Canada Reads

Looking back at 20 years of Canada Reads, the great Canadian book debate

Listen to this celebration of CBC's battle of the books!

Canada Reads is 20 years old, and we are celebrating with a two-hour radio special looking back at some of the most dramatic and unexpected moments in the show's history. The CBC Radio special also features interviews with past authors and panellists to find out what their Canada Reads experience means to them.

Hosted by Ali Hassan, this special will air on CBC Radio is available on CBC Listen or wherever you get your podcasts. 

We're celebrating the great Canadian book debate's 20th anniversary! Host Ali Hassan looks back at some of the most dramatic and unexpected moments in the show’s history and speaks with past authors and panellists to find out what their Canada Reads experience means to them. 1:37:20

CBC's battle of the books began in 2002, when the novel In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje was crowned the inaugural winner. It was defended by musician Steven Page.

Since then, 19 more books have gone on to earn the title of the "one book all of Canada should read."

The most recent winner is the novel Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, which was championed by actor and filmmaker Devery Jacobs.

The complete list of Canada Reads winners is below.

2002: In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje, defended by musician Steven Page

Steven Page was a founding member of the band the Barenaked Ladies. (Vintage Canada/CBC)

In the Skin of a Lion brings together adventure, romance and history in a story about the immigrants that built Toronto in the 1920s and 1930s, working on projects like the R.C. Harris water treatment plant and the Prince Edward viaduct. In the Skin of a Lion weaves together true stories from Toronto's past with fictional ones to paint a compelling portrait of people who are often forgotten by history books.

Michael Ondaatje's novels and poetry have earned international acclaim. He was the first Canadian to win the Booker Prize — in 1992, for The English Patient. He went on to win the Giller Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award and France's prestigious Prix Medicis for his novel Anil's Ghost. Ondaatje lives in Toronto.

The other 2003 contenders were:

2003: Next Episode by Hubert Aquin, translated by Sheila Fischman, defended by Denise Bombardier

Denise Bombardier is a journalist and media personality with Radio Canada. (New Canadian Library)

Next Episode is a novel that explores the politics of contemporary Quebec. A young separatist has been detained for months in the psychiatric ward of a Montreal prison, passing his time by writing a story of espionage. Next Episode was first published in 1965.

Hubert Aquin was a novelist from Montreal who influenced contemporary Quebec culture as a political activist, essayist, filmmaker and editor. His first novel, Prochain épisode, established him as perhaps the most important cultural figure in Quebec of his generation. Aquin died in 1977.

Sheila Fischman is the translator of over 150 works of Quebec contemporary novels from French to English. She is a Member of the Order of Canada and a chevalier of the Ordre national du Québec.

The other 2003 contenders were:

Jim Cuddy is a founding member of the band Blue Rodeo. (Chris Young, CP/Emblem Editions/Grant McConnell)

The Last Crossing is about two brothers, Charles and Addington Gaunt, who set out to find their third brother, Simon. Simon has gone missing in the American West. Along the way, Charles and Addington must navigate a wild and unknown landscape, and encounter several unforgettable characters who join their quest.

Guy Vanderhaeghe is a novelist, short story writer and playwright from Saskatchewan. He is a three-time winner of the Governor General's Literary Award for his short story collections — debut collection Man Descending in 1982, The Englishman's Boy in 1996 and Daddy Lenin and Other Stories in 2015.

The other 2004 contenders were:

2005: Rockbound by Frank Parker Day, defended by Donna Morrissey

Donna Morrissey is an author from Newfoundland. (University of Toronto Press/Mount Alison University)

Rockbound is a novel that was first published in 1928. Rockbound is the story of an island off the coast of Nova Scotia. The island is isolated, the weather is difficult and harsh, but the surrounding fishing is rich. Two families, the Jungs and the Krauses, live on the island but have been feuding for years. When David Jung returns to the island to claim his inheritance, the many conflicts that define the island clash fiercely.

Frank Parker Day was a Canadian fisherman, academic, athlete and author born in Shubenacadie, N.S. He was a Rhodes Scholar and winner of the Oxford-Cambridge Heavyweight Championship. Day served in the Canadian Army, and wrote stories for the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Magazine after the war. Day died in 1950.

The other 2005 contenders were:

2006: A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews, defended by John K. Samson

John K. Samson played in the band Propagandhi, and is the frontman of the band the Weakerthans. (Leif Norman/Vintage Canada)

A Complicated Kindness is a novel about a 16-year-old named Nomi Nickel. Nomi wants nothing more than to live in New York, hanging out with her idols like Marianne Faithfull. Instead, she's stuck in a small town in Manitoba, where nothing ever happens and no fun is allowed — thanks to Nomi's uncle Hans, who runs the town. A Complicated Kindness won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction.

Miriam Toews is the author of several novels, including Women Talking, All My Puny Sorrows and The Flying Troutmans. She has won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and more. Toews lives in Toronto. 

The other 2006 contenders were:

2007: Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill, defended by John K. Samson

John K. Samson played in the band Propagandhi, and is the frontman of the band the Weakerthans. (Leif Norman/HarperCollins)

Lullabies for Little Criminals is a novel about a 13-year-old girl named Baby, who lives in Montreal. Baby's mother is gone and her father is a drug addict who pays little attention to his daughter. Baby catches the eye of a local pimp and is caught up in his seedy world. Baby soon realizes that if she wants to get out and build a better life, it's up to her — she has no one else to rely on and no one else to trust.

2007 was the "all-star" edition of Canada Reads, the five defenders were the previous champions.

Heather O'Neill is a novelist, short story writer and essayist from Montreal. She has been shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction, the Women's Prize for Fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Her other work includes The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and Daydreams of Angels

The other 2007 contenders were:

2008: King Leary by Paul Quarrington, defended by Dave Bidini

Dave Bidini was a founding member of the band Rheostatics. (Anchor Canada)

King Leary is the humorous story of Percival Leary, who was once a great hockey player but is now largely forgotten. Living in a nursing home and reflecting on his career as a professional hockey player, he decides to have one last go at being the "King of the Ice."

Paul Quarrington was a writer, musician, screenwriter and filmmaker. He was the author of 10 books, including Galveston, which was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and Whale Music, which won the 1989 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction. Quarrington died in January 2010.

The other 2008 contenders were:

2009: The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, defended by Avi Lewis

Avi Lewis is a documentary filmmaker and former host on Al Jazeera and on the CBC. (CP/HarperCollins)

The Book of Negroes is a portrayal of the brutal realities of the slave trade told through one woman's life. Aminata Diallo is kidnapped from her village in Niger and brought to South Carolina to work as a slave at the age of 11. After eventually winning her freedom, Diallo goes on to face decades of struggle and adversity, but later becomes a driving force in the abolitionist movement in Britain. Its French translation version, Aminata, won the French-language show Le combat national des livres in 2013.

Lawrence Hill is a Canadian novelist, essayist and memoirist. He is the author of several books including The Book of Negroes, The Illegal, Blood: the Stuff of Life and Dear Sir, I intend to Burn your Book: An Anatomy of a Book Burning.

The other 2009 contenders were:

2010: Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner, translated by Lazer Lederhendler, defended by Michel Vézina

Michel Vézina began his career as a clown in Quebec. (Roline Laporte/Vintage Canada/Penguin Random House)

Nikolski is a playful novel about all the invisible and unexpected ways we are connected. It follows three people living in Montreal in the 1980s: a 20-something Acadian named Joyce, a traveller named Noah who is fascinated with garbage and the unnamed narrator who is guided by a mysterious compass. Nikolski also won the Governor General's Literary Award for translation in 2008.

Nicolas Dickner grew up in Quebec and now resides in Montreal. He is currently a columnist at Voir. Nikolski, originally published in French, is Dickner's first novel. It won prestigious awards including the Prix des libraires du Québec, the Prix Anne-Hébert for best first book, and France's Prix Printemps des lecteurs — Lavinal. Dickner is also the author of Boulevard Banquise, a children's book, and short story collection Traité de balistique.

Lazer Lederhendler is a translator and academic from Montreal. He has been previously nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award for French-to-English translation several times. 

The other 2010 contenders were:

2011: The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis, defended by Ali Velshi

Ali Velshi is the chief business correspondent for NBC News. (Emblem Editions)

The Best Laid Plans is a humorous novel about engineering professor Angus McLintock, who agrees to run in a federal election because he knows he will lose. When he unexpectedly wins, he must navigate Canadian politics and his idealism and pragmatism makes him a unique character on Parliament Hill. The Best Laid Plans also won the 2008 Stephen Leacock Medal for humour. 

Terry Fallis is the author of several novels, including One Brother Shy, The High Road and Up and Down. He is a two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour. 

The other 2011 contenders were:

2012: Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre, defended by Shad

In addition to his time hosting q, Shad has also won a Juno Award and has been shortlisted for the Polaris Prize for his music. (Vintage Canada/CBC)

Something Fierce is Aguirre's memoir. Her family fled Chile after the rise of General Augusto Pinochet. Her mother later returned to Chile to set up a safe house for members of the resistance, and when Carmen grew up, she too joined the revolution. She is also the author of the memoir Mexican Hooker #1. She has written and co-written 25 plays, including Chile Con Carne, The Refugee Hotel and Blue Box

The other 2012 contenders were:

2013: February by Lisa Moore, defended by Trent McClellan

Trent McClellan is a stand-up comedian from Corner Brook, N.L. (House of Anansi Press)

February was inspired by the true story of the sinking of an Ocean Ranger oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland on Valentine's Day in 1982. February is the story of Helen O'Mara, whose husband Cal was one of the crew members who died, and how the accident impacted her life and the Newfoundland community in the years that followed.

Lisa Moore is a Newfoundland-based writer. Her other books include the novel Caught, the YA novel Flannery and the short story collection Something for Everyone. Caught was made into a miniseries for CBC, it can be streamed on CBC Gem.

The other 2013 contenders were:

  • The Age of Hope by David Bergen, defended by Ron MacLean
  • Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan, defended by Jay Baruchel
  • Away by Jane Urquhart, defended by Charlotte Gray 
  • Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese, defended by Carol Huynh

2014: The Orenda by Joseph Boyden, defended by Wab Kinew

Wab Kinew is a former broadcaster and current MPP in Manitoba. He hosted Canada Reads in 2015. (Hamish Hamilton)

The Orenda is a novel about the early contact between a Jesuit missionary named Christophe and the First Nations people in what is now northern Ontario in the 17th century. The novel is told from the perspective of Christophe, a young Iroquois girl named Snow Falls and a Huron elder named Bird, who kidnapped Snow Falls, as the three cultures clash and a new world emerges.

Joseph Boyden is the author of the novels Three Day Road, Through Black Spruce and The Orenda. In 2016, an investigation by the Aboriginal Peoples' Television Network alleged that Boyden had been misrepresenting his Indigenous heritage

The other 2014 contenders were:

2015: Ru by Kim Thúy, translated by Sheila Fischman, defended by Cameron Bailey

Cameron Bailey is the artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival. (Vintage Canada/Frank Gunn, CP)

In vignettes that shift back and forth between past and present, Ru tells the story of a young woman forced to leave her Saigon home during the Vietnam War and follows the woman's journey from childhood in an affluent Saigon neighbourhood to youth in a crowded Malaysian refugee camp and then to Quebec, where she struggles to fit in.

Kim Thúy is a Vietnamese Canadian writer currently living in Montreal. Her other novels include Vi and Man. Ru also won the Governor General's Literary Award for French-language fiction and was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2002. Thúy's books have been translated into 29 languages and are available in 40 countries and territories.

Sheila Fischman is the translator of over 150 works of Quebec contemporary novels from French to English. She is a Member of the Order of Canada and a chevalier of the Ordre national du Québec.

The other 2015 contenders were:

2016: The Illegal by Lawrence Hill, defended by Olympian Clara Hughes

Clara Hughes is a five-time Olympic medallist. (Simon and Schuster/HarperCollins/CBC)

The Illegal is a novel that centres on a marathon runner, as it examines the struggle of undocumented refugees in a dystopian future, with themes of race, discrimination and politics woven throughout.

Lawrence Hill is a Canadian novelist, essayist and memoirist. He is the author of several books including The Book of Negroes, The Illegal, Blood: the Stuff of Life and Dear Sir, I intend to Burn your Book: An Anatomy of a Book Burning.

The other 2016 contenders were:

2017: Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis, defended by Humble The Poet

Humble The Poet is a rapper, author and spoken word artist. (Craig Cooper/Coach House Books/Fabiola Carletti)

In the novel Fifteen Dogs, the gods Hermes and Apollo place a wager over pints in Toronto's Wheat Sheaf Tavern and 15 dogs are given the "gift" of human intelligence. It's the first book to win both Canada Reads and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Alexis was born in Trinidad and grew up in Canada. Fifteen Dogs also won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. His other books include Childhood, Pastoral, Asylum, The Hidden Keys and Days by Moonlight.

The other 2017 contenders were:

2018: Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto, defended by Jeanne Beker

Jeanne Beker hosted the show FashionTelevision for 27 years. (CBC/HarperCollins Canada)

Mark Sakamoto's memoir Forgiveness tells the true story of how his grandparents survived two very different experiences of the war. His paternal grandmother was one of many Japanese Canadians forced into internment camps during the Second World War, while his maternal grandfather was a prisoner of war in Japan. These stories of survival and reconciliation shaped him as a Canadian, a man and a father.

Sakamoto is a lawyer, author and political advisor who currently works in healthcare technology. He is also the host of Good People, a five-episode TV series on CBC Gem. Forgiveness is his first book.

The other 2018 contenders were:

2019: By Chance Alone by Max Eisen, defended by Ziya Tong

Ziya Tong is defending Max Eisen's memoir By Chance Alone on Canada Reads 2019. (CBC)

When Max Eisen was 15 years old, he and his family were taken from their home to Auschwitz, where Eisen worked as a slave labourer. He survived the Holocaust and emigrated to Canada in 1949. Eisen has toured the world, educating people about the horrors he survived during the Second World War. He has recorded his memories in the deeply moving memoir By Chance Alone.

Eisen is a Hungarian Jew who was deported to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944. As an author, public speaker and Holocaust educator, Eisen travels throughout Canada giving talks about his experiences as a concentration camp survivor. By Chance Alone is his first book.

The other 2019 contenders were:

  • Homes by Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung, defended by Chuck Comeau
  • Brother by David Chariandy, defended by Lisa Ray
  • Suzanne by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, translated by Rhonda Mullins, defended by Yanic Truesdale
  • The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong, defended by Joe Zee

2020: We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib, defended by Amanda Brugel

Amanda Brugel won Canada Reads 2020 defending Samra Habib’s memoir We Have Always Been Here. (CBC)

Samra Habib's memoir We Have Always Been Here is an exploration of the ways we disguise and minimize ourselves for the sake of survival. As a child, Habib hid her faith from Islamic extremists in Pakistan and later, as a refugee in Canada, endured racist bullying and the threat of an arranged marriage. In travelling the world and exploring art and sexuality, Habib searches for the truth of her identity. 

Habib is a journalist, photographer and activist based in Toronto. CBC Books named Habib a writer to watch in 2019. We Have Always Been Here is her first book.

The other 2020 contenders were:

2021: Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, defended by Devery Jacobs

Devery Jacobs won Canada Reads 2021 defending Joshua Whitehead’s novel Jonny Appleseed. (CBC, Arsenal Pulp Press)

Whitehead's novel Jonny Appleseed is about Jonny, a two-spirit Indigiqueer young man who has left the reserve and becomes a cybersex worker in the big city to make ends meet. But he must reckon with his past when he returns home to attend his stepfather's funeral. 

Whitehead is a two-spirit writer and Indigiqueer scholar from Peguis First Nation. His book, full-metal indigiqueer, is a collection of experimental poems that aim to provoke discussion and debate. He also curated and edited the anthology Love after the End.

The other 2021 contenders were:

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