Arts and culture

RBC Taylor Prize: Noreen Taylor talks to John Stackhouse about the future of non-fiction


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For 20 years the RBC Taylor Prize has whittled down the best Canadian non-fiction writing from long list, to short list, to winner. And for 20 years, we've become more intimate with Canadian personhood – that seemingly elusive identity that spans our vast cultural and physical geography.

“We're getting to know each other as a nation," says Noreen Taylor, founder of the RBC Taylor Prize and chair of the Charles Taylor Foundation.

But that identity changes; we're changing. Our voices and the stories we tell. “There are so many more books being published," says Taylor. But there are new, relevant mediums of expressing that personhood, of telling stories through the Canadian lens.

John Stackhouse, senior vice president, Office of the CEO, at RBC, sits down with Noreen Taylor to discuss some of the voices that have emerged through 20 years of the RBC Taylor Prize, what new mediums mean for Canadian storytelling, and how to set standards and ensure the legacy of Charles Taylor's vision stays intact.

When you look at 20 years of Canadian books through the prize, what do you see?

In the first year, Wayne Johnston won with Baltimore's Mansion and I got to know a family living in Newfoundland in the Avalon Peninsula that I never would've known. Then you pivot to Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian, and I got to understand what it was like coming up from a different background, an indigenous background and the sensitivities there. Tanya Talaga had me weeping about these seven kids – I've never known anybody who is indigenous – so I got out of my tiny greenhouse and I started looking at the world slightly differently. That's the biggest thing I've noticed. I also noticed we're taking pride in some of our writers. Andrew Preston comes to mind, he's now writing wonderful op-eds whereas before he was seen as an obscure writer. Margaret MacMillan had trouble publishing Paris 1919, now she's a revered household name. There's a greater acceptance that these writers of non-fiction have something important to tell us.

So looking at the list of books, it's hard to draw themes.

It depends on the jury, it really does.

But the ones you identified, let me just pluck a few: Tim Cook's Shock Troops ... why? What did that do to you?

Just saying the name, my stomach bottoms. It was one of those horrible war experiences ... and Tim Cook's writing had the power to put you right in the middle of it. You got to know the people in the trenches and you experienced the horror with them. I'd been a kid who read a lot of history and so I had read a lot of first-hand documents, but the way he put them together ... My mother was dying at the time I was reading this. I was reading it on subways and I was reading it in hospitals. And everywhere I was, was the trenches. That was the power of Shock Troops. It just became a metaphor for everything I did. And it hasn't left me. It never will. I've read everything he's written since. I think Shock Troops remains his finest ... that emotional punch to the gut. It's unbelievable.

Noreen Taylor founder rbc taylor prize and winner Tanya Talaga

Tanya Talaga's Seven Fallen Feathers has deeply impacted you.

Did you grow up knowing anybody of indigenous background?

No.

Neither did I. I didn't know. I was just shocked by how much I didn't know, how inhumane I was. How I didn't understand remote communities in Canada. I said at the RBC Taylor Prize Gala that we were living with a small population thinly spread out across the southern border largely not in communication with communities to the North and that's what I learned. I learned of the difficulties that families face when their children are being taken away from them and these same systems of education ... the complete systemic lack of caring for people in these communities. I was absolutely gobsmacked. Tanya was speaking at an RBC event in Ottawa. During the questions, I put my hand up and said you've got to remember to say that when these kids were found in the rivers they were not swimming on a fine Summer's day and drowned. They were not swimming, it was below freezing.

Andrew Preston's Sword of the Spirit

That was one of the most interesting books ever written. Remember, my mother was American so I went to Decoration Day parades.

Where in the U.S.?

Buffalo. She married a Canadian flyer in the war. Then she came across [to Canada]. So we were raised with all this patriotism – the Pledge of Allegiance, every morning, and I never question the mythology. And then Andrew just laid it out and I went 'oh my God'. It's one of those jaw-dropping moments, goosebumps, it suddenly all just made sense – the founding mythology that I had never looked into because it was always just there. It's just part of it – like furniture, do you say "oh look at that, that's wool, that's nylon..." no, you don't, you just sit there and go "it's a carpet".

Andrew's breaking it down, the city on the hill, this is years ago, some of the stuff he wrote about the rationale behind creating the myth – a fear of Catholicism – that's bizarre and yet it's true. The myth of what the Quakers brought to America and yet what they really were and suddenly, American exceptionalism had a basis in survival, what they deemed as survival and sure why not just turf a bunch of Cherokees off their land, they don't count because we're exceptional.

When I look at the books of the RBC Taylor Prize and think about the nominees and the great forces of Canada over the last 20 years – reconciliation with First Nations, our relationship with nature and the planet and climate change, immigration and transformation, our changing relationship with the United States, and the national tension of Quebec – French and English. It's an incomplete set but…

You have to add distance. The whole problem of distance we have in this country, which is a small population, but there's far more need to know what's happening a few hundred miles away because there's so much isolation. So our ability to empathize is always under question.

Do you foresee a day when a prize will weigh a between-the-covers book with a podcast?

Yes. It has to. I saw they had a CBC award for non-fiction television and I thought that's interesting, you didn't do that before. I realized that's the impact of things like the RBC Taylor Prize – it's created an awareness of the importance of television journalism and storytelling. But we're looking at changed medium. And I think it's foolish to recognize books as the only vehicle because that's not going to be the case.

Is there not something exceptional about books?

Yes, there is. You read them slowly. You are dedicated as you're reading them. You absorb information. I could go back and quote paragraphs from Tim Cook's Shock Troops because it was read slowly. A line of poetry you see coming up to you, it has a lasting impact. If it's going to be an oral tradition, we better be incredibly good crafters of our language for it to have that same impact. Do you know what I mean by that John? It's going to be all about the sound resonating. It's humming the tune as you leave the Broadway show. I'm not sure we have those abilities.

In a recent conversation I had with the Canadian engineer who created Amazon's Alexa we talked about how communication changes, shifting from text to voice, which, we all know from dictation, we speak differently than we write.

Yes absolutely.

Everything you say about books is true and you've touched on the importance of editing, which isn't just proofreading and copyediting; it's the art of challenging, of selecting, of curating.

That's what I fear is going to be lost. Just like anybody can go online and create something that looks like a newspaper doesn't mean it's a newspaper. Similarly, just because you've written 50,000 words, doesn't mean they're good. But for X amount of money, you can get it sold on Amazon ... and it's happening.

And that was in a way the difference between the Library of Alexandria and Alexa – the Library of Alexandria was the font of all recorded knowledge.

But it was also curated.

It was curated.

And this could become the uncurated world.

Do we need books to curate?

Yes. And books have a vastly different curation process. But I fear for their future.

What do we need to do to protect that future?

Set standards for the next iteration of storytelling. There's going to be a new iteration, these are different times. So set standards for what we expect, set up prizes in podcasts for the most valued podcast in Canadian affairs. That's where it needs to go. If this is where people are gaining most of their information – if the economics provide better abilities for Canadians to access information about their country – we should be doing that.

To continue the reading the conversation between John and Noreen click here.

This interview was edited and condensed prior to publishing.

Watch: Noreen Taylor discusses the history of the RBC Taylor Prize: