Writers in Alberta owe a debt to
John Patrick Gillese, a writer himself who scaled the heights of
provincial government power to be part of Canada's first department of
culture, established by the Peter Lougheed Conservative government in
1971. As head of the Literary Arts Branch for 13 years, Gillese helped
writers through face-to-face and correspondence workshops, grants and
contests that brought to the fore such now-established Alberta writers as
Fred Stenson, Pauline Gedge and the late L.R. Wright.
Gillese's approach was populist in that it did not stipulate that
university-schooled authors would be the only writers to succeed. Indeed,
there was much criticism that the branch's programs emphasized dollars
over art, and as Stenson himself wrote in a feature on the Writers Guild
of Alberta in Alberta Views: "The branch's attitude toward university
writing courses, literary quarterlies, writer/academics, and all those
writers whose progress in literature did not include payola verged on
Arts Alberta #50
In this episode of Arts Alberta, broadcast on Aug. 27,
1986, Gillese talks
with Tony Dillon Davis about his
book, Western Gold: A Heartwarming
Short Stories from the Canadian Northwest, which
homesteading in northern Alberta.
Gillese reads several excerpts from this
early and recent writing, published after his retirement
director of the Literary Arts Branch.
However, a program of scholarships did send neophyte writers for six-week
programs at the Banff School of Fine Arts, where such authors as W.O.
Mitchell, Eli Mandel, Sylvia Fraser, and Alice Munro taught them.
As a freelance journeyman writer himself, the Irish-born Gillese
reportedly wrote more than 5,000 articles, short stories and columns in
Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere during the
'40s and '50s. His 1957 novel, the bush pilot adventure, Kirby's Gander,
was produced as a movie in 1961, retitled as Wings of Chance.
His novels won several awards, including the Canadian Authors'
Association's Vicky Metcalf Award in 1967, which honours a body of work by
a Canadian author who has written at least three books for children
between the ages of 7 and 17. Four years later, the CAA again would salute
his long and meritorious service in the association with the Allan
Under Gillese's tutelage, the CAA played a significant role in the early
growth of literary arts in Alberta. He assisted W.G. Hardy in the editing
of The Alberta Golden Jubilee Anthology in 1955, and in 1967 would perform
the editing task on Chinook Arch, a centennial collection of Alberta
In 1997, Western Gold was re-published by Lone Pine Publishing of Edmonton
under the title, Fireside Stories, and it remains the only Gillese still
In 1995, the Writers Guild of Alberta honoured Gillese with a
lifetime achievement award. He died in his sleep on Oct. 23, 1999.