Saskatchewan Writers' Guild leading the way on diversity in Saskatchewan

By: Paul Spasoff June, 2014

Saskatchewan was a different place in 1969.

At the time, the province was home to less than 950,000 people. With approximately 50 per cent of that population living in rural areas, agriculture drove the provincial economy. The demographics of Saskatchewan largely reflected the descendants of the pioneers who migrated to the province from Western and Eastern Europe in search of a better way of life.

A conference of writers that same year led to the creation of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild (SWG). A not-for-profit organization, it was established to help develop Saskatchewan writers and promote awareness of literature in the province. Its membership, along with its programs and services, largely reflected the demographics in the province at the time.

Much has changed over the past 45 years. As of the beginning of 2014, 1,117,503 people were living in the province - approximately 30 per cent in rural Saskatchewan. Similar to the population base, the focus of the economy has also shifted to include the mining, oil and gas, and manufacturing sectors. People from abroad continue to seek opportunities in the province, with nearly 43,000 immigrants settling in Saskatchewan communities from 2007 to 2012. In recent years the newest residents have come from approximately 180 different countries.

As a result, the SWG has evolved to offer more programs and services, to serve a larger and more diverse membership and province. Currently, the SWG has 685 members. “We have certainly noticed the changing demographics in the population in Saskatchewan. We’ve had a lot of people from various backgrounds wanting some help,” says Judith Silverthorne, executive director, SWG. “There are new kinds of demographics that haven’t really shown up much before. We want to be welcoming to people who are new to this province and this country.”

To address the changing demographics and the requests for assistance, the SWG recently developed a policy for diversity, inclusion and equity. It is designed to ensure inclusion, as well as encourage further diversification within all areas of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild. “We’ve kind of been on this path for quite a while - to be more inclusive and diverse,” Silverthorne explains. “But we wanted to formalize it a little bit more and come up with a strategic direction and guidelines.

“Over the years there has been a narrow focus. We really wanted it to be something that could help serve writers - no matter what background, no matter what skill and no matter what age. We’re here to help writers improve their abilities and help get them published,” she says.

According to the policy, its stated intent is to ensure equity access to programs and services, as well all opportunities within the organization. It’s a framework that provides a clearly defined, consistent and inclusive approach to encouraging participation, along with access to programs and services. The SWG developed the policy in consultation with some of its stakeholder groups to ensure it was meeting the needs of its members.

With the policy complete, the next step for Silverthorne and the SWG is to develop an accompanying diversity plan for the organization. “The strategy is really the next phase for us,” she says. “Now that we’ve got a policy, we need to come up with some plans and strategies. But it’s not something you can just do overnight. It’s going to take us a while to connect with the communities and see where we might be able to help.”

However, the SWG is already off to a good start. Over the years, Aboriginal programming has played an ever-increasing role in the organization. It eventually led to the creation of a contract Aboriginal Program Coordinator position, which has since evolved into a permanent part-time position. While acknowledging there is more work to be done to develop the Aboriginal community, Silverthorne cites the creation of the Aboriginal Advisory Circle and a partnership with the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Writers Circle Inc. as steps in the right direction. The SWG also partners with the Global Gathering Place in Saskatoon on a workshop to help visible minorities and immigrants to Saskatchewan tell their stories.

By developing a diversity policy, the SWG is taking a step forward as an organization. As one of the first non-profit groups in Saskatchewan to develop a full diversity policy, it is taking a leadership role in the province.

"We're one of the leaders in our provinnce in doing this and we're one of the first ones to actually have a formal partnership with the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission as well," says Silverthorne. “We’ve heard from other (non-profit groups) that are interested in what we’re doing. We’ve made great strides, but it’s going to be evolving and changing and have to be adapted over time.”