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Governor General's Literary Awards—2019 Winners
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Governor General's Literary Awards—2019 Winners

By 49thShelf
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The Canada Council for the Arts is celebrating the best in Canadian literature: our Governor General’s Literary Awards recognize finalists and winners in seven categories, in both official languages, for readers of all ages. The English language winners are listed below.
Five Wives

Five Wives

A Novel
also available: Paperback Paperback



In the tradition of The Poisonwood Bible and State of Wonder, a novel set in the rainforest of Ecuador about five women left behind when their missionary husbands are killed. Based on the shocking real-life events

In 1956, a small group of evangelical Christian missionaries and their families journeyed to the rainforest in Ecuador intending to convert the Waora …

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Holy Wild

Holy Wild

also available: eBook

In her third collection of poetry, Holy Wild, Gwen Benaway explores the complexities of being an Indigenous trans women in expansive lyric poems. She holds up the Indigenous trans body as a site of struggle, liberation, and beauty. A confessional poet, Benaway narrates her sexual and romantic intimacies with partners as well as her work to navigate the daily burden of transphobia and violence. She examines the intersections of Indigenous and trans experience through autobiographical poems and co …

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Other Side of the Game

Other Side of the Game

also available: Paperback

I don’t think you can expect society to change if you’re not ready to take the first step.

In the 1970s Beverly walks into an office of Black activists, wanting to join the Movement, and has to prove she’s committed enough to fight. Some forty years later, in the Hip Hop Generation, Nicole reunites with her ex-boyfriend on a basketball court, wondering where he’s been, when a police officer stops them.

In this striking debut, Amanda Parris turns the spotlight on the Black women who organiz …

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Scene 6


It is 1970-something and we are back at the meeting being held by the Movement. Throughout the meeting Khalil glances at Beverly and exchanges a smile or two. Akilah notices and is visibly uncomfortable. Beverly is taking notes.

Khalil: What we need to do is start building a vision for the future.

Elder: What does that mean?

Khalil: We need to stop reacting and begin building.

Elder: Who invited the poet?

Akilah: Okay. Elder, what do you think we should do?

Elder: We should be focusing our efforts on lobbying.

Everyone groans.

We have to reform the system. We can’t spiral out of control, rioting and mashing up the place. We need to rein the people them back in.

Khalil: Why? There is a rise in Black militancy. Black people aren’t begging—

Elder: Black militancy? What are you trying to do? Build an army? Start shooting at the pigs?

Khalil: People have a right to be angry.

Elder: I’m not saying that they don’t but—

Akilah: My son is eight years old and I can see teachers trying to devalue his worth every day. I can see him confused and angry. Josiah has a right to be angry.

Elder: So what—you want to teach Josiah to riot?

Akilah: No. I am going to teach Josiah how to channel his anger, know the power of his voice. I want him to be able to stand up and defend himself when a teacher—

Elder: How touching. Listen, young lady, there is a distinct difference between holding up a placard at Christie Pits and organizing a community.

Akilah: My name is not young lady.

Elder: Oh lawd. Here we go. Okay. Okay, Akee-wah. Calm down.

Akilah: It’s Akilah.

Elder: Aren’t you supposed to be taking the minutes?


Beverly: I think… if I may… I think that the problem is we don’t know how powerful we are.

Elder: Who are you? Who is she?

Beverly: I’m Beverly. Hi. I’m new. I just… I think that… I mean I’m not an expert but I don’t think that you can expect society to change if you’re not ready to take the first step.

Elder: The first step? My girl, I’ve taken the first, second, third and fourth steps! Do you know how long I’ve been doing this?

Beverly: I… I just think that if we’re building a real Black political movement then we have to make sure that…

Elder: That what?

Beverly: I don’t know… nothing. Sorry.

Akilah: Don’t apologize.

Beverly: What?

Akilah: Speak up.

Beverly: Well I just think that people have to start thinking about what resistance means on an individual level—like personally.

Khalil: I think I get what the sister is saying. So for example, one step someone might want to take is getting the white out of their hair.

Elder self-consciously touches his hair.

Beverly: That’s not exactly what I—

Khalil: A second step could be getting the white out of their mind.

Elder: Are you insinuating that—?

Akilah: Ahhh I think I know where you’re going with this, brother. Maybe a third step could be… for a few people in this meeting… getting the white woman out of their bedroom.

Elder and Khalil react at the same time.

Elder: Hol on! Hol on!

Khalil: Whoa!

Elder: Now we don’t have to start going into people’s private affairs—

Khalil: I don’t think that’s pertinent to the conversation—

Elder: I say we take another break.

Khalil: I agree. Yes, a break is good.

Akilah: Look at that. You’ve finally found something you both can agree on.

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To the River

To the River

Losing My Brother
also available: Paperback

An eloquent and haunting exploration of suicide in which one of Canada's most gifted writers attempts to understand why his brother took his own life. Which leads him to another powerful question: Why are boomers killing themselves at a far greater rate than the Silent Generation before them or the generations that have followed?

In the spring of 2006, Don Gillmor travelled to Whitehorse to reconstruct the last days of his brother, …

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In late November, my brother didn’t show up for his first day as manager of the bookstore in Whitehorse. He’d done his training, had physically set the store up. The staff was hired, the systems debugged. All that was left to do was to open the doors. But he didn’t get there.

The next day, December 1, his truck was spotted at a rest stop on the Alaska Highway thirty kilometres south of town, beside the Marsh Lake Bridge that spans the Yukon River. A woman who used to work with him saw it and assumed it had broken down. But she noticed it was still there eight days later and reported it to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who drove out there and found the truck under a light dust­ing of snow, almost out of gas, unlocked, with the window rolled down. More ominously, they found David’s cowboy hat sitting on the ground near the river. They got in touch with his wife Katherine, who phoned my parents.

That’s when my mother called me in Toronto to say David was missing.


“He didn’t show up for work, and he hasn’t been home.”

“How long has he been missing?”

“Ten days.”

My first thought was that he’d fled his marriage and was off somewhere with a woman. The most likely spot was Vancouver. He’d just been there and perhaps he’d been seduced by its beauty. I was concerned, but I assumed he’d lit out, like in a country and western song. My mother and I tried to reassure one another that this was in character, that he’d be back. Though the timing was troubling. Why would he forfeit his new job at the bookstore? By the time I talked to my sister, later that day, I was worried. Wouldn’t he have taken his truck if he was going to Vancouver?

The RCMP searched with dogs and an airplane, and might have searched the river but it was already half covered in ice. Dragging a river is both expensive and environmentally intrusive, and it isn’t done much anymore. The North is filled with missing persons—people who have fled marriages, jobs, eastern complacency, the law, alimony payments and themselves. My brother was now officially one of them.

A week went by and no one in the family heard from him. In that grim lacuna between rumour and information, we waited. I phoned the Whitehorse RCMP, who had listed him as a missing person but hadn’t ruled out suicide or “foul play,” the quaint euphemism still used to cushion the blow.

I called Katherine and asked for the names and num­bers of friends. She only gave me one, but with that I was able to find others. I didn’t know any of them. I called a dozen people and assembled a daisy chain of anecdote and disbelief. A few thought he had staged his death and was living in Vancouver, or possibly Mexico. I called his doc­tor several times, but she didn’t return my calls, probably because of privacy issues. David’s health had never been brilliant—he had a tubercular cough from his lifetime of cigarette and pot smoking, a dreadful diet, and he never exercised. Maybe there was a dire health issue he hadn’t told anyone about.

I tracked down the man who’d run the manager training session in Vancouver, who told me that David had done well, had enjoyed it. He was perplexed and said he hadn’t seen any signs of a problem.

I constructed a timeline for David’s last days. He checked into the River View Hotel on November 29 and was (allegedly) seen buying drugs that night. One friend noted he had a lot of cash on him; it turned out he had cashed his last two paycheques. Katherine told me she’d driven around town looking for him and saw his truck parked by the River View. She stopped and went in and found he was registered there and had prepaid with cash. She phoned his room from the lobby and a woman answered, then immediately hung up. Katherine didn’t go to his room. Instead, she wrote a note and left it on the windshield of David’s truck. She thought he’d be home in a day or so, contrite, seeking forgiveness.

I found a former bandmate named Ray who told me David didn’t start drinking until the mid-nineties. David had taken the counterculture to heart and thought pot was hip, while drinking was something that Dean Martin did. But he jumped on the alcohol bandwagon in middle age.

A few years later, it was cocaine as well. “We were in the Bitter Creek Band at first, then just a duo,” Ray said. “Played weddings. When his girlfriend left him, he was in a bad state and getting worse. His liver, I think. Went to the hospital in an ambulance. Doctor told him he had two to four years if he kept drinking. He was drinking on his lunch break at the radio station where he worked, beer and a shot. He also had a problem with girls. He cheated on Anna Mae, cheated on his wife, Katherine. It was the same as his drinking. Never enough.”

Ray said there was a nasty faction in Whitehorse that hadn’t always been there. “Seven, eight years ago, you knew everyone. There wasn’t any violence.” Ray didn’t know what had happened to David, but like the RCMP, he hadn’t ruled out foul play.

“He was very good at hiding his problem,” he said. “A very good actor. He kind of had another life. He wasn’t the guy I knew. He could sure play.”

The portrait that emerged of my brother was filled with contradictions: he had habits that had grown over the last decade; he had been clean for two years; he was finally happy; he was desperately unhappy and feeling trapped. He was faithful, he had affairs, he was in debt.

As the days went by with no word from David, my family contemplated three scenarios. The most optimistic was that he had decided to start a new life. This, alas, was already the least likely, though some of his friends held to it; he was variously reported to have gone to Alaska, Vancouver and Mexico, where he was living the good life. The second was foul play, something that came up repeatedly in my conversations with his friends. The third was that he had taken his own life.

My father went to Whitehorse to look for him, staying at his house with Katherine. At that time of year there were less than six hours of daylight and the temperatures were frigid. He talked to the RCMP, talked to a few of David’s friends and, after several dispiriting days, he returned.My family held an unstated, faint hope that Christmas would bring some news. If he had simply taken off, surely he’d get in touch at Christmas. He would call our mother. But Christmas passed.

By then, the Yukon River had frozen solid; if my brother was in the water, we wouldn’t know until spring. So we waited in our separate cities, my parents in Calgary, my sister in Winnipeg and I in Toronto.I now believed that he had taken his own life. It was the most logical option, given the evidence. If he’d taken off, he would have gone in his truck, and he would have taken some of his instruments with him. If he had been murdered over a drug deal, as several people suggested, why leave the truck out there? It seemed too elaborate a misdirection, and there was no sign of a struggle at the scene. My parents and sister had quietly come to the same conclusion.I went online, looking at suicide sites, reading the literature. I decided to go up to Whitehorse and search for him myself, but it made sense to wait until the ice came off the river.

In the meantime, I kept calling his friends, trying to piece his life together. I tracked down David’s last girlfriend, Anna Mae. They’d been together eight years. She was the girlfriend my mother thought was good for David, an enormously capable woman who could fix things, cook and was good with money. Anna Mae told me she had stood beside him for as long as she could, but she couldn’t bear his infidelities and addictions. She finally left him, then left Whitehorse, moving to a semi-abandoned mining town in northern British Columbia. She told me that while David was engaged to Katherine, he had phoned her, asking her to take him back. Anna Mae sent him a letter, holding her ground; she said she loved him but couldn’t go through all that again.

She sent me a copy of the letter, which was long and heartbreaking. “I know you don’t want to be the way you are and do the things you do,” she wrote to David. “But you have problems. They are your problems. I didn’t cause them and I can’t cure them. Only you can do that, if and when you are ready. It’s like you’re living two different lives. I hope one day you’ll get the help you need. I believe you are a wonderful, caring, loving person, with problems. But those problems are too much for me to handle.”

Anna Mae also told me that David had tried to commit suicide, a surprise. After she left him, he took sleeping pills and lay down on the couch in the basement. He left a note, saying he was leaving everything to his daughter, Ivy. He woke up, though, and crumpled up the note. When Anna Mae found out she called his doctor. He ended up in the hospital briefly.

I decided not to tell my parents this. I thought it would be better to wait until we had more definitive news about what had happened. My plan was to fly to Whitehorse in the spring, when the ice was off the river. I phoned the RCMP in April to find that the river was still frozen. May was no better. I finally flew to Whitehorse in the first week of June.

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Stand on the Sky

Stand on the Sky

also available: eBook Paperback


Stand on the Sky is the 2019 winner of the Governor General's Award for Children's Literature!A gripping new read from Erin Bow, acclaimed and bestselling author of Plain Kate and The Scorpion Rules!She had always heard that the eagle chooses the eagle hunter. She wanted that. She wanted her eagle to come to her. To choose her.It goes against all tradition for Aisulu to train an eagle, for among the Kazakh nomads, only men can fly them. But everything changes when Aisulu discovers that her brot …

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Small in the City

Small in the City

illustrated by Sydney Smith
also available: Hardcover

The first picture book that the award-winning Sydney Smith has both written and illustrated is a story about feeling small in the city — and finding your way home.

On a snowy day in a big city, a little boy hops off a streetcar and walks through downtown, between office buildings, through parks and down busy streets. Along the way, he provides helpful tips about which alleys make good shortcuts, which trees to climb and where to find a friendly face. All the while, the boy searches for what he …

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Birds of a Kind

Birds of a Kind

also available: Paperback
tagged : canadian

Is it really important to cling to our lost identities?

A terrorist attack in Jerusalem puts Eitan, a young Israeli-German genetic researcher, in a coma, while his girlfriend Wahida, a Moroccan graduate student, is left to uncover his family secret that brought them to Israel in the first place. Since Eitan’s parents erupted at a Passover meal when they realized Wahida was not Jewish, he has harboured a suspicion about his heritage that, if true, could change everything.

In this sweeping new dra …

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2. The first night after the massacre


A hospital room. A nurse enters.

Nurse. Sorry. Visiting hours are over. You have to leave now. Until seven tomorrow morning.

Wahida. I’m sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew.

Nurse. It’s eight o’clock. You have to leave now. Until seven tomorrow morning.

Wahida. Will you call me if he wakes up in the night?

Nurse. Do we know where to reach you?

Wahida. I lost my phone. You can reach me on Eitan’s phone or at the Paradise Hotel. Lions’ Gate.

Nurse. You should move closer to the hospital. The army might close off the Muslim Quarter.

Wahida. Can I stay here?

Nurse. It’s not allowed.

Wahida. Just tonight.

Nurse. I’m sorry. The entire floor is occupied by victims of the attack. Many of them will die tonight. The first night after an attack separates the living from the dead. You couldn’t handle it. No one can. So we limit the number of people present. Otherwise, we’d fall apart, too. The days ahead are going to be difficult. You have to get some rest. You have to sleep.

Wahida. I can’t sleep. I replay the scene in my head as soon as I’m alone. I close my eyes and it all comes back, the bridge, the people, the heat, the sun, customs, the body search, an endless loop of images until the explosion.

Nurse. Were you together?

Wahida. They had separated us. That’s what saved me and probably saved him too. If they hadn’t decided to search me, both of us probably would have died on that bus to Jordan. But when the truck attacked, I was still being interrogated. Eitan had told me, I’ll wait for you, and we were separated. I didn’t see it happen. I was with a woman soldier who was body-?searching me when the explosion took place. A horrendous vomiting followed by the smell of burnt flesh. I had never seen so many dead bodies.

Nurse. Are you alone in Israel?

Wahida. Yes.

Nurse. Where does his family live?

Wahida. Berlin.

Nurse. Have theybeen notified?

Wahida. I’m not the right person to contact them.

Nurse. They have to be notified. Where are you from?

Wahida. New York.

Nurse. Contact his parents. That’s the first thing to do. You can’t face this alone. What’s your name?

Wahida. Wahida.

Eitan. Wahida?

Nurse. My name is Sigal. Here.

She hands wahida a tablet.

This will help you sleep. If Eitan wakes up, I’ll call you. I promise.

The nurse exits.

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