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Gabriola Island writer long-listed for CBC Non-fiction Prize for second time

Libby Gunn ponders connection to land and family in short story ‘Whitefish’
Gabriola Island-based writer Libby Gunn has been long-listed for the CBC Non-fiction Prize for her short story ‘Whitefish.’ (Photo courtesy Diane Simpson)

A Gabriola Island-based writer is back on the CBC Non-fiction Prize long list with a re-written version of a story she last submitted to the competition four years ago.

On Sept. 15, CBC revealed the long list for this year’s Non-fiction Prize and among the 28 writers from across Canada is Gabriola’s Libby Gunn for her short story, Whitefish. The grand prize includes $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, which Gunn said would be a “fantastic” opportunity.

“Just to not have to prepare food and worry about cleaning the house … to be away from all the distractions of life, it would be really fabulous to sink my teeth into a daily writing routine for that long,” she said.

This is the second time Gunn has been up for the award as an earlier version of the same story, entitled Whitefish Harvest, was long-listed in 2017.

“I guess this story wants to be told. [It] obviously has some impact,” Gunn said. “And I was actually quite excited because sometimes I write things and then I’m not so attached to them, but this one, somehow it’s one of the stories I keep coming back to and I keep reworking and I really am myself quite connected to.”

In Whitefish, Gunn documents the traditional whitefish harvest of the Délı̨nę First Nation on the shores of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories, and how for one fisherman the ritual is a link to his family and the land.

“I’ve always been really interested in hunting and trapping and fishing,” Gunn said. “I’m in total awe, actually, of people who lived and survived and thrived up in the North, period. So I always really wanted to learn anything that I could about it.”

Gunn lived in the Northwest Territories for almost 30 years, including in Délı̨nę, a fly-in community of 400 people. The fisherman in her story is a friend of hers and invited her to observe the whitefish harvest.

“I just thought it was such an extraordinary event at so many levels that I really wanted to share it with permission of the people,” she said.

In 2017 Gunn’s story only concerned the whitefish harvest. In the 2021 version, Gunn goes on to tie in a parallel story about her own connection to generational land. Gunn grew up in Winnipeg and spent the summers at her grandparents’ cottage on Lake of the Woods, just across the border in Ontario. After being away for 40 years, she recently bought some land there and has been able to reconnect with family.

“I spent quite a bit of time thinking about, ‘OK, why is this story really important to me? Why do I keep on coming back to this particular story and wanting it to go somewhere and wanting to share it with people?’” she said. “And I realized it really was about connection to land and family … and that story of mine just kind of wove itself into the story that I had written about the whitefish harvest.”

The CBC Non-fiction Prize shortlist will be announced on Sept. 22 and the winner will be announced on Sept. 29.

RELATED: Three Nanaimo-area writers up for CBC Non-fiction Prize

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