Early Years of the Historical Writing Competition
By Naomi Miller, January 2008
Naomi Miller — a former BCHF president, vice-president, honorary president and editor of British Columbia History magazine, and the first chair of the Awards Committee — shares her memories of the origin of the BCHF Historical Writing Awards.
At the conclusion of the fall 1982 Council meeting of the BC Historical Association (BCHA) [predecessor of the BCHF], Peggy Imredy observed, “Manitoba Historical has a writing competition. Why can’t we?” There was a murmur of, “Let’s think about it,” as we scrambled to assemble papers and don our coats to leave.
I traveled via Greyhound home to Golden from that meeting. That gave me plenty of time to think. By the time I got home I had written a draft plan for this possible outreach by BCHA. When this was brought to Council in 1983, John Spittle eagerly volunteered, “I have a friend in Victoria who says there is a drawer full of medals which have no definite use. I’ll see if he can give them to me for BCHA.” Don Sale, Corresponding Secretary, noted that the Lieutenant Governor, already an Honorary Patron, might be persuaded to add glory to a BC History Book Award. He added that he knew an insider in Government House who would take this thought to his boss.
In New Westminster for the 1983 Annual Conference, Rhys Richardson, Treasurer, engineered an update of bylaws and changed the BCHA name from BC Historical Association to BC Historical Federation. He also supported the proposed Writing Competition and volunteered to become a judge. Peter Miller and Don Sale enthusiastically declared they wanted to be judges. Further, an effort to change the name of our quarterly magazine was soundly defeated upon the advice of Anne Yandle.
I set some machinery in motion and the nominations for the inaugural 1983 award – one copy of each book – arrived at my address. The books were mailed on to Rhys and Don as soon as Peter had read and evaluated them. Peter formatted a checklist with spaces for comments and photocopied this page for Don and Rhys — one for each book received. Peter, among other things, counted misspelled words. This was an era of large community histories, usually by Friesen. The Valemont representative was bowled over when he was told, “236 spelling errors in your 600-page book on YELLOWHEAD.”
The judge’s meeting was fun. The evaluation sheet was praised and altered slightly. The design of Certificates of Merit was discussed, along with how to present them. Those certificates were to be signed by the President, affixed with the Federation seal and mounted in a glass frame. Vernon hosted the 1984 Annual Conference. Rhys waited until we arrived in Vernon to obtain the signatures, then Peter and I helped him frame the certificates. He had forgotten the seal, so he phoned his daughter to courier it to him in Vernon. Saturday lunch time, between tours and AGM, Kathleen polished the glass and we sealed and framed the certificates.
The first winner, Daphne Sleigh, and her hubby were given one complimentary night at the hotel but a tiny prize money. At the banquet, President Len McCann introduced me as I was eating my first bite of dinner. Col. Gerry Andrews, Honorary President, presented the first medal. It was a pin-on style and he pricked Daphne very lightly.
Rhys gave up being a judge after a couple of years so Mary Rawson was recruited. She improved the input of books by contacting the various publishing houses. From then on almost all entries came direct from publisher. Later, Peter dropped out and was replaced by Daphne Baldwin of Prince George. Helen and Philip Akrigg donated some money to increase the worth of the Lieutenant Governor’s prize. I gave up the chair of the Awards Committee in 1988 and Pamela Mar took it over. Pamela made some very sensible changes to the rules and procedures.
Pamela served as chair from 1988 to 1995 then twisted the arm of Pixie McGeachie.
Don Sale continued as Writing Competition judge until 1987 when he was 80 years old. One year he knew he was slated for surgery on his legs so planned to read and read during his convalescence. After this episode he playfully created a new characteristic for evaluation – size of book – because “this book was too big to be read in bed.”
The Lieutenant Governor has presented the award several times since the competition commenced. David Lam gave us tea at Government House in 1989. Garde Gardom came to Conference 2001 in Richmond. Iona Campagnolo presented in Prince George 2003 and in Government House in Victoria 2007. [The Lieutenant Governor has since presented the award in 2009, 2012-2014 and 2016-2017.]
In 1989, we chose two winners, Bridget Moran from Prince George and Peter Waite from Halifax, because we wanted to be sure that at least one winner could attend. Both were pleased to attend and be honored.
The Competition in Later Years
In 2014, the BCHF added the Community History Award to the Competition to recognize the importance of preserving local histories as well as broader provincial histories.