadian former friend. “Peter says now that French-Canadians always have that bit of spite.” The story came out in 1963, almost the last year Mavis could innocently give the spiteful Canadian former friend the soon-to-be-memorable the name of Trudeau.



(Photo of Tomson Highway, left, and Doug Gibson, Toronto, June 2018, by Mark Cardwell)

As my faithful readers know, I have made a point of attending The Writers’ Union annual Margaret Laurence Lectures down through the years. The very first Lecture, at the Union AGM at Queen’s,  was given by my author Hugh MacLennan. I recall that he reported with satisfaction on a recent very frank conversation with a small boy, who was appalled by Hugh’s great age, and asked him “What does it feel like to know that you’ll soon be dead?”

Other lectures have been memorable, usually in a different way, as Canada’s finest authors spoke about their experience of the writing life. Sometimes I , smiling benevolently as a friendly Publisher in the audience, found myself playing the role of the villain. The most notable case was in 1997, when Edna Staebler , the author of books like “Food That Really Schmecks”, was the selected author. Edna, born into a Mennonite family in 1906, was a sweet little old lady, a smiling apple-cheeked veteran, worthy of her proud Publisher’s support on this important evening.

IN ACROSS CANADA BY STORY I write: “At the end of a long publishing day I drove to Kingston to support good old Edna. She chose to take the audience through her career as an author, book by book. When she came to the first book  published by M&S, she said: “Now I see Doug Gibson in the audience, and Doug, I have to say that when it came to Promoting “More Food That Really Schmecks”, I was really disappointed by the job that M&S did. Really disappointed.”

The audience of writers — not all of whom believed that their own publishers had promoted their own books ideally, successfully attracting every possible reader — was loudly delighted.

It got worse. Every book we had published, it seemed, had been badly promoted, although each time Edna was “sorry to have to say this, Doug”. Eventually I sat there in the middle of the audience (my neighbours drawing away from me) with my hands clasped protectively over my head. It was an admission that I was being publicly beaten up, from the stage, by a sweet little lady, now aged ninety-one, but still kicking.”

In later years authors like Alistair MacLeod had some fun at my expense, and in St. John’s in 2014 Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Lecture was so critical of the publishing hotshot named Gibson who took forever to decide to publish Man Descending (until HE gave ME a deadline) that friends in the audience later asked me for my side of the story. I simply said that Guy’s story was too good not to be true.

So this year, at the Writers’ Union AGM in Toronto I was excited to attend the Margaret Laurence lecture delivered by Tomson Highway.

Tomson’s career led us to expect something a little different, and he had great fun providing it. We all learned more Cree than we had known before. Since Tomson, who spends a lot of time in Europe, is fluent in  French, and Spanish and Portuguese and much else, there was a feast of language behind his witty talk.

But words failed him the next day , when I ran into him in the corridor. My friend Mark Cardwell was with me , with his trusty camera, when I shyly went up to Tomson, whom I had never met. When I introduced myself, he said: “Doug Gibson? DOUG GIBSON? THE INDESCRIBABLE DOUG GIBSON?”

It must be true. Tomson Highway said so. I like to think that this is one of the few cases when “indescribable” is used in a good way.


I was saddened to read about the recent death of Newfoundland’s own Mary Pratt, a timeless painter of realistic scenes, often deceptively plain and domestic.
The comparisons with the work of Alice Munro are clear, and I was very glad to bring the two artists together by using Mary Pratt’s evocative image of a dress on a clothesline for Friend of My Youth in 1990, and of an unmade bed on the cover of Alice’ s Runaway in 2004.
Alice’s biographer, Robert Thacker, in Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, notes that “Gibson’s comment that he and Munro had been looking for “just the right”magic realist painting is indicative, too, since as her Canadian editor he justifiably prided himself on the choice of appropriate artworks for her dust jackets. Given the initial Rose-Janet relation in Who Do You Think You Are, they first settled on a detail from Christopher Pratt’s Young Woman in a Slip, where the young woman is looking into a mirror, rejecting it (though it was later used on the dust jacket of the Canadian edition of The Moons of Jupiter), they ultimately opted for a detail of Ken Dandy’s The Sunbather”.
To my great pleasure,Thacker ends this paragraph with the observation: “Gibson’s covers, from this one to the painting of a dishevelled bed by Mary Pratt on the dust jacket of Runaway have been capsule symbols of the elegant everyday found in Munro’s writing”.
“The elegant everyday”! Perfect.
And as Canadian magic realism flourished, I was thrilled to be able to use paintings by people like Mary Pratt, and Christopher Pratt, and Alex Colville ( Elm Tree at Horton’s Landing, on the cover of The Progress of Love).
A great generation of artists.

Announcing A New Show At Niagara-on-the-Lake

For many years the legendary Toronto musician Atis Bankas has run the summer festival of Music Niagara, in the historic town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. To my surprise and delight, Atis recently saw one of my shows and said, “Let’s turn it into a musical!”

So, on Tuesday, August 7, at 7.30 in The Market Room, in the Court House Theatre in the centre of Niagara-on-the-Lake, you can see an exciting new version of “150 Years of Canadian Literature”.

Instead of the usual power-point show, where authors from each decade are introduced with a very short burst of recorded music, in this show I’ll be joined on-stage by the distinguished pianist Daisy Leung. We’ll still have works of Canadian art appearing on the screen, and I’ll still talk about the selected authors against the brilliant caricatures by Anthony Jenkins. But there will be lots of music, ranging from Quebec folk-tunes to Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, and we’ll hear the versatile Daisy playing everything from Oscar Peterson to Leonard Cohen.

It should be fun. I’d be delighted if you could arrange to come for an evening in the former capital of Upper Canada, and enjoy what Daisy and I create…..and I promise not to dance!

Please tell your friends. The more, the merrier.


As my faithful friends who follow this blog know, I spent a lot of time in 2017 touring my show about CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS, 1867 To Today. Yet anyone who missed the live Power-point stage show was out of luck.

Until today. Canada Day!

Now, we’re launching a series of Podcasts based on that show. There are 16 podcasts in all,  each based on a decade in Canadian literature. For most of the decades I’ve selected the best Fiction Writer, in English and in French. Against a background of music from the time, I also talk about Canadian Art in those days, as well as the major events in our history.

It’s all very informal, and friendly, and each decade’s podcast runs between 15 and 25 minutes.

I hope that you’ll give it a try.

Here’s how:

Go to the Podcast Section of i-tunes. Search for Douglas Gibson. What you want is the one with a caricature of me, running across the country. The heading is Douglas Gibson Literary Talks. It is, as I say, all FREE.

If you seek a more formal direct link, here’s the URL


Please share widely




A new show has just opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario that is likely to travel across Canada. The title is TUNIRRUSIANGIT: KENOJUAK ASHEVAK and TIM PITSIULAK. I rushed to see the advance Members Opening last week, because I am a worshipful admirer of Kenojuak……and I KNEW HER, AND ONCE GOT TO SEE HER AT WORK.

The story begins, like all of my Arctic stories, with my friend James Houston. After he came home from the War (and interesting times studying art in Paris, until his Toronto mother got suspicious) he made a living as an artist in rural Quebec, his deliveries handled by a local kid named Jean Chretien. He was roaming around Moose Factory on a sketching trip when an emergency medical flight took him north. He was astonished to find that his new Inuit friends in Inukjuak, on the east side of Hudson’s Bay, were casually producing excellent soapstone carvings. He took a sack-full south to Montreal, where the art world snapped them up.

Soon James was back in Baffin Island, officially travelling to spread the message that being an artist could provide a good living to Inuit hunters and their families.
James was an astounding success in this art-missionary role, attracting dozens of fine artists to the new trade. He even created the Cape Dorset  Co-op, in Kingait, and encouraged the artists there to branch out into print-making. One American authority even said: “No James Houston, no Inuit art.”

He stayed in the Arctic until 1962, raising a family there. His tales of life in the Old North (travelling by dog-team, living in igloos, eating raw seal meat) were so fascinating that I persuaded him to put them down for me in a book for M&S..

You’ll find my account of James Houston’s remarkable life (perhaps it should be “lives”) in the chapter about him in my book, STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS. Then, in his own classic memoir of the old days in the North, CONFESSIONS OF AN IGLOO DWELLER, you’ll find out how he discovered one of Canada’s greatest artists, Kenojuak.

The chapter is entitled, “Rabbit Eating Seaweed”.

“The old trap boat came in at low tide and touched Kingait’s summer beach, a vast, dark stretch strewn with slippery, skull-sized rocks woven over in places by long fronds of seaweed. I saw Kenojuak climb out and help several of her younger children down. She had that familiar bump of another infant in the back of her parka. Two of her older children followed her out of the boat….

I continued along the beach toward Kenoujuak, a bright-eyed, cheerful woman whom I had always liked. She seemed remarkably young and healthy with a great deal of bounce considering that at that time she had already borne eight children – she was to have sixteen in all.

“Kunoipiit?” she called in greeting.

I noticed that she was carrying a sealskin bag on her shoulder. It was not unlike other bags I had seen Inuit carrying, but hers had something on it. I asked Kenojuak to show me. The bag had a dark, scraped outer sealskin image carefully cut and sinew-sewn onto the bag itself which was sealskin reversed, the inside being light tan in colour.

“What is this?” I asked, listening carefully to hear her answer.

“Okalik isumalook kikkoyuk memuktualuk. Rabbit thinking of eating seaweed,” she said in a way that she knew I would understand.

Kenojuak went out into the tide and showed me one particular kind of seaweed.  “ Mumungitok! Not good eating. Here, this kind, “ she said and gathered some. “Take this with you to Amakotak. Get her to cook it for you. It’s good. Rabbits come down to the shore to eat it.”

I wasn’t as interested in the seaweed as I was the startling image on her work bag. Why had she gone to that trouble?”

(And here, having raised the basic question about what drives any artist, Jim Houston inserts his own expert sketch of the “Rabbit Eating Seaweed bag”). The text continues:

“After Kenojuak and her family had set up their summer tent, we all went a few nights later to a large dance. It was one of their typical mid-summer pleasures where the families ate, then slept and rose refreshed and ready to start the dancing at about 11p.m., and could carry on until they tired, when the morning sun came up again.

I purposely took a pencil and two rolled sheets of paper to the dance and gave them to Kenojuak, asking her to make a drawing of her rabbit eating seaweed. She stuck the paper in her parka hood, then gave the parka and her current infant to an elder daughter when she heard the button accordion start to wheeze, then play. She leapt into the local version of a wild, Scottish whalers’ reel.

A few days later, when everyone had recovered from the muscular activities inherent in these dances, Kenojuak came to me with both sheets of paper I had given her. They were covered with pencil drawings of very different subjects. These were rolled for protection in the very piece of sealskin from which she had cut her rabbit eating seaweed….”

Kenojuak’s artistic journey had begun. It was to take her to world fame, as she became a Companion of the Order of Canada, and her 1960 print “The Enchanted Owl” became an official Canadian stamp. Now her works appear in art galleries around the world.

She is a superb artist, so this joint show with her young relative Tim Pitsiulak (a fine artist, gone before his time) is well worth seeing. You can wander the A.G.O. rooms enjoying one superb print after another.

The show itself, however, is far from perfect. It is resolutely bilingual, in English and Inuktitut. Any French-speaking visitor seeking a text to read is out of luck. In awkward English the organizers boast that the show was organized by “a curatorial team comprising of (sic) Inuit artists and creators”.  That’s fine. But I found the information attached to the exhibits rarely helpful, when I was keen to learn more. In fact, the show has the sense of being “over-curated”, with the partners apparently all too aware that they are part of “ a brave new kind of curatorial partnership”.

Usually this doesn’t matter. But in the case of Laakuluk Williamson Bathory, it allows her to take over the start of the exhibition with her “Greenlandic” oratory and hand-waving performance as her filmed self misleads the entering public with nonsense. If you think I’m being unfair, go back and watch her earnestly inform you that there was no Canadian Art before 1960.

But the excellence of the art overcomes these curatorial annoyances. It’s a fine show, and I hope you’ll get to see it.

So, you wonder, how did I get to know Kenojuak?

After James Houston died I spoke at the funeral his wife, Alice, organized in Connecticut, near his Stonington home. There his ashes were scattered. Then Mathew Swan of Adventure Canada had the brilliant idea of organising an Arctic Cruise in Jim Houston’s wake. Jim’s son John suggested that I should be added to the tour, to speak on board as part of the crew. I would travel along with others  excited to make the voyage in Jim’s honour, and to scatter his remaining ashes at a cliff outside Cape Dorset.

Kenoujuak was one of these honoured guests.

As Staff we both wore our Adventure Canada name-badges. We mingled all the time, on board or ashore. Her English was a thousand times better than my Inuktitut, but conversation was not easy. She was always cheerful (“an elfin sprite” someone once called her) although her years and her life (sixteen children!) meant that climbing out of boats or up rough slopes was a slow business, and I was among those companions whose arm she was glad to take. We became friends.

Three specific memories.

First, when we reached the Cape Dorset Art co-op at the end of the cruise Kenoujuak had been kept away from her art for several days. So she came bustling in eagerly to the desk where a sheet of paper awaited her. She tore off her coat, grabbed a pen with her left hand, and began to draw in quick, confident sweeps, as I stood gaping behind her. James Houston once asked her how she could draw so fast, and she told him that she “was just following a little blue line”, ahead of her pen. The magical blue line was apparently there, that day in Cape Dorset.

Second, when we trailed to the base of a cliff outside Cape Dorset, Kenoujuak stood proudly among an array of fine Inuit artists, all there to pay tribute to James Houston, their old friend known as Saumi, the Left-Handed One. She played a major part in scattering the ashes, while Jim’s young grandson, Dorset, played nearby, creating a little inukshuk.

Finally, on the last day of the cruise, Kenoujuak and I were in a little group relaxing before we went ashore, in my case to fly south. Both of us were wearing our Adventure Canada name-badges. I pointed to mine, and hers, and suggested that we should make a swap. She laughed happily at the idea, and the exchange was made. I suspect that the “Doug  Gibson” badge did not last long in her possession, but I was fiercely proud of her tag. It was like having a calling card from Monet, or Picasso. And when Kenoujuak passed away I cradled her card with thoughtful affection, remembering happy times.

A sad ending to this story. I made a point of showing the historic badge to the friends who visited our house, encouraging them to hold it in their hands. At some point the badge stuck to the fingers of one visitor, and it disappeared, never to return. So far…..

Finally, about the seaweed that Kenoujuak gave to James, whose wife, Allie, cooked it as she had suggested. “It had gone into the water first as an unattractive rusty brown and had emerged on the second blanching as a glorious shamrock green. It turned out to be the only Arctic vegetable we ever knew, and it was delicious!”