From Great Books to the Banff Weekend

and other Gatherings of Readers

            There seem to have been two starting points for book discussion in Calgary and the Banff Book Discussion Weekend.   In 1953, Brian Thompson started a group called “Background Books.”  Brian was a young fellow in the oil business but his love of  reading led him to start a book discussion group.  The group met at the Central Library and various homes to discuss variety of complete selections including novels and nonfiction works.

            The second discussion group started with Mac Coleman, Assistant Librarian at the Calgary Public Library.  As Librarian in Brandon, Manitoba, Mac had led Great Books Foundation groups and he brought his love of reading and discussion of great literature to Calgary.  He had long known of another Mac–Mac Moir, as a fellow writer when both moved to Calgary, they met and became fast friends.  Of course, Calgary Mac joined Brandon Mac’s Great Book Discussion Group.   The first meeting of this group was held at the Allied Arts Centre and later moved to the University of Calgary.   It was this group which eventually turned its registration work over to the Calgary Board of Education  in the early 70s.

            The group’s program was accepted as a “course” by the Continuing Education Division of the Calgary Public School Board, who then handled publicity, registration and meeting rooms for a small fee from each member.  Classrooms in Western Canada and Viscount Bennett high schools were used most.  Other groups met for a year or two in Sir Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth High Schools, largely because of their location.  But these groups died in a year or two, some members re-joining the Viscount Bennett group, which lasted well into the 80’s.   The Continuing Education Division named the course “Books in Conversation.”  It was felt that the name “Great Books Discussion Group” might be somewhat intimidating to some potential new members.  Continuing Education gave the group the basic administrative help needed but did not advise or limit the group in any way.    Reading selections were purchased in sets from the Great Books Foundation in Chicago.   This Foundation is still in existence and has expanded into Great Books Discussion groups for children as well as continuing their provision of  book sets for discussion by adults.  Some members of this group over the years were, Drake Shelton, Leila Robertson, Jean Greig, Victor Minz, Pat Collett, Herta Przeczek, Clive Cardinal, Ad and Helen Chetin, Mary Asp, Aileen Cartwright, Ursula and Briggita Beckedorf, Charlotte Rich, Marj and Mac Moir, Muriel Naylor, Jennifer Peddlesden, Art and Ethel Balfour, Marge Crilly, Howard Gretton,  Lee van Stelten, Helen Walker, Iris Mitchill, Barbara Cook, Anne MacDonald, Ernie Ludby Jack and Mary Anne Sparks, Jack and Margie Long (and many, many others…)    According to Art Balfour, there were a lot of American oilmen’s wives who were members for short periods while their husbands were posted in Calgary.  And in those early years there were a higher proportion of male members than are found in book discussion groups today. 

            And how did the weekend in Banff evolve?    One person recalled that Mac Coleman got the University of Calgary interested in doing a weekend discussion.  This was most likely the  result of  input from Art and Ethel Balfour who had belonged to a Great Books Group in Buffalo NW where they had a spring book seminar each year.   The idea caught on and the first Banff Book Discussion Weekend was scheduled for the last weekend in May, 1961 at the Banff School of Fine Arts, fondly known as the BS of FA.  Thanks to Enid Green who has attended the Book Weekend for many years, there is a very good archive of old brochures and memorabilia.  The earliest record of the any of the books discussed is  1964.  That year participants  read The Fall by Camus, Fear and Trembling and Sickness unto Death by Kirkegaard, and The Creative Mind by Bergson, and St. Joan by GB Shaw. The books ranged in price from $0.65 to a high of $1.85 each and registration for the weekend was $3.00!    At that time, the Banff Centre did not have, as they now do, a nice lounge and bar where participants could relax and socialize after the evening discussion groups.   In those days, thirsty registrants would retire to the Ladies Section of the Cascade Hotel beer parlour for a recap of the evenings deliberations and an uncapping of the evenings libations. 

  For a number of years, starting in 1978,  the University sent along to Banff a Professor from the Department of English to speak on one of the Books.  Speakers over the years included Dr. Clive Cardinal,  Dr. Bill Blackburn, Dr. James Black, Mr. Barry Isaac, Dr. Victor Ramraj, Dr. Janis Svilpis, Dr. John Sayre Martin,  and other professors whose interest was relative to one of the books discussed.  Later, organizers decided to invite the author of one of the books being discussed.  The first author to speak at the Banff Weekend was the late Lauralee ( L R ) Wright in 1987.  Other authors have been Aritha van Hirk, Rosemary Nixon, Hiromi Gotto, Peter Oliva, Marilyn Halvorsen, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Lorna Crozier, Bill Richardson, Fred Stenson, Shannon Cowan, Sandra Birdsell 2003, Roberta Rees 2004, Catherine Simmons-Niven 2005 ( who was accompanied on guitar, at her reading by her sister), Alistair McLeod 2006, Sid Marty 2007,  Sharon Butalla 2008, and Marina Endicott in 2009, Robert Sawyer 2010, and Sandra Gulland for the 50th Anniversary Celebration in 2011, Gil Adamson 2012, Linden McIntyre 2013, Andrew Davidson 2014, Tyler Trafford 2015, Joan Clark 2016, Sandi Boucher ( for Richard Wagamese) 2017,  Elizabeth Hay 2018, and Katherena Vermette in 2019..   

            1995 was the final year for support of the weekend by the University of Calgary.  For 1996 the weekend would either sink or swim, depending on volunteers to take over the duties of registration and coordination with the Banff Centre.   Luckily a group of stalwart volunteers took over, with Janis Goll taking the helm as chairman for that first year.   Registrations for 1997 were modest, but the following year showed a much  greater number, especially people from small centres around Alberta and BC.   1998 registrations were higher yet at 81  participants probably due the increasing popularity of book discussion groups and the Internet site created by Bill Peddlesden with help from Janis Goll  whose U of C contact eliminated the cost.  This site was visited in 1997-1998 by over 200 people. Today the site is located at https://banffbookdiscussionweekend.ca/ A link to the Chat Cafe Internet site held by the Calgary Public Library also increased visibility of the Banff Book Discussion Weekend in 1999 (since discontinued) as has the recent partnership with the Banff Centre, which, starting in 1999 took over arrangements for the author speakers.  1999 was the first year that the Book Weekend got national coverage on the radio.  Due to the CBC strike, the noon hour program was being broadcast from Toronto.  Luckily an e-mail press release for the event caught the eye of the program host, David Stephens, and he interviewed Jennifer Peddlesden for about 10 minutes in March 1999 about the weekend and its history.  Attendance continued to rise, with a small dip when the economy slumped 2008-2009, but by 2010 the numbers were up again.  To give a boost for the big year in 2011, Jen was interviewed May 2010 this time by Kathleen Renne for the CKUA program, Arts Alive, regarding the special 2011 celebration of the 50th Anniversary and special author guest, Sandra Gulland. In 2016 a Facebook page was started which increased visibility and also allowed creation of an event to share.  https://www.facebook.com/BBDWeekend/   That same year a Twitter account @BBDW1961 was opened.   In 2019 post cards were made and distributed to attendees at Literary Kaleidoscope in Calgary by Jocelyn Lockyer and the folded brochure was discontinued.    

            The process for choosing the books has changed a great deal over the years.  Initially the selections were picked by the Department of Extension, in 1964 that was under  RS Chapman, Supervisor.  Later a group of regulars would meet over a bottle of wine and hash out the four selections.  Today the process is much more democratic—and much more complicated.  From a “long list” of selections put forward by participants, a “short list” of 8-10 is selected by volunteer readers.  The “short list” is posted during the weekend and participants vote on their four favourite books.  In most cases, these four become the selections for the following year.  At least one book chosen is usually a “classic”, and at least one by a Canadian author.  The choice of a Canadian selection often depends on whether the author would be able to attend to speak on the book.  It seems that Canadian literature is very popular so there are often several Canadian books on the reading list.   Although cumbersome, this method engages more people in the process and has given readers a feeling of ownership in the Banff Book Discussion Weekend—especially if they do not live near enough to be on the organizing committee

            The discussion format has changed little since 1961.  Leaders or Facilitators volunteer to keep the discussion on track, and the number of volunteers needed depends on the registration.  Groups of 10-12 people are randomly chosen for each discussion group.  One seldom sees the same people at each of the four discussions so this makes each discussion a unique opportunity to meet many of the other participants.  Although the BBDW has been housed in other buildings at the Centre, most of the time the groups are in classrooms in Donald Cameron Hall.  The discussion rooms have beautiful views out over the valley and this gorgeous vista adds to the atmosphere of camaraderie and inquiry.   Questions are prepared by the Leaders and in the same manner used by the Great Books Foundation, the group seeks for the author’s meaning and intent in the book through these questions.   In 1979 moderator training sessions were held in May in Calgary—but these were not popular, so Friday evening Leaders are given a short seminar on the leadership process, and are also provided with sample questions. Jennifer Peddlesden has led this seminar for a number of years, but a new format ( see below under special events) replaced it in 2005.   Discussion of books are held Friday evening, Saturday morning, Saturday evening, and Sunday morning.  The visiting author usually speaks on Saturday with a public lecture at the Banff Centre, and on Sunday to the participants following discussion of his/her novel.

Special Events – In 1986 a 25th anniversary celebration was held.  Pictures show Jean Greig and Drake Shelton cutting the special cake provided by the University.   Leila Robertson was also honoured for her many years of leading and organizing the book weekend under both Ron Cole and Al Holt of the University of Calgary.

In 2001 the 40th Anniversary was celebrated by giving every participant a book bag, a souvenir pin and souvenir bookmark.  The book bags were organized by Kathryn Sloan.  Souvenir book marks been printed every year since then. 

In 2003 the group incorporated with the Province of Alberta, under the guidance of Sandi Churchill who led the group through the intricacies of forming a society. 

In 2004 under the leadership of Victoria Vaseleniuk, The Kootenay Book Weekend started, modeling the program after the BBDW.  This weekend is still successfully drawing readers to Nelson, BC.

In 2005   Jennifer wrote a skit “  The Three Little Pigs; a lighthearted look at how not to run your book discussion!”  which was performed on Friday evening, by Beth Lipsett, Sandi Churchill, Janis Goll, and Marg Gillis.   The group enacted a scene from  a book discussion group where participants tried to discuss The Three Little Pigs, but got it all wrong!   Wonderful costumes provided by the participants, and spontaneous one-liners had the audience laughing and enjoying their lesson. The skit was reprised in 2006 to an equally pleased audience.

In 2008 participants coped with the Banff Centre’s construction around Donald Cameron Hall amid three days of rain and low cloud, and mud.  We climbed to the shiny new dining room over the Sally Borden Building, but everyone missed the round tables, the white table-cloths and the ambience of a big friendly room with its amazing high ceiling and all that natural wood. I guess we will get used to the stainless steel. Luckily the mountain view is maintained.  In 2008, a committee was struck to look into celebrations for the 50th Anniversary in 2011.  Beth Lipsett volunteered to take this on.   Much work went on during 2009 to select a special guest author for the 50th Anniversary Year.  It was with much excitement that in the spring of 2010 Sandra Gulland, author of the Josephine B Trilogy accepted with pleasure, the invitation to attend in May 2011.  Her most recent book is Mistress of the Sun.  This exciting news was made public on CKUA Radio on May 28th when Kathleen Renne  of Arts Alive interviewed Jen Peddlesden, BBDW Historian. 

           Sadly, in 2008, the Banff Book and Art Den closed.  Everyone who had frequented this excellent privately owned bookstore was saddened to hear that competition from the big box bookstores had, for the most part, caused this demise.   Where would we all go on the Saturday afternoon to check out new reads?   

2011 – The 50th Anniversary Year of the Banff Book Discussion Weekend saw a major change in format, first in a brand new building with spectacular view of the mountains.  Fun and games on Friday evening found us lining up in order of age ( the oldest attendee was Phyllis Ryan at 88 yrs) and on a pretend map, how far we had come.  Winner of that was Dixie Lee Champ.  Next, we enjoyed a well-received Saturday evening banquet and celebration.  Special guests invited were Drake Shelton (he attended in 1961), Charlotte Rich and Marj Moir, both of who were long time attendees and on the organizing committees in the early years.  Drake was unable to attend but provided a taped interview, Marj and Charlotte recounted their memories of the weekends and Jen and Bill Peddlesden who have attended for 34 years consecutively also told some stories about their adventures over the years, as did Lois Currie who also attended for 34 years.  Jen and Bill were presented with a book of photos from the many historical BBDW albums.  One of these books also became part of the photo archive collection.

2012 –  This year another of our pioneer Book Weekend attendees died. Marj Moir came with her husband Mac for many years, and also later on her own.  She was a special guest at the 2011 50th Anniversary Celebrations.  In 2012 many of the book clubs had their photos taken for the album! 

2013 – To the delight of everyone at the weekend, the organizing committee reprised the skit done back in 2005.  Thanks to the organization of this by Dawn Stinson, It was a delight and reminded everyone that there are ‘rules’ to being a good participant and leader!  See photos in album.  To keep up with the times, a Twitter account was opened @BBDW1961 for those who tweet!   And the ability to use PayPal was added to the website and made this a popular way to register.

Sadly Drake Shelton died this year.  Along with the founders Mac Coleman and Mac Moir, Drake was one of the first attendees at the Banff Book Discussion Weekend.  You can see his presentation to the 50th anniversary on the website under videos.

2014 –  Andrew Davidson, our guest author was introduced to the group by MarieElise Coton.  MarieElise is a teacher in British Columbia and she used Andrew’s book with her school class.  What a treat that Andrew agreed to Skype in to speak to her class.  We were pleased to have Marie Elise at the weekend.  Attendance was a bit lower this year, hoping that it climbs back up in 2015!  This was the last year for Shirley Kayama at The Banff Centre.  She has helped us so much over the last +30 years with making sure each weekend goes smoothly.

2015 – This year’s guest author was Tyler Trafford, author of Almost a Great Escape.  He was a lively guest and participated in the socials and in the discussion groups.  Tyler was one of the best story tellers we have had and everyone was engaged and entertained with his discussion of how he wrote the book, the photos he showed, and also about his intriguing family.  Tyler also admired the way the BBDW was supporting local authors. The three men registered at the BBDW enjoyed his company immensely!

2016 – And in 2016 the group was pleased to welcome Joan Clark, author of The Birthday Lunch.  Joan attended with her daughter, also an author.  Joan mingled with the discussion groups, provided a lively presentation on Saturday afternoon, and returned Sunday to be part of some of the groups and to address the registrants.  This year our old friend Jim Oliver was not available to bring a welcome from the Banff Centre, but instead we were introduced to Devyani Saltzman Director of Literary Arts who brought a warm welcome to the BBDW Society in its 55th year of meeting at the Centre. This year there were no morning snacks a change from before where, to some, we were being overfed!

2017 – This year the event took place in the Professional Development Centre, a new location for us.  Everyone was saddened when our guest speaker Richard Wagamese died suddenly, our having chosen his book Medicine Walk.  However, Sandi Boucher did a tribute presentation about Richard and his writing which was very well received. Also, due to a booking mix up, the 2018 weekend will have to be the first weekend in June (1st to 3rd)  for 2018, but will return to the last weekend in May in 2019. Jim Oliver was back to greet us!

2018 – A bit lower registration this year, but nonetheless a great weekend weatherwise. We met back in the Kinnear Building this year. We even had someone from Ontario join us this year. New in 2018 we had Directors give short book talks before voting on the books for 2019 which was very well received.  The Banff Centre forgot about poor Elizabeth Hay, they did not book her for a public talk, so she did it just to the assembled registrants in Kinnear, and we all agreed it was a warmer and more inviting session than in the Rolston Recital Hall where this usually takes place.

2019 – The book talks by Board Members were repeated and went over very well.  The ‘Toonie Book Table’ was as always a popular stop for everyone.

2020 – COVID 19 interfered and the Banff Book Discussion went online; all registration monies were refunded.  The decision was to offer free Zoom discussions of each book on a Saturday morning or Friday evening, using break out rooms.  These were set up for May 1st “ The Women in the Castle,” May 9th  “ Fifth Business,” May 15th “ The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” May 23rd “Best Laid Plans,” Terry Fallis came to speak to the group at the final meeting and joined in to answer questions about his book.  Leaders were sent “Zoom Tips” as well as “Great Discussions 101” and set questions. Everyone enjoyed this changed format, though missed the interactions with others which are such a special part of this weekend.  And the happy hours! Here’s to 2021 being better!

2021 – Unfortunately the Banff Centre was again closed, so the book discussions went online. With no lack of enthusiasm there were discussions held via Zoom Friday May 7th to discuss “Born a Crime;” Saturday May 15th to discuss “Women Talking;” Friday May 21st to discuss “Warlight”; and Saturday May 29th to discuss ‘Watching You Watching Me” and to hear the Canadian author, Lynn Coady address the group.  On Friday, May 21st a celebration of 60 years was had with a photo show of pictures from the many historical albums from past years, lots of great memories and a few laughs!   The group is looking forward to 2022 when again meeting can happen at the Banff Centre.

Over the years one person, the Chair of the Banff Book Discussion Weekend, has had to organize volunteers, oversee the selection of books and make sure there are leaders for the discussion sessions.  This job has not changed much since the first discussion weekend.  Over the past few years, volunteer positions have been designated for Facilitator Coordinator (this person organizes group facilitators), and Banff Centre Liaison (coordinates all dealings with Banff Centre) which lessened the Chairperson’s load to some extent. Some of those who have chaired the weekend over the many years have been; Larry Hobson, Janis Goll, Leila Robertson, Marjorie Taylor, Janet Gill, Jennifer Peddlesden, Bill Peddlesden, Charlotte Rich, Kathryn Sloan, Wendy Simpson, Lisa (Jacobson) Llewellyn, Jane Paul (whose position as Member at Large had her filling in for Lisa spring 2008 on the birth of Lisa’s little boy Sean on April 23rd ).  Jane willingly and capably has been Chair again in 2009 and 2010.   Chair for 2010-2011 was Lori Forte, with Judy Steiert as Co-Chair.  Lori took the Chair again 2011-2012 with Christie Dixon as Co-Chair.  Christie took over as Chair for 2013-2014 and will be Chair for 2014-2015. 2016 is Christie’s last year as Chair and she made special mention and thanks to Jane Paul who has been the liaison with the Banff Centre for a number of years through ups and downs and also many changes in Administration at the Centre.  In 2016 a new set of by-laws were spearheaded by Kathleen Ryan and her committee.  These were passed with unanimously, having improvements in the Objectives and bringing them more in line with today’s work of the BBDW Society.   Christie took on the Chair for another year, 2017-2018.  The Chair for 2018-2021 has been Kathleen Ryan.

And of course, there may be others who have been left out.  Unfortunately, records are incomplete, so the names of some very worthy chair people are missing. 

Written by Jennifer Peddlesden, with help from Drake Shelton, Charlotte Rich, Marj Moir, Art Balfour, and the Thursday Afternoon Book Discussion Group.

First edition, March 1999; Updated March 2000; Updated March 2002 ; Updated May 2007; Updated May 2008; Updated May 2009 ;  Updated May 2010; Updated May 2011

Updated April 2012; May 2014; June 2014;  June 2015; June 2016, June 2018; January 2021.