2017 Annual General Meeting: In Review

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PEN Canada’s 2017 Annual General Meeting was held on June 6 at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto. The AGM is open to all members. To become a member of PEN Canada, click here.

2017 Annual General Meeting: In Review

Novelist Randy Boyagoda called to order his last meeting as PEN Canada president on a rainy day in Toronto. Delivering his final President’s Report, he summarized PEN’s good works of the past year: visits to Ottawa to discuss PEN’s work and priorities with Global Affairs Canada and Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada; the organization’s most successful fundraising dinner to date, featuring Salman Rushdie; and the works of individual members like Kim Echlin, who took PEN’s message of literature-as-ambassador to the Cairo Literary Festival. He reminded those present of PEN Canada’s mission: to celebrate literature, defend freedom of expression, and aid writers in peril.

Returning Executive Director, Tasleem Thawar, who had been on maternity leave for much of the 2016/17 year, started her report by thanking Grace Westcott, who stepped down from the Board of Directors to act as Interim Executive Director. Tasleem praised Grace’s excellent work in finding PEN Canada new offices, highlighted the success of the fundraising dinner thanks to the hard work of Grace and Dinner Chair, Elizabeth Levitt, and detailed PEN’s work in establishing Surrey, B.C. as a City of Refuge as part of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). Grace then spoke briefly of her time as Interim Executive Director, and the weight of PEN’s reputation: a great deal is attributed to PEN Canada, and therefore expected of us.

After a brief financial report by Treasurer, Carolyn Poirier, which saw the organization in good financial standing, PEN staffer Brendan de Caires introduced the evening’s Empty Chair, Uzbek-Kyrgyzstani journalist Azimjon Askarov, who is serving a life sentence on bogus charges. The Empty Chair program, marking the absence of imprisoned writers at literary events, has been an effective way to raise awareness for PEN and its programs. Askarov was also the recipient of the 2016 One Humanity Award celebrating writers whose work fosters cross-cultural understanding.

Brendan then introduced two refugee journalists from Turkey who spoke of the crackdown on freedom of expression following the July 16 coup attempt there. These journalists have been collecting data on their website, TurkeyPurge.com, and the numbers they reported were staggering: 234 journalists arrested, 165 in prison, 149 media outlets shuttered. The scale of repression, they lamented, is difficult for those living in a stable democracy to understand. Conditions in Turkish prisons are hellish, and those who manage to escape to relative safety in stable countries continue to be profiled by Turkish authorities. More importantly, these exiled writers fear for their families, as the Turkish government has been known to use members of wanted journalists to force their return to the country. The gathering discussed avenues by which PEN Canada can be of assistance to writers within Turkey, and those in exile. In addition to raising awareness about the situation, PEN Canada will continue to push for faster processing of families reunification applications for persecuted writers. PEN has already begun this work as part of PEN Internationals “Make Space” campaign.

Jim Creskey, outgoing Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, spoke next. He highlighted the work PEN Canada has done in South America, with reports and actions on freedom of expression in Mexico, Honduras and now Guatemala. He noted that the Escribir sin Miedo Prize, rewarding investigative journalism in the difficult climate of Honduras, is blossoming two years after its introduction, and expressed his confidence in incoming Chair, Peter Showler, as his successor. Peter has a wealth of experience in refugee law as former Chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (1999-2002), and Director of the Refugee Forum, located at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre, University of Ottawa.

The Canadian Issues and Writers in Exile Commitee reports were brief, as neither chair could attend the meeting. Carmen Cheung, human rights lawyer and professor of global practice at the Munk School of Global Affairs, will take over from Elise Moser as chair of the Canadian Issues Committee. Marina Nemat, Chair of the Writers in Exile Committee, asked member to refer to the Annual Report to see a summary of the committee’s work, which has been largely focused on family reunification.

The gathering then turned to the election of the president and directors. Richard Stursberg was elected as president with a term ending in 2019 and thanked the members for their confidence. Lawyer Michael Bookman was elected as director, replacing retiring director Janne Duncan as secretary, as well as writers Valerie Connor and Omar Mouallem, Giller Prize Executive Director, Elana Rabinovitch, and incoming Writers in Prison Committee Chair, Peter Showler. Grace Westcott was also reinstated to her position as director, and Neil Bissoondath was elected to a second term. A full listing and brief biographies of the 2017/18 PEN Canada Board of Directors can be viewed here.

The meeting ended with formal thanks to all retiring board members – Janne Duncan, Sasha Chapman, Jim Creskey, George Melnyk and Vincent Lam – and president, Randy Boyagoda.

Please see photographs from the evening the gallery below, and the 2016/17 PEN Canada Annual Report here.

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