Margaret Laurence
Margaret Laurence on 60th birthday, July 18, 1986 by David Laurence

During the summer of 1993, the Lakefield Historical Society placed an historical plaque at 8 Regent Street across from St. John the Baptist Anglican Church. Lois Wilson, the first woman moderator of the United Church of Canada, came to the ceremony honouring her friend and classmate from their United College days in Winnipeg. Margaret Laurence purchased the large yellow brick house in March, 1974 and she occupied it until her death on January 5th, 1987. The house was reminiscent of her grandfather’s house in Neepawa, Manitoba and it too had once been a funeral home. (The Neepawa house has subsequently become the Margaret Laurence Home museum.)

In 1995, Ron and Joan Ward of Lakefield owned Margaret Laurence’s retirement house and the Ward family organized a banquet to honour the memory of Margaret Laurence and her 13 years in Lakefield. The Wards were neighbours and friends of Margaret Laurence during her Lakefield years. They purchased the house on Regent Street from Margaret’s children David and Jocelyn in 1993 with the intention of making it a retreat. A Peterborough Examiner article quotes Ron Ward as stating that, “we don’t want it to be a museum and we don’t want it to be a bed and breakfast – we want it to be something in between. People are looking for a place to get away.” The plans for a retreat never quite materialized, and following the refusal of the village council to rezone the property to allow a tea room/bed & breakfast, the Wards sold the house to their son Tim. He took a year off from his Toronto teaching job to return to Lakefield and attempt to turn the house into a centre for writers. Nancy Warren, a friend of the Ward family, was the first “artist in residence” at the house and she was available for guided tours. Tim Ward in a Globe and Mail article explained his involvement with the house by stating, “They [his parents] wanted to do something literary with it. They were keen on having something done with the house that would promote Lakefield and the literary aspects of Lakefield.”

The first public event organized by the Ward family, assisted by a small group of volunteers, took place on July 29th and July 30th, 1995. Events naturally focussed mainly on Margaret Laurence. However, the rich literary history of the community was also acknowledged. “The weekend included a Saturday afternoon walking tour of spots important to Lakefield’s literary heritage, followed by performances and remembrances. In the evening, a banquet, more reminisces and remembrances took place at Lakefield College School.”

Dramatist Helen Porter (who would become a popular part of the LLF) presented three Laurence stories from A Bird in the House during the afternoon session and Lisa Heffron a representative of the Writer’s Union recalled meeting Laurence when they both lived in England.

CBC host Shelagh Rogers acted has master of ceremonies at the banquet entitled “Remembering Margaret: The Lakefield Years” and a number of individuals who knew Margaret personally during that period spoke, including Gary Geddes, Joan Johnston and Alice Williams. Michael Bennett provided musical selections and Andrew Wainwright, editor of “A Very Large Soul” read selections from Margaret Laurence’s letters to members of “the tribe” as she referred to her fellow Canadian writers. Tim Ward and Ron Ward concluded the evening with an outline of their plans for the Margaret Laurence House.

The following year, a group of volunteers formed to plan an annual festival focussing on the pioneer and contemporary authors who have lived in Lakefield and the Kawartha Lakes. In subsequent years, the organizing committee was spearheaded by Shelley Ambrose and Brenda Neill. Quaker Oats was the founding sponsor, but when the company was purchased by PepsiCo the support was discontinued. This shortfall was replaced by a wide variety of local sponsors. There is no financial support for the LLF from any of the arts councils or other government departments. It has continued for the last 1 years to be operated by volunteers from within the local community.

One of the key organizers of the LLF from the beginning has been Shelley Ambrose, who was a new summer resident of Clear Lake in 1995, when the Ward family called the CBC to arrange for a host at the banquet. (Ambrose is perhaps best known as the long time assistant to the late Peter Gzowski when he ruled on CBC national radio and later as the producer of Pamela Wallin & Company on television. Currently she is Executive Director of The Walrus Foundation and Publisher of Walrus magazine, following 3 years as the Cultural Attaché in NYC, while Pamela Wallin was Canadian Consul General there.)

Former Trent University professor, Christl Verduyn, recalls Ambrose’s immediate impact on the fledgling festival: “She’d just acquired the cottage outside of Lakefield, and of course she could see the potential in Ron’s plans. So, she got involved, managing to get Shelagh Rogers as the first MC for the very first LLF. Shelley also immediately set about professionalizing the whole thing … the festival grew in leaps and bounds, thanks to Shelley’s connections, and to her organizing abilities. There were some pretty sad little meetings in those early days … But we soldiered on, and after the first couple of years, word spread, and Lakefield folks started to get involved – which was the idea from the very start.”

The most active of the Lakefield volunteers was Brenda Neill, who became co-chair with Ambrose in1998, following a 34 year career as a teacher with the Peterborough County Board of Education. Neill provided the essential links to the local community and it was she who tirelessly built the literary festival organization at the grass roots level, while Shelley provided the strategic direction and booked most of the authors. Neill’s accomplishments were recognized when she was inducted into the LDSS Wall of Honour in 2005: “Under her leadership, this festival has maintained a local emphasis while establishing itself as a widely known and highly respected event in the broader Canadian arts community.” She continues to be involved.

As a more formal non-profit organization evolved, it became necessary to create a new mission statement which now reads: In commemoration of Margaret Laurence, Catharine Parr Traill, Susanna Moodie and our community’s ongoing literary heritage, the Lakefield Literary Festival showcases Canadian authors and promotes the joy of reading and writing among children and adults. This simple statement serves the organization well and provides a guiding principle for the coordinating committee, as they prepare for the next festival. The LLF is now held annually on the 2nd weekend in July, close to Margaret Laurence’s birthday (July 18th).

While the Lakefield Literary Festival was launched as a celebration of Margaret Laurence, it has become a celebration of the rich literary heritage of Lakefield and the surrounding area which includes the works of Catharine Parr Traill, Susanna Moodie and Isabella Valancy Crawford, among others, all of who lived and wrote in Lakefield. Over the years, additions to the festival have included a Children’s Tent, Young Adult readings, displays at Christ Church Community Museum and Memorial Hall, the Young Authors Writing Contest, boat cruises, feature films, and readings in the park with authors, in one case arriving via birch bark canoe. Sunday services at the Lakefield United Church and Christ Church Douro, provide an emphasis on spiritual and literary links. Book lovers from across Canada and the United States have discovered this unique literary venue and its reputation with the reading public and the author community is now well established.

The list of past Festival presenters and hosts represents the tremendously varied range of Canadian writers including Margaret Atwood, Joan Barfoot, Linwood Barclay, Andy Barrie, John Bemrose, Michelle Berry, Giles Blunt, John Boyko, June Callwood, Karen Connelly, Michael Crummey, Deborah Ellis, Michael Enright, Terry Fallis, Sheree Fitch, Charles Foran, Camilla Gibb, Douglas Gibson, Graeme Gibson, Katherine Govier, Charlotte Gray, Peter Gzowski, Rawi Hage, Elizabeth Hay, Lawrence Hill, Helen Humphreys, Frances Itani, Wayne Johnston, Thomas King, Dennis Lee, Jean Little, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Roy MacGregor, Linden MacIntyre, Alistair MacLeod, Rohinton Mistry, Lisa Moore, Donna Morrissey, Michael Ondaatje, Heather O’Neill, Kenneth Oppel, Helen Carmichael Porter, Steven Price, Andrew Pyper, Paul Quarrington, Nino Ricci, Bill Richardson, Noah Richler, Shelagh Rogers, Diane Schoemperlen, Rosemary Sullivan, Drew Hayden Taylor, Jane Urquhart, Richard Wagamese, Ian Wallace, Kathleen Winter, Michael Winter, Richard B. Wright and Alissa York among many others.

© 2017 Lakefield Literary Festival