Books

Everything you need to know about the 5 Canadian books shortlisted for $60K Weston Prize for nonfiction

The annual prize is one of the biggest in Canadian nonfiction. The winner will be announced on Nov. 2, 2022.

The winner will be announced on Nov. 2, 2022

A series of five book covers, with the respective authors' photos above the corresponding cover.
The winner of the Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction will receive $60,000. (Submitted by the Writers' Trust of Canada)

There are five writers up for the 2022 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. The $60,000 prize will be awarded on Wednesday, Nov. 2. It is the biggest nonfiction prize in Canada.

Each remaining finalist will receive $5,000.

The Weston Prize jury is comprised of Canadian writers Mark Bourrie, Cheryl Foggo and Jessica McDiarmid. They selected the finalists, and will select the eventual winner, from 103 titles submitted by publishers.

The Writers' Trust of Canada is an organization that supports Canadian writers through literary awards, fellowships, financial grants, mentorships and more. 

It also gives out seven prizes in recognition of the year's best in fiction, nonfiction and short story, as well as mid-career and lifetime achievement awards.

The Writers' Trust has given out a nonfiction prize since 1997. Hilary Weston has sponsored the prize since 2011.

Last year's winner was Tomson Highway for his memoir Permanent Astonishment.

Other past winners include Brian Brett, Elizabeth Hay, Rosemary Sullivan, Naomi Klein, Jessica J. Lee and John Vaillant. 

Here's everything you need to know about the 2022 finalists.

The Petroleum Papers by Geoff Dembicki

The Petroleum Papers is a nonfiction book by Geoff Dembicki. (Greystone Books, Submitted by the Writers' Trust of Canada)

In The Petroleum Papers, climate journalist Geoff Dembicki looks at the history of the petroleum industry and the oil sands in Alberta. Oil executives were told in 1959 that burning fossil fuels will cause global warming, and yet the industry grew substantially in the decades that followed. The Petroleum Papers looks at why the biggest oil companies in the world continue to grow, and shares the story of the people who are fighting back.

"On the surface, this book can seem very depressing and demoralizing. But it gave me a weird sense of hope. For so long we've had this story that we've been telling about climate change, which is that it is a result of billions of people's individual actions... and that makes us all equally responsible. But looking at hundreds of pages of documents — and realizing the extent to which people have been lied to about climate change — made me realize that at certain key moments, a small handful of companies and executives sabotaged solutions," Dembicki said in an interview with CBC Radio's On the Coast.

On the surface, this book can seem very depressing and demoralizing. But it gave me a weird sense of hope.- Geoff Dembicki

"The solution isn't necessarily to change the behaviours of seven billion people around the planet. It's to begin looking at the huge role some of these companies have played in making sure that the solutions we need haven't happened."

Dembicki is a climate change reporter from Alberta who now lives in New York. He is also the author of the nonfiction work Are We Screwed?, which won the 2018 Green Prize for Sustainable Literature. 

From the book:

What if the conspirators within the oil sands industry had not been so successful in blocking action to stop the climate emergency? What if at various points over the past six decades, leading oil companies had reckoned with their roles in bringing about the destabilization of our atmosphere and had shared their science and powerful voices with those trying to head it off?

What if they had used their political influence to push governments in the United States and Canada to synchronize each country's carbon-reducing efforts, rather than encouraging politicians to undercut each other at every possible moment?

Weston Prize jury citation: "In The Petroleum Papers, Geoff Dembecki shows us how the petroleum industry has known about the risks to the climate for more than sixty years. This is a book that connects the dots between the industry, politicians, lobbyists, fake grassroots groups, media and corrupted think tanks. Basing his arguments on grounded research and using clear, accessible prose, Dembicki explains the players and the game. The stakes are the planet itself."

This is a book that connects the dots between the industry, politicians, lobbyists, fake grassroots groups, media and corrupted think tanks.- Weston Prize jury

LISTEN | Geoff Dembicki talks about the oil and gas industry's role in the climate crisis:

In 1959 politicians and fossil fuel industry business people were informed of the dangers of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We speak with author and Tyee reporter Geoff Dembicki on his new book The Petroleum Papers which exposes the culpability of the industry in climate change.

Nothing Will Be Different by Tara McGowan-Ross

Nothing Will Be Different is a book by Tara McGowan-Ross. (Dundurn Press)

Tara McGowan-Ross has a nice job, a writing career and a forgiving boyfriend. She has it pretty good. She should be happy. Yet, she can't stay sober and she's terrible at monogamy. In the autumn after she turns 27, an abnormal lump discovered in her left breast becomes the catalyst for a journey of self-questioning. She shares this story in her memoir Nothing Will Be Different.

"I thought I was dying," McGowan-Ross told CBC Books in an interview.

When I felt death come into my peripheral vision, I started making a whole bunch of choices as though my life was really important.- Tara McGowan-Ross

"When I felt death come into my peripheral vision, I started making a whole bunch of choices as though my life was really important.  We are all going to die. That's not a rallying cry to grind hard and get a lot of success. What do you want to do with it? Do you want to lie in the grass? Do you want to call your mom? Do you want to show up at your ex-boyfriend's house and tell him you want him back? You should probably do that instead of going on LinkedIn." 

McGowan-Ross is an urban Mi'kmaw artist and writer. She's the author of Girth and Scorpion Season and the host of Drawn & Quarterly's Indigenous Literatures Book Club. She's also a critic of experimental and independent Montreal theatre and an editor for Insomniac Press. 

From the book:

"I have some feedback for you," said Shannon. I was one of two on-shift baristas. She was on managerial duty — checking stock levels, ensuring someone was doing the detail cleaning I never did, assessing the continued safety of the industrial espresso machines.

As usual, I was unshowered and hungover. "Uh-huh," I said, my body and soul preparing for praise.

"Well, as you know, you are probably our best customer service person." Yes, I was expecting that. I am a delight. "And you show up to all the shifts you commit to, and you call if you're going to be late, and you do everything on the task list." Check, check, check.

"But …"

But? I was pre-emptively hurt. Gentle criticism, my only weakness.

"You don't try very hard. You get by on how charming you are. You show up, but then you're just sort of here. I think you could be applying yourself more."

Weston Prize jury citation: "In Nothing Will Be Different, Tara McGowan-Ross unravels history and present in raw, unflinching prose that is at once funny, heartbreaking and lyrical. A coming-of-age reflection that is searing in its honesty, energy and depth, McGowan-Ross treads difficult topics such as death, loss, addiction and grief with wryness, wit and depth. With an intense voice resolutely and unapologetically her own, McGowan-Ross dares readers to come along on a death-defying, life-affirming journey."

With an intense voice resolutely and unapologetically her own, McGowan-Ross dares readers to come along on a death-defying, life-affirming journey.- Weston Prize jury

The Long Road Home by Debra Thompson 

The Long Road Home is a nonfiction book by Debra Thompson. (Simon & Schuster, Roshayne Alannah Morrison)

The Long Road Home is a researched look at themes such as belonging and family history. The book explores Black cultural identity and activism in places such as Boston, Chicago and Shrewsbury, Ont., one of the termini of the Underground Railroad and the place where the formerly enslaved — including her grandfather's grandfather, Cornelius Thompson — found freedom.

"The book is quite personal... but I felt like that it was important to have those concrete experiences in the book. I'm a teacher and one of the things I have learned being a teacher is that abstract ideas, like democracy and justice, are hard to grasp. The more specific and concrete you can be with your writing, the more resonant it is with your audience. That's what I was after — something that would resonate and would be a great teaching tool for people who want to know more about racial justice," Thompson said in an interview on CBC Radio's Let's Go.

That's what I was after — something that would resonate and would be a great teaching tool for people who want to know more about racial justice.- Debra Thompson

"There is a sense in the air that things need to change. That's quite important, but racial progress is always marked by disproportionate backlash and I think that's the moment we are in right now. The question revolves around if we can retain a sustained sense that something needs to be done and that if the democracy we want to build for ourselves and our children is one that is just and equal."

Thompson is a Canadian associate professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal, and one of only five Black women academics in a political science department in the country. She is also the Canada Research Chair in Racial Inequality in Democratic Societies and a leading scholar of the comparative politics of race.

From the book:

When I decided to move to the United States a decade ago, I thought the ghosts of my ancestors would welcome me home. I felt like I was returning to the land of my ancestors' birth, the country they built, where they prayed, and sweated, and toiled, and were tortured, and resisted, and fought, and wept as their children were stolen and sold, and were traumatized as they were raped for profit and murdered for sport, the country where they died, the places they still haunt.

They escaped and I returned to lay claim to the opportunities and the humanity they were refused. I thought I was going home. 

I was wrong. But not in the way you might think. 

Weston Prize jury citation: "Through direct and evocative prose, Debra Thompson skillfully leads the reader into a rare perspective on the world of Canadian and American Black life. Navigating the space between her father's ancestors who fled enslavement and her own life as one of very few Black women working in the field of political science, Thompson breaks ground in both countries. Engagingly personal and crisply political, The Long Road Home illuminates how the experience of Blackness cannot be explained by drawing a line at the 49th parallel."

Through direct and evocative prose, Debra Thompson skillfully leads the reader into a rare perspective on the world of Canadian and American Black life.- Weston Prize jury

LISTEN | Debra Thompson on anti-Black racism in Canada:

When it comes to anti-Black racism, it's easy to point to the obvious. Empires and oppressors. Slavery and segregation. But political scientist Debra Thompson says we need to make space for nuance. Especially when we talk about racism in Canada. In her new book, The Long Road Home: On Blackness and Belonging, Thompson weaves her political science scholarship with personal narrative to have an honest conversation with Chattopadhyay about how race and anti-Black racism operate in Canada and the U.S.

The Invisible Siege by Dan Werb

The Invisible Siege is a nonfiction book by Dan Werb. (Crown, Submitted by the Writers' Trust of Canada)

The Invisible Siege: The Rise of Coronaviruses and the Search for a Cure traces the surprisingly long history of the virus family and the scientists who went to war with it, as well as the lessons learned and lost during the SARS and MERS outbreaks. Journalist Dan Werb argues there is no doubt coronaviruses will strike again, and that understanding them is the best way to be prepared.

"Humans have a collective action problem. We all know that, we see it all the time. When you're trying to muster up a collective action for a threat that has not yet presented itself, it's almost impossible. There are so many threats to health, there are so many other viruses that currently exist in the world that it seems irrational to devote attention to a future threat if you can't see it, you can't predict it and you don't know what it's going to look like and you're dealing with things in the here and now," Werb said in an interview on The Sunday Magazine.

Humans have a collective action problem. We all know that, we see it all the time.- Dan Werb

"If we want this pandemic to end ⁠— and really end, not to be something that we seasonally dealing with ⁠— we need to make sure that the kinds of protections that we as Canadians are enjoying are exported across the world. That's the most self-interested move we can make if we want to hasten the end of the pandemic."

Werb is an epidemiologist, policy analyst and writer currently based in Toronto. He is also the author of the nonfiction work City of Omens.

From the book:

While viruses are, by one definition, just simple carbon-based machines, their massive numbers—at least one hundred million different viruses are known to infect vertebrates, invertebrates, lichens, and mushrooms—have led to incredible diversity, not only in their structure and activity, but in the pace at which they evolve over time. On average, a single virion can replicate in just three minutes once it worms its way into an organism's cell. Some highly infectious vi- ruses, like influenza, replicate much faster when they move through new populations, finding weak prey within which they can wreak havoc. Others, like bacteriophages (i.e., viruses that prey on bacteria), coexist in harmony with humans by adding an additional level of protection from deadly invaders. We welcome them into the human virome, that lush garden of viruses living peaceably within our bodies. 

Weston Prize jury citation: "The COVID-19 pandemic has been the most disruptive event in world history since the Second World War. More than one million people have died, the global economy has been shaken, anti-science populist extremism has become a potent force, and other issues like climate change have been overshadowed by the debate over public health measures. Dan Werb tells us how we got here through an authoritative, scientific explanation of coronaviruses. The Invisible Siege is a scientific detective story that leaves the reader frightened that the villain is still on the loose, and maybe in the house."

The Invisible Siege is a scientific detective story that leaves the reader frightened that the villain is still on the loose, and maybe in the house.- Weston Prize jury

LISTEN | Dan Werb on the history of coronaviruses:

Canadian epidemiologist Dan Werb says humanity has a long history of underestimating coronaviruses. He joins Piya Chattopadhyay to talk about his new book The Invisible Siege: The Rise of Coronaviruses and the Search for a Cure. The book traces the surprisingly long history of the virus family and the scientists who went to war with it, as well as the lessons learned and lost during the SARS and MERS outbreaks. Werb says there is no doubt coronaviruses will strike again, and that understanding them is the best way to be prepared.

Making Love with the Land by Joshua Whitehead

Joshua Whitehead is the author of Making Love With the Land. (Sweetmoon Photography)

Making Love with the Land is a personal work of nonfiction by Joshua Whitehead that employs a range of genres — essay, memoir, notes and confession — to explore queerness, Indigeneity and community work, as well as mental and physical health.

"Making Love with the Land is very much a sibling to Jonny Appleseed — specifically the reception to that book. Some of the core questions that Jonny grappled with, Joshua is also grappling with, so naturally this book came into being out of necessity, one might say," Whitehead said in an interview with CBC Books.

The larger aim was to normalize conversations around mental health after years of secret conversations in the corners of rooms that people were having.- Joshua Whitehead

"Some of the lessons I took from Jonny — if I'm going to go there, I'm going to do it on my own terms. And that was kind of what I wanted to do with this book — the larger aim of it was to normalize conversations around mental health after years of secret conversations in the corners of rooms that people were having. And so I felt like the best way that I could do that was to step on the stage and put the spotlight on me and turn it into a monologue, really."

Whitehead is a two-spirit, Oji-nêhiyaw Indigiqueer scholar, poet, nonfiction writer and novelist from Peguis First Nation. His debut noel Jonny Appleseed, was longlisted for the 2018 Scotiabank Giller Prize, shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction and the Amazon Canada First Novel Award and won a Lambda Literary Award for gay fiction. It also won Canada Reads 2021, when it was championed by actor Devery Jacobs.

From the book:

I'm listening to Lady Gaga's Joanne, thinking about why it has become a standard song of NDN karaoke: one need only replace the name "Joanne" with (fill in the blank) to participate in mourning the constant loss of kin we now call ancestor. Joanne is dedicated to Gaga's aunt, who died at 19 from lupus, and I think it's one of the most beautiful songs ever writ­ten. I'm listening to it right now, nikâwîs, my auntie, and writing this for you — and I'm having a hard time staying composed. There have been times, more so of late, when I'll fall into the pit of this song and won't climb out for days. I can't tell you how many times its phrases have rung in my ears, and I have collapsed. I do this in the shower often, as the water and the tears run down and blend into me, by which maybe I mean nourish me, because this is when you feel most real to me again: when those memories loop through me like a basket and I am held, softly, warmly, kindly beneath beads of water that animate me, make me living story. I write this now because I have never let you go, and I hope, nikâwîs, you'll stay with me as I go?

Weston Prize jury citation: "A collection that summons the reader into moving explorations of care and kinship with the land and with one another, Making Love with the Land is a lyrical, personal journey to be savoured. Refusing the demands of categorization, Whitehead's beautiful book is equal parts arresting, inviting, and challenging. He writes with fluid dexterity in the English language, while acknowledging the complexity of creating and living in a language that is not always enough."

A collection that summons the reader into moving explorations of care and kinship with the land and with one another,Making Love with the Land is a lyrical, personal journey to be savoured.- Weston Prize jury

LISTEN | Joshua Whitehead on the need for care with stories and storytellers:

When Joshua Whitehead was writing his first novel, Jonny Appleseed, he had a small, queer Indigenous audience in mind. But the book went on to become a bestseller, picking up literary prizes and winning CBC's Canada Reads. Now, Whitehead says it's time readers, journalists and academics start rethinking how we interrogate Indigenous authors about their work. In his new non-fiction collection of essays, Making Love with the Land, the two-spirit Oji-Cree storyteller from Peguis First Nation in Manitoba addresses all the uncomfortable and harmful questions he was asked in the wake of Jonny Appleseed. He joins Elamin Abdelmahmoud to argue for a more caring and respectful approach to storytelling and story sharing.

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