mitchell prize

The Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize is one of the earliest initiatives of Faith in Canada 150.

The following is an interview with Doug Sikkema, Project Leader for the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize for Faith and Writing, a literary award worth $25,000 from Cardus. Cardus is a Canadian think tank “dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture.” The Puritan’s essays editor, André Forget, interviewed the project leader to learn more about this sizeable, faith-based literary prize.

André Forget: What are the origins of the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize? How did it come about, and what has your own involvement in it been?

Doug Sikkema: In 2015, Cardus, a public policy think tank based in Hamilton, ON, conceived the idea of Faith in Canada 150: a set of projects for the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of Confederation that would be taking place later this year. These projects are quite unique and varied, but all share a fundamental desire to help Canadians better understand the important role that faith and religion have played in making Canada (and Canadians) what they are today.

One of the earliest initiatives we thought about was a poetry and fiction prize that would help to profile, and perhaps even catalyze, the numerous Canadian writers today who write out of a certain religious tradition. In meeting with editors, publishers, and literary organizations, it became clear that such a prize would not only be unique, but would also be an important contribution to the Canadian literary scene. As a researcher and managing editor at Cardus, as well as a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Waterloo, this project was a great fit for me. I’ve been happy to be the project lead, helping to organize the prize objectives and criteria, getting our panel of judges together, and developing the Fall 2017 Gala.

AF: Religion has been a frequent subject and target of Canadian writing. There are the scathing accounts of writers like Rawi Hage and Miriam Toews, who present faith as being unambiguously dangerous, and also more sympathetic portrayals in K.D. Miller’s All Saints and Maggie Helwig’s Girls Fall Down. All of these writers got attention, some of them a significant degree of attention. Why was it felt that a separate, explicitly faith-related prize was needed?

DS: Yes, to be clear, we’re not assuming that writers of religion get “no” attention. One has only to look at the popularity of Yann Martell’s Life of Pi or Atwood’s eco-theology to see that there is a certain fascination around the connections between faith and the imagination in Canadian literature today.

The hope with this prize is to ‘crack’ this kind of encrusted thinking and help more Canadians see that religion and faith strike at the very heart of what it means to be human.

As you note, though, this “fascination” today ranges from outright rejoicing to hostility. Our purpose with this prize is to bring these stories and these responses together and encourage them in light of the 150th anniversary celebrations taking place. Because one thing we have noticed in the Canada 150 celebrations is that while Canadian culture is being celebrated, very little is being done to recognize that this culture is a quilt of various religious communities. As the late Prime Minister Trudeau said in 1981, there’s a “golden thread of faith” woven in the tapestry of Canada. He also noted that, “To pass on that heritage, strong and intact, is a challenge worthy of all of us who are privileged to call ourselves Canadians.” So, our prize is hoping to bring that thread into the light amidst all the other wonderful programs and initiatives taking place.

Also, as you can see on our prize description on the website, there is an increasingly dominant strain in our “secular” culture, that religion is nothing more than window dressing. It’s a funny way to dress, or perhaps a place to go and worship. The hope with this prize is to “crack” this kind of encrusted thinking and help more Canadians see that religion and faith strike at the very heart of what it means to be human.

AF: The prize website notes that the Mitchell Prize is open to writers engaging with many faith traditions. Was there an attempt to make sure this same faith diversity is represented in the judging? Will the judges have final say, or does the organization sponsoring have a role in choosing the work as well?

DS: The judges for the Mitchell Prize represent a strong range of academics, writers, and experts, many of whom work intimately with the creative communities of various religious traditions. They are all highly accomplished in their fields, and we are proud to have them. It’s an honour to have George Elliott Clarke, Canada’s poet laureate, evaluating poetry submissions, for example. We have award-winning novelist Susan Lynn Reynolds judging the fiction category. Each of the judges brings a wealth of experience and talent to the table. I feel we have the cream of the crop to judge this prize.

The judges will have final say. The entire process will be anonymous and the organizing institution will have no say over who makes the shortlist or is awarded the final prize.

AF: Responses to this prize on social media have not been uniformly enthusiastic. On December 14, Toronto poet Jacob McArthur Mooney took to Facebook to suggest the prize is a “theocratic gesture” and call attention to the fact that the think tank behind the prize, Cardus, is a conservative Christian organization. How would you respond to those who suggest this prize is less about literature than it is about furthering an explicitly conservative-Christian political agenda?

Toronto poet Jacob McArthur Mooney took to Facebook to suggest the prize is a ‘theocratic gesture,’ and call attention to the fact that the think tank behind the prize, Cardus, is a conservative Christian organization.

DS: I would encourage writers to read more about our objectives, our juror panel, our advisors, and our mission before they jump to this rather uncharitable, knee-jerk conclusion. It is unfair to simply paste labels on an organization and attempt to marginalize it based on a very superficial understanding of its raison d’être. Our hope is not to airbrush history: we explicitly ask for people who feel they have been harmed by religion to share those stories. However, we also know that many people find comfort, security, and identity in the habits and rituals of their religion. This is part of what it means to be Canadian and I think it breaks through a simple “progressive” vs. “conservative” dichotomy. So, if allowing religious voices to speak into the public square without threat of coercion and celebrating the beauty of language and narrative are part of the “conservative-Christian political agenda,” then by all means, that is what we’re for. But I think there would be many Canadians surprised by such a claim!

AF: You and I have spoken on several occasions about the challenges writers of faith experience in a literary culture where religious skepticism is the default. Do you think this sense of marginalization is further compounded for writers coming from a non-Christian background?

DS: The Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor may provide some help on this question. Taylor’s framing of secularism suggests that religion will not become more and more unlikely, but that the conditions for belief and unbelief are shifting in significant ways. In a secular age, unbelief does become a much easier option than it was, say, 500 years ago. Yet even unbelief is “haunted” by belief in much the same way that believers may be “haunted” by doubt and skepticism. Secularism cuts both ways.

What the writer of faith—whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc.—can offer (among other things) is a brief moment where the dominant narratives of secularism are challenged and maybe even undermined. It may still be more difficult for non-Christian writers of faith in Canada today given how predominant Christianity still is. The metaphors and tropes, analogies, and symbolism of Christianity are more easily ingested by a Canadian culture whose roots are more Judeo-Christian (even if those have been forgotten).

However, the marginalization of Christianity today also means that writers of the Christian faith have to make allegiances and work with writers of other faith traditions. This is not to say they must ignore and erase their differences. Not at all. However, it is to suggest that as they write “against” a dominating narrative that threatens to push them to the margins and irrelevance, their work is shared.

The deadline for the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize is June 30, 2017.

2 Comments

Jake Mooney

Hi Puritan,

I want to write in and add some clarity here, in two areas.

First, this interview introduces Mr. Sikkema as the “Project Leader” for the Mitchell Prize and then goes on to say that the Prize is being organized by Cardus, a think tank. This is all true, but I’m concerned it creates an assumption here that Cardus is operating as a simple financial or administrative sponsor at arm’s length from Mr. Sikkema, an Arts Administrator. In reality, Mr. Sikkema works at Cardus, as a Senior Researcher and the editor of their Public Policy and Christian Thought journal, Comment. Here’s his page on their website. https://www.cardus.ca/organization/team/doug/. He is leading the Mitchell Prize as part of his duties to the program’s owners, Cardus.

Authors should of course submit to the prize if they wish to support it and want to have their work considered. But, with the relationship between Mitchell and Cardus more clearly spelled out above, they should know what Cardus is.

Cardus is a think tank whose agenda is to increase the role of Christian ethics and thought in Canadian public life. They do this through their periodicals and through policy papers and articles, including ones arguing for private and religious schools over public ones (https://www.cardus.ca/organization/news/242/cardus-makes-the-case-for-school-choice/) and ones where they equate campus LGBT groups to the Taliban (https://www.cardus.ca/organization/news/557/centre-article-128-university-free-speech-ivory-towers-and-the-new-sectarianism/). There are others, and people can wander through their website for more.

I don’t want to completely ignore the best-case scenario here, which is that a narrowly right-wing, staunchly Christian organization can or would develop a literary program just as ecumenical and global as the Mitchell Prize’s mission statement (and your friend, Mr Sikkema) have said. But, Cardus’s job, as articulated to its board and practiced in its written documents, is to advance a specific Christian agenda, not a broadly spiritual one. Authors may review that and decide to submit all the same, either because Cardus’s worldview matches their own, or they have faith that the organization is reaching out with honest hands here. However, whereas the Mitchell Prize requires them to pay them a submission fee, they should be free to wonder where that money is going and what their support is helping to create.

I thank you for keeping up with my private Facebook page. It is good to have a readership.

Best,
Jake Mooney

Reply
Doug Sikkema

Dear Jacob,

I want to thank you, first of all, for your responses and concerns here. Particularly when comment sections for online publication tend to be feeding grounds for trolls and cesspools of vitriol. Your candour is encouraging, even while I do hope to push back on some of your assertions.

It is not our intention to mislead anyone about the role Cardus is playing in the Ross and Davis Mitchell Prize. In fact, we are very forthright that Cardus is the orgnazing institution behind it and other FC150 initiatives hoping to tell the stories of faith in Canadian life. And, as you point out, this prize is in many ways an extension of Cardus’s animating vision, which, yes, is decidedly and unapologetically Christian. That is, despite what many people believe (and what you have so clearly articulated), we maintain that Christianity has been (and can continue to be) a very important wellspring for liberal democracies to flourish and a strong foundation for the pluralism we cherish in this country. So yes, you are right in a sense: this prize, as much as it seeks to create the “ecumenical” space for stories of all faiths to be told, is clearly part of how our understanding of the Christian mission of Cardus.

However, when you proceed to educate people as to what Cardus is, you seem to cherry-pick a few articles without giving appropriate context or fully understanding the broader issues addressed. In the case of the school choice argument, Cardus is not reductively about championing the “private/religious” over and against the “public.” Instead, we have promoted policies to create space for both types of schools to flourish. Our measurements on graduate outcomes from all the sectors of Canadian education have shown that graduates from various private schools are very productive and engaged members of public life (especially in terms of charitable giving, civic engagement, and creating strongly bonded communities of trust). So, our argument is far from asking to have private schools privileged “over” public, but to see a more equitable distribution of public resources that would create space and opportunities for all schools to educate.

You also quote a 2006 article from Iaian Benson. Cardus publishes thousands of articles from hundreds of writers. Some of the pieces, which were written in a certain historical context, particularly grate as sensibilities change. While the phrasing in the article is something meant to “shock” and be provacative, it was also meant to be taken more seriously and less literally, as the expression goes. That is: the point of the article is not to say that such activist groups “are” the Taliban (which would be absurd), but the point is actually one relevant to our discussion: how do we best create non-coercive spaces for dialogue in an increasingly pluralistic and fractured public square? As Christians, we hold that the foundation for this is best grounded in the belief that everyone has an inherent dignity that no other person can give them or take away from them. This means that people must be free to be(come) fully human, which is in part tohold and develop ultimate beliefs. And while we will disagree on these beliefs, our public life must create the space where we can engage in discussion (such as this) without the threat of force, violence, marginalization, or discreditation. Has Christianity been perfect in this regard? Hardly. Nevertheless, we do ascribe to principles that hold us accountable for our practices, both past and present.

So, in conclusion, you are setting up a tension here between the Christianity that animates Cardus and our desire to reach out to other faiths and hear their stories. My point here is to humbly submit that these might not necessarily be in tension, and that there are many beliefs intrinsic to the Christian faith that allow for and encourage the pluralism a liberal democracy like Canada desires.

One final note of clarification: all submission fees will be going towards the cost of administering and executing the prize.

Thanks again, Jacob, for your comments. I hope you receive this response in the spirit in which it was given.

All the best,

Doug Sikkema

Reply

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