Arts and culture

RBC Taylor Prize 2020: Celebrating 20 years and many award winners


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margaret atwood with taylor prize shortlist books 2020

Everyone knows a Pierre-Esprit Radisson. The 17th-century French explorer and founder of the Hudson's Bay Company at the centre of Bush Runner (Biblioasis) by Mark Bourrie, this year's winner – and the final winner – of the RBC Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction, is familiar.

“Everybody's got friends like that. Everybody's got some relatives like that," says Bourrie, shortly after winning the prize in Toronto. “And yet he just ends up in these weird places ... that's why I loved the story, he just kept popping up in places where you go, oh my God, and yet, you know he's going to make it through."

An abbreviated list includes: being kidnapped by Mohawk warriors, playing witness to both the Great Fire and Great Plague of London, surviving a shipwreck on the reefs of Venezuela, getting marooned by pirates, and the aforementioned foundation of one Canada's most iconic company.

Radisson is, in essence, the embodiment of this great Canadian adventure, perhaps, the truest human adventure: personhood. A search for self in the vast physical and cultural expanse that is Canada. And through that, Bourrie's book becomes a fitting send-off to RBC Taylor Prize's 20-year legacy of non-fiction led discovery.

noreen taylor with nadina and edward taylor

Noreen Taylor, centre, is pictured with Charles Taylor's children

A story we all know as Canadians

“Who are we? Where did we come from? What are we doing? All societies have versions of these questions," says Margaret Atwood, acclaimed writer and juror for the final year of the RBC Taylor Prize. “In a so-called, post-truth society, non-fiction prose strives to tell truths, and to evaluate those truths. Is it true? Is it fair? These are the questions we ought to ask about anything that claims to define and shape us. Non-fiction can ask those questions."

This year's RBC Taylor Prize asked a lot of questions. Jurors, which included Atwood, Coral Ann Howells, a British-based professor of Canadian literature, and Peter Theroux, American writer and translator, pored over a record number of 155 books before arriving at a shortlist made up of Bush Runner, Had It Coming by Robyn Doolittle, Highway of Tears by Jessica McDiarmid, The Reality Bubble by Ziya Tong and The Mosquito by Timothy C. Winegard.

Theroux called his experience as a juror humbling, especially given the “the enormous breadth and diversity of the books, and the tempering factor that along with reading pleasure came the responsibility to weigh so many different works against each other."

“When your favourite reads in a given week are three brilliantly done books about, respectively, food, ecology and military history, and you have more than 100 books to go, the weight of responsibility and humility intensifies," says the American writer.

Elevating Canadian voices for 20 years

And yet, that's what Noreen Taylor set out to accomplish 20 years ago when she founded the prize in honour of her late husband Charles Taylor, journalist, author and essayist. The need to not just adorn a winner but elevate Canadian voices and stories, to help Canadians “recognize their heroes."

It's a goal Howells says she's convinced the RBC Taylor Prize has pulled off, bringing some of the best Canadian writing and stories much-deserved attention.

“Non-fiction is a necessary counterbalance in our current media culture, for we need to look beyond the headlines to give ideas our thoughtful considered attention," says Howells.

Twenty years on and as many award winners later, the RBC Taylor Prize has grown alongside Canadians. And while we're still trying to figure ourselves out, there's no question it's introduced us to the people defining what it means to be Canadian and through that, brought us closer together.

“Charles Taylor believed that 'a well-read, well-informed public contributes to democracy'," adds Howells. "And this Prize has magnificently celebrated his inheritance."

Read an interview with Mark Bourrie here.