Berton House faces uncertain future

After suffering a severe funding cut, Dawson City’s Berton House Writers Retreat may close its doors.

After suffering a severe funding cut, Dawson City’s Berton House Writers Retreat may close its doors.

“We might have to shut it down,” Berton House executive director Elsa Franklin told the News.

“That’s a possibility, that’s a really big possibility — I’m talking about after the last guy goes up (in November).”

For each of the last three years, the Canada Council for the Arts has provided the retreat with roughly $33,000, which goes towards airfare and a monthly $2,000 stipend for visiting authors.

The Canada Council changed the way Berton House was funded in 2007 — from a special granting process to the more common panel review process.

The arts council “has been wonderful up to this point,” said Franklin.

“I never thought the Canada Council would not (fund it),” she said. “It’s a very important, big project for the North.”

If a sponsor can’t be found to supplement fundraising efforts, Berton House will shut down and the building will be sold, said Franklin.

Since 1996, Berton House has brought four authors — poets, novelists and historians — to Dawson each year to write and work in near solitude.

Authors are active in the community by giving public readings during their stay and hosting workshops.

Berton House helps promote Canadian literature and, more importantly, reading, said Franklin.

The house was the childhood home of author Pierre Berton, who donated it specifically for a writers’ retreat.

“This was something close to Pierre’s heart,” said Franklin, who also was Berton’s agent and producer.

“He wanted writers to have time to just sit and reflect — it’d be horrible to lose.”

Berton House could be run “headache-free” with $50,000 per year, said Franklin.

Through hosting an annual banquet honouring Berton, Franklin has raised $40,000 (some of which goes towards general maintenance of the house).

Since Berton died in 2004, it has become more difficult to secure donations.

Franklin estimates an additional $20,000 a year, on top of her current fundraising efforts, is required to keep the house afloat.

The next banquet is scheduled for November.

After funding ran out under the special grant, individual writers must apply for grants through the Canada Council’s peer-review process, in which judges from the world of Canadian literature choose who gets funded.

“At the end of the day, we have a certain process we have to follow,” said Melanie Rutledge, head of the writing and publishing section of the Canada Council.

“It was not feasible for us to continue supporting Berton House the way we had been.”

Berton House’s special director’s grant was a one-time deal and was “exceptional treatment (that) can’t go on forever,” said Rutledge.

“We’re handling public dollars. And we have to be responsible for the taxpayers’ money we’re spending, and that’s through the peer review and regular granting programs.”

Berton House is an exceptional program that’s important to the North, said Rutledge, but the special grant was only provided to help the retreat find its footing.

There might have been some miscommunication about the decision to change the funding process, she said.

“I think there was an expectation, unfounded perhaps, that we would be able to continue supplying the same level of support to the Berton,” said Rutledge. “Maybe we didn’t communicate that well enough.”

Authors such as novelist and columnist Russell Smith, historian Bruce McDougall, children’s author Michael Kusugak and novelist Andrew Pyper (whose experience in the North led to the novel The Wildfire Season, based mainly in Ross River) have all spent time at Berton House.

Often visiting Canada’s North for the first time, the writers benefit greatly from living in a different community and away from the hustle and bustle of metropolitan Canada, said Franklin.

“The house is a gift from the gods,” she said. “It is important for any writer to have that time to sit and write. Everybody who has been there has been moved by the experience. It’s very important for Canadian writers.”

Russell Smith finished the manuscript for his second novel, Noise, while living at Berton House. He was the first author to spend time at the writers’ retreat.

Often setting his novels in urban Canada, Smith used his time in Dawson to re-imagine the frenzied life amongst the skyscrapers and hipsters of Toronto.

“I was in Dawson during the winter and by early October the town was completely locals,” said Smith in an interview.

“It was cold and quiet. I was looking back and trying to remember an incredibly hot, busy, noisy, stressful place.

“As I remembered it, the city grew darker in mind and I was able to picture Toronto from a different perspective not being there and that was very useful for my creative process.”

There was also the tranquility and solitude of the North which helped Smith write faster.

“In Toronto I’m always being pursued by options in media and journalism as a freelance writer that might make me a couple hundred bucks, which wasn’t really available (in Dawson),” said Smith.

Under the new funding process, established writers like Smith could be excluded from Berton House in the future because the arts council panel review appears to be funding only obscure writers, said Franklin.

Popular and successful science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, the current occupant of Berton House, received no funding from the arts council for his stay, while George Ilsley, who will come to Dawson in November, received $5,000.

“Robert is rich and he is successful, and I have a feeling that’s why (he wasn’t funded),” said Franklin.

“That shouldn’t be. It bothers me because we have other people like (historian) Charlotte Gray, who wants to come up, but I don’t think they’ll support her because of her success.”

Rutledge vehemently denies funding is awarded based on success, or rather the lack of it.

“Our peer assessment committee is charged with assessing (applicants) on merit and excellence,” said Rutledge.

Salvation may come before year’s end, however, and not from the Canada Council.

The Writers’ Trust of Canada, a non-profit group dedicated to financially helping writers through fundraising efforts, may take over management of the house.

“We’d like to ensure Berton House will live on,” said Don Oravec, the trust’s executive director.

“(The retreat) is really quite an affordable program for us,” he said. “It’s quite easy to fundraise for.”

The trust, which has built up relationships in the literary community for years, would bring stability, access to juries and professional management to Berton House, said Oravec.

The trust’s board of directors will vote on the takeover in late August.

Berton was a founding member of the writers’ trust and Oravec feels the management transition, which has Franklin’s approval, is appropriate.

“The writers’ trust is the natural place for Berton House,” he said.