Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Orenda Crowned 2014 CBC Canada Reads Champion!

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The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

Though there was little surprise when broadcaster Wab Kinew shepherded Joseph Boyden's The Orenda (Hamish Hamilton Canada) to a win at the 2014 edition of CBC Canada Reads this morning, there was much enjoyment in the process for fans and panellists alike, and a final vote against a dark horse competitor that did inject a jolt of last-minute tension.

Heavily favoured from the beginning, The Orenda is Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Boyden's magnum opus, following the lives of three characters in the 17th century as they cross paths through violence, colonisation and the search for meaning.

The final day saw Kinew face off with comedian Samantha Bee, who defended Rawi Hage's dark Montreal novel Cockroach. Kinew eschewed his earlier tactic of a spoken word-style opening argument, opting to focus on the issues the novel brings to light and their importance to contemporary Canada, including reconciliation, the environment and gender relations.

Bee for her part also delivered a strong opening, calling for attention for the marginalised and oppressed, particularly those in the immigrant community and those struggling with mental illness, as represented by the nameless protagonist of Cockroach.

Both panellists graciously acknowledged the strengths of their opponent's chosen novels. "I believe [Cockroach] is well-written," said Kinew, comparing it to masterworks by Kafka and Dostoyevsky. Bee agreed, saying, "I loved [The Orenda]."

Kinew rose to the challenge of defending the complex novel, widely considered to be Boyden's finest work yet, so well that host Jian Ghomeshi briefly took a role as devil's advocate, asking whether the novel itself was drawing out all the themes Kinew spoke on or, "Do we need Wab Kinew beside us while we read?"

In the end, while both books offered the utmost in literary merit, the grave importance of the issues raised in The Orenda tipped the balance in its favour, particularly as this year's Canada Reads theme is "What is the one book that could change Canada?".

Though set nearly four hundred years ago, its relevance remains as reconciliation and Aboriginal rights remain key issues in Canadian society. Panellist and humanitarian Stephen Lewis confirmed his belief in the importance of reconciliation, saying the horrifying mistreatment of First Nations peoples historically in Canada is "the original sin from which everything else flows." Kinew posed The Orenda as a chance to "reclaim the narrative [of Canadian history] and re-insert an indigenous voice". He went on, speaking to a packed house. "We can't change where we have been but we'll be damned if we can't understand it."

Bee put in an impassioned final stand for Cockroach, getting choked up as she asked the room to consider that "a sense of belonging can happen in the smallest of moments... change ripples out from individuals". She managed to sway fellow panellist and Olympian Donovan Bailey to her side, as he voted to eliminate The Orenda during the final tally. Lewis voted against Cockroach.

The deciding vote fell to actress Sarah Gadon, who had been defending Annabel by Kathleen Winter until it was axed on Day Three. Gadon had asked intelligent questions about both final books during the debates, objecting to what many saw as the nihilism of Cockroach and questioning the roles for female characters in The Orenda. In the end, however, she chose to eliminate Cockroach, leaving The Orenda as the last book standing.

The Orenda will enjoy the coveted "Canada Reads effect" in addition to its exposure as a Scotiabank Giller Prize and Governor General's Literary Award nominee.

Boyden was reached on the phone after The Orenda's victory was confirmed. "I'm shaking," he said. "I'm in Thunder Bay and I'm shaking — not from the cold". When asked what he thought of Kinew's performance, he said, "I've started a hashtag on Twitter: #WabKinewforPrimeMinister".

Hage was not called, but his presence was also felt; he had sent a friend to the debates bearing a gift for all the panellists — fresh Montreal bagels. They should come in handy as, after a week of some of the most intense and emotional Canada Reads debates to date, the panellists are sure to have worked up an appetite.

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