A vibrant biography of explorer Radisson wins final RBC Taylor prize

Mark Bourrie’s chronicling of Pierre-Esprit Radisson includes cannibalism, a Caribbean shipwreck and the creation of the Hudson’s Bay Company

Mark Bourrie won the 19th—and final—RBC Taylor Prize for Canadian literary non-fiction on March 2, taking home $30,000 for Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson. It’s a remarkable biography of an even more remarkable 17th-century individual, tying one man’s courage, ambition, linguistic talent and profound amorality together with the fur trade, Jesuit spying, complex Indigenous land tenure and property rights, fire and plague in London, shipwreck in the Caribbean, and the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

An observer could be forgiven for thinking Bush Runner sounds like a potential bestseller, or at least a favourite for a literary prize. Not according to its 62-year-old author, a journalist and historian at Carleton University in Ottawa. Bourrie says he spent years looking for a publisher; most were doubtful that “people will read quirky, weird stories.” If it wasn’t for Dan Wells’ Biblioasis, “the most creative publisher in the country,” Bourrie adds, his book would never have seen the light of day. The quirkiness, though, didn’t lie entirely in Radisson’s character. The French trader may have dabbled in cannibalism—and more than dabbled in murder—but for Bourrie he had numerous and rather modern virtues as well. He was a trader, not a colonizer or a missionary, says the writer. “For Radisson, who simply accepted what he saw, the New World wasn’t that different from the Old. He never talked about race, or cultural superiority—not like [his brother-in-law and partner Médard Chouart] des Groseilliers, who was everything bad about Europeans.”

FROM 2018: Tanya Talaga wins RBC Taylor Prize for Seven Fallen Feathers: ‘I’m writing the history of now’

Beautifully written and endlessly thought-provoking, Bush Runner makes a fitting cap for a prize that has shortlisted an impressive collection of the most significant non-fiction published in 21st-century Canada. Previous winners have included Wayne Johnston for Baltimore’s Mansion, Carol Shields for Jane Austen, Thomas King for The Inconvenient Indian and Tanya Talaga for Seven Fallen Feathers. One of the major presences in the literary prize ecosystem that has grown to dominate Canadian writing, the award was founded in 2000 by Noreen Taylor in memory of her late husband, Charles Taylor, a fine non-fiction writer himself, whose works include the 1982 classic Radical Tories. The aim was to give a boost in attention and cash to writers toiling in what both Taylors considered a near-invisible genre in Canada. And her prize played a large part in the field’s explosive growth, Taylor told the prize gala audience in remarks more celebratory than eulogizing: “We watched the subjects our nominees embraced to become the subjects of everyone’s dinner conversations.”

In an interview afterwards, Taylor was more forthcoming about her prize’s aftermath, both for her and non-fiction. The genre certainly needed the boost at the turn of the century, she said. With only 35 titles submitted for the inaugural award, the possibility of a long list was never raised, and a winner was picked only every second year. This year, however, “there were 155 books for the jury to go through. That’s too many books, and there’s a need for new and tighter criteria, so I’m looking to find out where publishing with all its current changes is liable to be in 2030.” So, is she planning to be back in the book world, offering something new and different? “Oh, yes, wait and see.”