The best Canadian nonfiction of 2021
Here are the CBC Books picks for the top Canadian nonfiction of the year
Here are the CBC Books picks for the top Canadian nonfiction of the year.
Permanent Astonishment is a memoir by acclaimed writer Tomson Highway. Highway was born the 11th of 12 children in a nomadic caribou-hunting Cree family. Surrounded by the love of his family and the vast landscape of his home, he lived an idyllic far-north childhood. But five of his siblings died in childhood, and his parents wanted their two youngest sons, Tomson and Rene, to get big opportunities. This memoir offers insight into the Cree experience of culture, conquest and survival.
Highway is a Cree novelist, children's author, playwright and musician. Born in Manitoba, he is a member of the Barren Lands First Nation. His work includes Canadian theatre classics The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing and the novel Kiss of the Fur Queen.
Care Of is a collection of moving correspondence Ivan Coyote wrote in the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown, in response to letters and communications they had received, some of which dated back to 2009. The correspondence ranges from personal letters to Facebook messages to notes received after performing onstage.
Coyote is a writer, storyteller and performer from Yukon. They have written more than a dozen books, created four short films and released three albums combining storytelling with music, and are known for exploring gender identity and queer liberation in their writing. Their other books include Tomboy Survival Guide, Rebent Sinner, Gender Failure, One in Every Crowd and the novel Bow Grip. Coyote won the 2020 Freedom to Read Award, in recognition of their body of work that examines class, gender identity and social justice.
Spílexm is a memoir that tells the story of one Indigenous woman's journey to overcoming adversity and colonial trauma to find strength and resilience through creative works and traditional perspectives of healing, transformation and resurgence. Nicola I. Campbell weaves poetry and prose into what it means to be an intergenerational survivor of residential schools.
Campbell is the Nłeʔkepmx, Syilx and Métis author of the children's books Shi-shi-etko, Shin-chi's Canoe, Grandpa's Girls and Stand Like a Cedar. Shin-chi's Canoe won the 2009 TD Canadian Children's Literature Award and was a finalist for the 2008 Governor General's Literary Award for children's literature — illustration.
Perdita Felicien's mom Catherine was a poor young woman in St. Lucia when she was given a seemingly random, but ultimately life-changing, opportunity: to come to Canada with a wealthy white family and become their nanny. But when she gets to Canada, life is tougher than she expected, as she endures poverty, domestic violence and even homelessness. However, she still encouraged and supported her youngest daughter's athletic dreams. Felicien would go on to be a world-class hurdler and one of Canada's greatest track athletes. My Mother's Daughter is the story of these two women, and how their love for each other got them through difficult times and changed their lives.
Felicien was a 10-time national champion, a two-time Olympian and became the first Canadian woman to win a gold medal at a world championships. She now works as a sports broadcaster and is part of CBC's team covering the Olympics. My Mother's Daughter is her first book.
Marcello Di Cintio explores the role of the taxi cab in contemporary culture in Driven. Taxis are both public and private space, and their small dimensions mean strangers share an intimate closeness during the duration of a trip. Di Cintio interviews several taxi drivers from different backgrounds, and attempts to make sense of the role cabs play in our culture, while also shedding light on those who drive them, often silently and anonymously.
Di Cintio is a writer from Calgary. His other books include Walls and Pay No Heed to the Rockets. Walls won the 2013 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. His work can also be found in the International New York Times, Afar and Canadian Geographic.
In Nishga, Jordan Abel grapples with his identity as a Nisga'a writer, being an intergenerational residential school survivor and his own Indigenous identity while consistently being asked to represent Nisga'a language and culture. Blending memoir, transcriptions and photography, Nishga is an exploration of what it means to be a modern Indigenous person and how both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people engage with the legacy of colonial violence and racism.
Nishga was a finalist for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.
On Foot to Canterbury retraces Ken Haigh's journey through south England, as he follows a traditional pilgrimage route from the medieval era. The journey is in honour of his father, and along the way, he contemplates the role of pilgrimages in modern life, his relationship with religion and spirituality and his relationship with his father. He also engages in the works and lives of several prominent English writers, such as Jane Austen, Jonathan Swift, Charles Dickens and Geoffrey Chaucer.
Haigh is a writer, teacher and librarian currently living in Ontario. He is also the author of the memoir Under the Holy Lake.
Peyakow is a follow-up to Darrel J. McLeod's memoir Mamaskatch. The title is the Cree word for "one who walks alone." Peyakow tells the story of his childhood and youth. He was bullied by white classmates, lived in poverty, endured physical and sexual abuse and lost several people he loved. But the story is one of love and triumph, as McLeod goes on to become a teacher, the First Nations' delegate to the UN and an executive in the Canadian government.
McLeod is a Cree writer from Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta. Before his retirement, McLeod was chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations. His first book was the memoir Mamaskatch, which won the 2018 Governor General's Literary Award for nonfiction.
In Disorientation, Ian Williams captures the impact of racial encounters on racialized people, especially when one's minding their own business. Sometimes, the consequences are only irritating, and other times, they are deadly. Driven by the police killings and street protests of 2020, Williams realized he could offer a Canadian perspective on race. A few of the subjects he explores include the moment a child realizes they're Black, the 10 characteristics of institutional whiteness and how friendship helps protect against racism and blame culture.
Williams is a poet, novelist and professor from Brampton, Ont., who is currently teaching at the University of British Columbia. His debut novel, Reproduction, won the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize. He is also the author of the poetry collection Personals, which was a finalist for the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize.
In The Day the World Stops Shopping, environmentalist and writer J.B. MacKinnon asks the question: What would happen if we stopped shopping? MacKinnon examines different cultures, from hunter-gatherer societies to North America's late capitalism, to understand the role resources play in society. He also looks at the impact on shopping in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then imagines what it would take to arrive at a shopping-free future.
MacKinnon is a journalist and writer who lives in Vancouver. He is also the author of the nonfiction books Dead Man in Paradise and The Once and Future World and is the co-author of the book The 100-Mile Diet, which popularized the local food movement.
Fred Sasakamoose was the first Indigenous hockey player with Treaty status to play in the NHL. He was sent to residential school when he was seven years old, and endured that horror for a decade. But he became an elite hockey player, joining the Chicago Blackhawks in 1954. He only played 12 games in the NHL, but the legacy he left would have a huge impact for decades to come. He became an activist, dedicated to improving the lives of Indigenous people through sport. He shares his story in the memoir Call Me Indian.
Sasakamoose was a member of the NHL Hall of Fame and the Order of Canada. He died in 2020.
Kamal Al-Solaylee yearns to return to his homeland of Yemen, now wracked by war, starvation and daily violence, to reconnect with his family. His childhood homes call to him, even though he ran away from them in his youth and found peace and prosperity in Toronto. In Return, Al-Solaylee interviews people who have returned to their homelands or long to return to them. This book is a chronicle of love and loss, a book for anyone who has ever wondered what it would be like to return to their roots.
Al-Solaylee is a professor and author. His other books include Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes and Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone). Intolerable was defended by Kristin Kreuk on Canada Reads 2015. Al-Solaylee holds a PhD in English and is the director of the University of British Columbia's school of journalism, writing and media.
All the Rage is a memoir by Brad Fraser that doesn't hold back in reflecting on his impoverished and abusive childhood. The frank and witty memoir looks at his life's trajectory — from living with his teenage parents in motel rooms and shacks in Alberta and Northern British Columbia, experiencing prejudice around his gender identity, and how he got to be known, both at home and abroad, as a controversial and acclaimed playwright.
Fraser is an author, TV writer, cultural commentator and one of Canada's best known playwrights. The Edmonton-born Fraser has written for magazines and newspapers, including the Globe and Mail and the National Post, and for three seasons was a TV writer and producer on Queer As Folk.
An Embarrassment of Critch's is the second memoir by Canadian comedian Mark Critch. It follows Critch's journey from Newfoundland to the national stage and back again. From his earliest acting gigs supporting Newfoundland tourism to taking his show on the road, Critch revisits some of his career's biggest moments in this memoir.
Critch is a Canadian comedian. For 14 years, he has starred on CBC's flagship show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes. He's the host of CBC's Halifax Comedy Festival and has written for and appeared in CBC's Just for Laughs. He is also the author of the memoir Son of a Critch.
Impact is a Canadian nonfiction anthology that features 21 women writers examining the lasting effects of concussion in their work and family lives. The book explores the journey of healing, trauma and bears witness to the empathic and compassionate process of redefining identity and regaining creative practice after a traumatic event.
E. D. Morin is a Calgary author and editor who has been a winner of the Brenda Strathern Writing Prize. Her experience with concussion is documented in an online graphic story on Empathize This. She co-edited the literary anthology Writing Menopause with Jane Cawthorne.
Cawthorne is a Toronto writer, editor and feminist activist. Cawthorne has an MFA in creative writing and her literary work centres on women on the brink of transformation.
Sure, I'll Be Your Black Friend is an essay collection from YA writer and journalist Ben Philippe. Philippe, who is the son of Haitian immigrants and grew up in Montreal and Texas, writes about being a lonely child, an awkward teenager and a Black man coming of age during the Obama, then Trump, administrations in the United States. He also delves into Black stereotypes and thoughtfully explores his own relationship with his Black identity and his family's history.
Philippe is a writer of Haitian descent, who was raised in Montreal and is now a teacher at Barnard College in New York. He is also the author of the YA novels The Field Guide to the North American Teenager and Charming as a Verb. CBC Books named Philippe a writer to watch in 2019.
The Bomber Mafia is an exploration of the relationship between technology and ideology and how they come together during times of war. Malcolm Gladwell uses a range of anecdotes and stories to examine how societal structures shape human behaviour, decision-making and the spread of ideas. The Bomber Mafia looks at the deadliest night during the Second World War, and how it was caused by the collision of different approaches and beliefs about air bombing. The book builds on themes that Gladwell explored in a 2020 episode of his podcast, Revisionist History.
Gladwell is a bestselling author, journalist and staff writer at the New Yorker. His books include The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw and David and Goliath. His previous book, Talking to Strangers, was one of the top 10 bestselling Canadian books of 2019.
Biologist Suzanne Simard discovered the reality of the interconnection and intelligence of the forest. She's been able to find out that the trees are indeed whispering to each other — communicating not through the wind, but through the soil. Her new scientific memoir, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, describes her life and research.
Finding the Mother Tree was the grand prize winner for the 2021 Banff Mountain Book Competition and a category winner for the mountain environment and natural history award.
Simard is a B.C.-based author and academic who grew up in Canadian forests as a descendant of loggers. She is a professor in the department of forest and conservation sciences at the University of British Columbia.
Christa Couture has lost a lot over the course of her life: her leg was amputated, her first child died when he was one day old, her second child died as a baby after a heart transplant, her marriage ended in divorce and a thyroidectomy threatened her music career. But through it all, she has found hope, joy and love and maintains a perspective filled with compassion and understanding. She shares her journey, and what she's learned along the way, in her memoir, How to Lose Everything.
Couture is a writer, musician and broadcaster who is currently based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in CBC Arts and CBC Parents and she has been a columnist on CBC Radio's The Next Chapter. How to Lose Everything is her first book.
André Picard is one of Canada's leading health reporters and has been a frequent voice heard during the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the most heartbreaking stories during the pandemic was the state of Canada's long-term care homes, especially in Ontario and Quebec. In Neglected No More, Picard shows that this crisis has been percolating long before COVID. He demonstrates why these homes got to this place, how we are failing our country's seniors because of it, and what we can do to fix it.
Picard is a health reporter and columnist for the Globe and Mail. He can frequently be heard on CBC Radio. He has been nominated for the National Newspaper Awards eight times. His other books about health care include Matters of Life and Death, The Gift of Death and Critical Care.
One and Half of You is a poetic memoir by artist, musician and writer Leanne Dunic. One and Half of You explores Dunic's biracial upbringing on Vancouver Island, her connection to music, her relationship with her brother and how she finds connection and community that helps her understand who she is and who she wants to be.
Dunic is an artist, musician and writer from B.C. She is the fiction editor at Tahoma Literary Review and is in the band The Deep Cove.
In On Property, author and academic Rinaldo Walcott examines the legacy of indentured servitude and racial slavery and casts an analytical eye on the complex concept of property. The pamphlet book calls for systemic changes and sets forth the argument that owning property should be abolished.
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Walcott is a professor at the University of Toronto, where he is the director of women and gender studies and teaches at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
In Out of the Sun, the 2021 Massey Lectures, Esi Edugyan delivers an analysis on the relationship between race and art. She poses questions such as what happens when we begin to consider stories at the margins and grant them centrality? How does doing that complicate our understanding of who we are? Through the lens of visual art, literature, film and the author's lived experience, Out of the Sun examines the depiction of Black histories in art, offering new perspectives to challenge the accepted narrative.
Edugyan is a writer living in Victoria. Her other books include Half-Blood Blues, Dreaming of Elsewhere, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne and Washington Black. She won the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues, and again in 2018 for Washington Black.
Hayley Wickenheiser is one of the greatest hockey players of all time. She's played at 13 world championships, six Olympics and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. She also holds multiple university degrees and is a medical doctor, all while raising a child. In the memoir Over the Boards, Wickenheiser shares her story and reflects on what the game gave her.
Wickenheiser is one of Canada's greatest hockey players. She's currently the senior director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs and a medical doctor.
Unreconciled is a memoir from Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster and arts leader Jesse Wente. It weaves together Wente's personal story with a larger exploration of society and culture and examines sports, art, popular culture and more. He explores his family's history, including his grandmother's experience in residential school, and shares his own frequent incidents of racial profiling by police and argues that the notion of reconciliation between First Nations and Canada is not a realistic path forward.
Wente is an Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster and arts leader. He's best known for the more than two decades he's spent as a columnist for CBC Radio's Metro Morning. He has also worked at the Toronto International Film Festival. In 2018, he was named the first executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office and in 2020, he was appointed chair of the Canada Council for the Arts.
Journalist Ethan Lou recounts his experiences with Bitcoin in Once a Bitcoin Miner. He started by investing in bitcoin in university, then wrote for Reuters, then tried his hand at mining the digital asset. He's met the likes of Gerald Cotten, CEO of QuadrigaCX, and a co-founder of Ethereum and hung out in North Korea with Virgil Griffith, the man arrested for teaching blockchain to the totalitarian state. Once a Bitcoin Miner is both a personal story of adventure and fortune, and a deep dive into all things bitcoin.
Lou is a journalist and writer. He is also the author of Field Notes from a Pandemic: A Journey Through a World Suspended. He is a former Reuters and Toronto Star reporter and writes regularly in publications including the Washington Post, the Guardian and CBC.
As the world's second-largest economy, China is extending its influence across the globe. Joanna Chiu has spent a decade tracking China's rise, from the "New Silk Road" global investment project to a growing sway on foreign countries and multilateral institutions through "United Front" efforts. In China Unbound, Chiu provides background on the Hong Kong protests, underground churches in Beijing and the exile Uygur communities in Turkey and exposes Beijing's high-tech surveillance and aggressive measures that result in human rights violations against those who challenge its power.
Chiu is currently a senior journalist at the Toronto Star. She was previously the bureau chief of the Star Vancouver. Chiu has also reported for Deutsche Presse-Agentur, South China Morning Post, The Economist and the Associated Press.
Yearbook is a collection of personal essays from actor, writer and director Seth Rogen. The celebrated comedian and weed entrepreneur writes about his early days as a teenage stand up comic in Vancouver, as well as his grandparents, Jewish summer camp and doing drugs.
Rogen is a Canadian actor, producer and screenwriter now based in Los Angeles. In addition to being the executive producer of The Boys and Invincible, Rogen starred in Neighbors, Knocked Up and This Is the End, and wrote the screenplay for Superbad.
Begin by Telling is a collection of essays from U.S. Girls' Meg Remy. The essays span Remy's life, from a young girl growing up in Illinois to becoming an experimental artist making a name for herself in Canada. Along the way, Begin by Telling deals with pivotal moments in American history, weaving together personal stories with reflections on contemporary American and popular culture.
Remy is a visual artist, performer, musician and writer, best known from the pop project U.S. Girls. She is originally from Illinois, but now lives in Toronto. Begin by Telling is her first book.
A memoir by Cree activist Clayton Thomas-Muller, Life in the City of Dirty Water covers his entire life: from playing with toy planes as a way to escape from domestic and sexual abuse and enduring the intergenerational trauma of Canada's residential school system; to becoming a young man who fought against racism and violence, but also spent time in juvenile prison; to becoming a committed activist. Along the way, Clayton remained tied to his Cree heritage and spirituality. This debut is a narrative and vision of healing and responsibility.
Thomas-Muller is a member of the Treaty #6 based Mathias Colomb Cree Nation located in Northern Manitoba. He's campaigned on behalf of Indigenous peoples around the world for more than 20 years, working with numerous organizations.
Richard Wagamese Selected is a collection of nonfiction works by Richard Wagamese, one of Canada's most celebrated Indigenous authors and storytellers. The book, edited and curated by Drew Hayden Taylor, brings together more of his short writings, many for the first time in print.
Wagamese, an Ojibwe author from the Wabaseemoong First Nation, was one of Canada's most prominent writers. His novels included Medicine Walk and Indian Horse. His memoirs include One Native Life and One Story, One Song. He died in March 2017.
Taylor is an Ojibwe playwright, author and journalist from Curve Lake First Nations in Ontario. He has worked on over 17 documentaries examining Indigenous experiences. His books include Motorcycle and Sweetgrass and Take Us to Your Chief.
In Praying to the West, Omar Mouallem explores the unknown history of Islam across the Americas. He travelled to 13 mosques to figure out how the religion has survived and thrived so far from the place of its origin. All over the continent, he met the members of fascinating communities and all of them provide different perspectives on what it means to be Muslim. Mouallem comes to understand that Islam has played a role in how the America's were shaped, from industrialization to politics.
Mouallem is a writer, journalist and filmmaker living in Edmonton. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Maclean's, and Wired. He co-authored Inside the Inferno: A Firefighter's Story of the Brotherhood that Saved Fort McMurray. He also co-directed Digging in the Dirt, a documentary about mental health in the Alberta oil patch. In 2020, he founded the Pandemic University School of Writing.
On April 6, 2018, the news of a bus crash sent shock waves through Canada and around the world. The Humboldt Broncos, a junior hockey team, were travelling to an away game when a semi-truck missed a stop sign and the bus carrying the team crashed right into it. Sixteen people on board the bus were killed. Kaleb Dahlgren, the assistant captain of the team at the time, was one of the crash's 13 survivors. He shared his story of recovery, and eventually went on to study — and play hockey again — at York University. Dahlgren is now sharing his story in a memoir, Crossroads.
Dahlgren is a student at York University, where he plays on the varsity hockey team. Crossroads is his first book.
Musician and writer Antonio Michael Downing shares his story in the memoir Saga Boy. Downing was born in Trinidad and raised there by his grandmother until he was 11 years old. He is sent to rural Ontario to live with a strict aunt after his grandmother's death. There, Downing and his brother are the only Black kids in town. Creative and inquisitive, Downing tries to find himself and escape his difficult home life by imagining different personas. But when he hits rock bottom and finds himself in jail, he knows it is time to build a real life for himself and to embrace his heritage instead of trying to escape it.
Downing is a musician, writer and activist who now lives in Toronto. He published his first book, the novel Molasses, in 2010. In 2017, he was named one of five writers to participate in the RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writers Mentorship Program.
Raccoon is a nonfiction look at the common raccoon that examines why the animal is thriving in Canadian urban environments and how the raccoon is benefiting from climate change. Raccoon explores how they have adapted to urban life and how they are seen in some Indigenous cultures as a trickster figure or a transformative figure.
Daniel Heath Justice is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a professor of First Nations and Indigenous studies and English at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Badger and Why Indigenous Literatures Matter.
- This post has been updated to reflect that Shin-chi's Canoe was a finalist for the 2008 Governor General's Literary Award for children's literature — illustration.Jan 05, 2022 9:43 AM ET