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The Word On The Street

20 years in review
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By Michelle Gatien

For the past 20 years, the last Sunday in September has come to mean one thing in Toronto: the colourful world of The Word On The Street festival. Transforming itself in to the ultimate book lover’s dream, Queen’s Park will once again play host to this gem of a festival as it celebrates its 20th anniversary on Sunday, September 27th.

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The Word On The Street concept was developed by a promotions committee from the Book and Periodical Council in late 1989 as a venue to promote the Canadian literary industry by showcasing Canadian authors, books and magazines in a festival atmosphere. “They wanted to create an event that brought books and magazines together and foster a love of reading,” says Cindy Goldrink, the current festival director of The Word On The Street. Less than a year later, during International Literacy Year, the first The Word On The Street festival sprang to life on Queen Street West between Spadina and John, on September 30, 1990.

Over 40,000 people attended the inaugural The Word On The Street Festival. Visitors browsed through the wares of 74 vendors and took in presentations and performances by personalities including David Suzuki, Knowlton Nash, Big Sugar and Molly Brown. By comparison, last year’s festival boasted over 200,000, 273 vendors and 18 tents and stages.

Often forgotten in the shadow of the book industry, the magazine industry made sure that it was well represented at the festival from the very start. “It was a great way to gain exposure for magazines and introduced many medium- or small-market magazines to the public,” Goldrick says. “Some magazines would see their highest one-day subscription and single-copy sales during the festival.”

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The first festival was considered such a success that plans were put in motion to take the festival nationwide. In 1994, The Word On The Street incorporated itself as an independent organization to license the The Word On The Street name to cities across the country. In 1995, Vancouver and Halifax were the first Canadian cities to join Toronto in hosting festivals under The Word On The Street banner. Since then, Calgary and Ottawa have also joined the national network of festivals, and in 2002 Kitchener became the latest city to join The Word On The Street.

A lot has happened at The Word On The Street Toronto since that first festival on Queen Street West. Every year, festival organizers have developed new initiatives geared towards the changing needs and desires of Toronto’s literary community. In 1995, the festival joined the fledging internet era with the “Word on the Net” Interactive Tent which hooked the Toronto festival with the festivals in Halifax and Vancouver. The 1999 festival saw the launch of the Reader’s Choice Award. In 2004, the festival relocated from Queen Street West to Queen’s Park. In the same year, the festival introduced a multi-lingual reading stage, which featured readings in languages other than English. In 2005, the festival introduced workshops to the festival with the very successful “Beyond the Page” workshop. In 2007, the festival introduced the Proud Voices tent in partnership with Pride Toronto to showcase literature from Toronto’s GBLT community. Last year, The Word On The Street launched the first ever mobile book club in partnership with Open Book: Toronto.

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From the beginning, Children’s literature and encouraging children to read has played an important role in The Word On The Street festival. “I started to bring my son when he was little, he loved to listen to Robert Munsch,” Goldrick says. “It helped create a bond between us and fostered a love of literacy in my son.” And she’s not alone. The festival reports that approximately 25 percent of festival patrons come to the festival as a family unit with children under the age of 18. Over the years, Kidstreet has grown to reflect the diversity of children’s literature. This year the festival will offer four programming venues that include readings by renowned children’s authors, crafts and other activities, and with a variety of venues offering the latest and greatest books for children. Kidstreet even has its own activity guide separate from the festival guide, which is printed in the style of the OwlKids publications like Chickadee Magazine, which will be celebrating its 30th anniversary at The Word On The Street Festival.

In 1990, the festival started out with just two stages, expanding as the need arose for new initiatives. This year, The Word On The Street will take place with 20 tents and stages.

Two new stages will debut this year, focusing on two popular subjects: cooking and money matters. On the Cooks 'n' Books stage, leading Canadian food writers and chefs, including Mairlyn Smith, Jeff Crump and Brian Morin, will host food demonstrations throughout the day. On the Money Matters stage, financial experts, including Richard Atkinson and John Stephenson, will be on hand to help festival patrons find solutions to their financial stress in these tricky financial times.

The festival works hard to reflect the diversity of Toronto and the Canadian literary scene. The World Music stage is a new initiative this year that will showcase music from around the globe, presented by local performers. The Diaspora Dialogues tent returns this year with a line-up that will also reflect Toronto’s diversity. According to Goldrick, the festival wants to “reflect the diversity of the City, not just culturally but also between neighbourhoods.”

The Marketplace will bring the public up close and personal with the Canadian literary scene, with access to publications from the largest clearing houses to tiny independent publishers. “To be on the street and get interaction from the public, there’s nothing [else] quite like it in Canada,” Goldrick explains about the unique interaction the festival creates between the public and publishers. In the Marketplace, festival patrons and industry insiders have a chance to discuss and discover what’s going on in the Canadian literary scene. “There’s something for everyone, and definitely some things that people might not be aware of.”

Every The Word On The Street festival has welcomed Canada’s brightest personalities to speak or perform on one of the festival stages including: Pierre Burton, Daniel Richler, Gordon Kormon, Margaret Atwood, Robert Munsch, June Callwood, David Suzuki and many more.

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Along with the promotion of Canadian publications and authors, The Word On The Street Festival also boasts a firm commitment to promoting literacy and literacy issues across Canada. Since 2007, in partnership with the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills, The Word on the Street organizers have helped develop ongoing literacy programs across the country as a part of the Adults Reading Across Canada program. These programs help encourage adults who wish to improve their literacy skills. In Toronto, the festival will produce its third short-story collection penned by adult literacy learners, in partnership with the Metro Toronto Movement for Literacy.

The festival is also a major fundraiser for local literacy programs through the “Loonies for Literacy” campaign. This year, two massive murals will be erected in Queen’s Park, and festival patrons will be encouraged to donate a loonie and leave a message on the murals located at the top of the park and in Kidstreet. After the festival, the murals will be auctioned off to raise further funds for literacy programs.

One of the most exciting initiatives this year revolves around the Long Pen launch of long-time festival supporter Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Year of the Flood. This launch will link the Toronto festival with both the Vancouver and Halifax The Word On The Street festivals for an exclusive question-and-answer session with festival patrons from across the country. This is not the first time the festival has hosted Margaret Atwood’s revolutionary long-distance, real-time, signing device. In 2006, The Word On The Street Toronto was the setting for the world’s first transatlantic book signing using Margaret Atwood’s breakthrough technology.

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In recent years, the festival has been recognized for its achievements including being selected as one of Toronto’s eight signature events for the “Toronto - You Belong Here” campaign in 2003, named as NOW Magazine’s “Best Event” in 2005, being named as one of “Toronto’s Top 100 Events” and being nominated for “Best Festival” by the Canadian Event Industry Awards in 2007.

In the last two years, The Word On The Street Festival has made great strides to become one of the most environmentally conscious festivals in Toronto. Bottled water is not available for sale on site; instead the City of Toronto’s “HTO to Go” will be onsite to hydrate festival goers. To help reduce the mountain of waste that a festival of this magnitude produces, the garbage will be sorted and paper and organic waste will be recycled. The festival encourages people to bring their own water bottles and reusable bags, but if you forget, the festival will have them available for purchase on site. In an additional effort to reduce unnecessary waste, media attending the event this year will receive their press kit, generally a thick stack of paper, on a USB stick.

“I would love to see increased programming attendance and see people jostling for space,” Goldrick answers when asked about the future of the festival. “I’d love to see more people come from outside the city, from the GTA and maybe Buffalo. There’s no reason why we can’t draw people in from other provinces and states.” Goldrick also envisions the festival growing strategically to bring together the community, both culturally and with a shared love for the written word.

The 20th annual The Word On The Street festival takes place in Toronto, Vancouver, Halifax and Kitchener on Sunday, September 27th. Toronto’s event will be held at Queen’s Park from 11 am to 6 pm. For all the latest information about the festival check out the website at www.thewordonthestreet.ca, and make sure you pick up the four-page insert available in the September 26th edition of the Toronto Star.

Photos courtesy of The Word On The Street.

Photos top to bottom: The Word On The Street on Queen Street West; Peter Gzowski at Mini Golf for Literacy, 1993; Robert Muncsh with readers; Margaret Atwood signs copies of The Blind Assassin; Book sale at The Word On The Street.

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Michelle Gatien began writing professionally during Culinary school at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in 1996, writing for the NAIT Nugget and in the Edmonton Journal Readers’ Recipe Contest Cookbook. After Culinary School, Michelle moved into television news and production, where she has spent the last 10 years producing local television in Burlington and Oakville for TV Cogeco. As a reporter for the newsmagazine The Source, Michelle covers the local news scene, from elections to interviews with Canadian personalities such as David Suzuki, Robert Bateman and Dan Aykroyd. Michelle’s current projects include two books about cooking with local produce and rediscovering the lost art of preserving.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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