Author Tags: Education, Law

Brian Burtch explores the themes of social order, conflict and power relations expressed through law in The Sociology of Law. One chapter is also devoted to feminist theory and the law; another examines the wrongful conviction of Donald Marshall Jr. In 1994 the SFU Criminology professor published Trials of Labour: The Re-emergence of Midwifery which examines midwifery practice in Canada and the role of the state in defining its practice.

Rebecca Haskell and Brian Burtch address harassment experienced by many queer youth during their high school years in Get That Freak: Homophobia and Transphobia in High Schools (Fernwood 2010). They draw on accounts from young adults in BC to identify resources used to combat homophobic and transphobic harassment and strategies for establishing safe spaces for queer high school youth.

CITY/TOWN: North Vancouver

DATE OF BIRTH: November 10, 1949

PLACE OF BIRTH: Barrie, Ontario


EMPLOYMENT OTHER THAN WRITING: Professor, Simon Fraser University, School of Criminology


Get That Freak: Homophobic and Transphobic Bullying in High Schools (Fernwood Books, 2010). Co-authored with Rebecca Haskell.

The Sociology of Law: Critical Perspectives on Social Control (Nelson Thomson, 2003)

Law in Society: Canadian Perspectives (co-edited, with Nick Larsen) (Nelson Thomson, 1999; 2nd edition, Thomson Nelson Canada, 2006)

Trials of Labour: The Re-emergence of Midwifery (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994)

BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS: Raised on Air Force bases until his family moved to Kingston, Ontario. Completed degrees in Sociology and Criminology at Queen's University, University of Toronto, and UBC. Active with the Writers' Union of Canada, including two years as BC/Yukon representative (1999-2001). [Kristina Wray photo]

[BCBW 2010] "Law"


from Burtch/Whatley

JW: I'm talking with Brian Burtch who is currently the BC/Yukon Representative for The Writers' Union of Canada. Brian is also a professor in the Simon Fraser University School of Criminology. Arts Vancouver thought it might be useful for Vancouver writers and readers to know something about The Writers' Union of Canada.

BB: I would like to address what we do in the Writers' Union and perhaps some of the Union's history and what it has managed to accomplish. Then perhaps we could wind up with a question: What is it that the Writers' Union can do for writers? What is it that they can realize through membership?

In terms of history, I should let you know first that I'm a fairly recent Union member. In fact I've been in the Union for approximately four years, and remember that some members were there at the founding, twenty-six years ago in 1973. Founding members include Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, the recently deceased Matt Cohen, and Pierre Berton. As you can see, the Union is Canada wide.

The Union is for practicing writers. I should emphasize that while there are ongoing debates about who is a writer and who is not a writer, the Union currently takes the stand

that to be accepted into the union you must have a book published; or the equivalent of a book. It may be a book of short stories, a book of poetry, a novel, biography, a natural history of a settlement, it could be any number of genres, a children's book, but it must be a book. So, just publishing a chapter or an article does not qualify you for membership. But the Membership Committee considers all applications.

On the other hand, we are exploring a more inclusive format. We are, for instance, sensitive to the plight of emerging writers. Sometimes with somebody who I think might be eligible in a few months or a year, I invite them to one of our meetings. We also invite guests, although they are not open to the public per se. But people can be invited to see how we work. I have recently invited representatives from the "Iranian Writers Association in Exile" to discuss concerns over repression of writers and dissidents in Iran, for example.

As far as the history of the Union goes, it is just too long to get into a single interview, but one of the highlights is surely the Union involvement in Public Lending Right.

JW: I remember when suddenly the copy machine became suspect. It became a difficult

matter to take Canadian material and copy it on the machine.

BB: That may be a different topic which I can address that later on, but here I'm referring to public lending right, that is when you have your book let's say in a public library. The Public Lending Right Commission does a random audit of libraries and lending institutions across the country and they have a hit-rate. Let's say its $25 or $27 a hit so you might get a couple-of-hundred dollars if your book is in ten libraries that were surveyed that year. And of course for members who have two or three or four books, that converts to a fairly substantial payment. It's a recognition that Canadian writers deserve some level of support for works that are available, in a sense, for free through libraries, and not sold as through booksellers. The fiction writer Andreas Schroeder is a BC member and was one of the key people who helped to launch this idea and who also helped to keep it honest over the years.

The other area you just mentioned was one I wanted to talk about too, which was CANCOPY and general copyright issues. The union has been very involved, along with other organizations, in arguing that writers should be compensated for the work they do. Now with CANCOPY (Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency), and with TERLA, (The Electronic Rights Licensing Agency, there is increased tracking of which documents are used. I know at the university, when I first arrived here, there was no such provision. People would just copy material then give it out to students, or sell it to students freely, and now of course we have to keep track through a license with CANCOPY and creators and publishers get compensation.

So there are two of the areas in which we're involved. Another, of course, is the issue of censorship. There are differences of opinion among the membership but we have argued and occasionally interceded in cases like Nancy Friday's work Woman On Top which was I believe seized by the Winnipeg police and we get into copyright issues and freedom of expression.

The Union is also moving in another very important direction: our interest in inclusiveness in race and gender. A lot of these issues are emerging society-wide now and the Union is beginning to change correspondingly. For example, we have writers who write primarily in Urdu, or Hindi, or Mandarin. Writers who write in languages other than English are now getting their voices represented in the Union; membership is changing and we are trying to attract younger writers and also writers from many other constituencies.

JW: First Nations writers have begun to receive critical attention; Thomson Highway and many others. But it seems to me that aboriginal cultures use their art in a different way and that individual ownership and publishing might not be looked at as the be-all- and-end-all of art, whether a chant, a song, a narrative, or a motif. In fact there might be a general feeling that publishing of certain material by a non-native is wrong, an appropriation of culture.

BB: One of the solutions around that, (that is around stealing culture and people's property or individual's creations), is to have the issue recognized in the publishing world for example in electronic or print publishing. It is important to keep in mind that in this constituency there are a large number of fiction writers and poets and I suspect that a lot of them would be very reluctant to accept the idea that a particular thought or expression belongs to an individual. Of course it works in reverse. We might think of Drew Hayden Taylor who does a lot of works on First Nations; but if he wished to write about another constituency he would be free to do it. Do we have to lock people in or lock people out? And I think the Writers' Union has a very creative tension around that idea, around respecting integrity of culture at the same time allowing people to explore.

JW: The instances that I recall would be where there is a song owned by a particular kinship group, say a clan within a Haida or Nish'ga band, and they get to use that song in a certain ceremony or ritual. Publishing it, or making it generally available, is antithetical to the way in which it is used in that culture. It is very much a matter of proprietary right and status.

BB: I believe that copyright would have to come into play here. If they believed it was going to be used in a very inappropriate way, then they might refuse copyright, and refuse the right to reproduce it.

Speaking of copyright, another area in which we are working hard is in assistance with difficulties with publishers around contracts. This can be quite valuable, especially to writers who do not have much experience. Beginners may be willing to sign away their rights to their work in exchange for a small payment. I've had a run-in with a publisher. They would not pay me or my co-author the payment they promised within

the time period. I waited a couple of months extra and contacted them by letter and by voice mail message. No response. I finally contacted the national office of The Writers' Union of Canada, in Toronto, and they said send another letter and "cc" it to the Union Grievance Committee, The Writers' Union of Canada. I had my payment within ten days. Cause and effect. As far as I'm concerned the Union does carry a lot of weight when you are dealing with balky publishers or when they are dealing with publishers who are trying to usurp intellectual copyright or works.

JW: Do you work in other areas than the law and copyright? Do you hold workshops for writers for instance?

BB: The AGM of the Writers' Union, which will be held in Kingston this year, has workshops and plenary sessions. However, a lot of the work has to do with motions before the members present. And I should mention that we are currently looking for more ways to make a more inclusive Union. Could members that can't attend the AGM, for instance, have proxy voting, or could they vote in advance? With the current constitution, we can get nominations from the floor and it may not be useful to have a vote in advance. But there is an ongoing, lively, and I think respectful debate about what we want to keep and what change. Are we going to preserve the heart of the union, which is basically the interactions among the members, or do we want to move to a more electronic, more inclusive type of Union, that may leave behind some of that life and that ongoing debate?

For me the attraction of the Union is the chance to work with very accomplished people in a variety of genres. The Union offered me an ideal opportunity to move out of my academic suit into something that is a little more diversified. I was very, very impressed by the accessibility of members and their friendliness and the positive energy. The first evening I was at the AGM, Nichole Brossard and I had dinner together before her keynote address. And that was just something that came up, she was looking for a place to eat, and we had a good chat and I found her approachable. I found that time and again, with the Union and its members. They also know tricks of the trade. The national office staff are phenomenal. We have a national office in Toronto and a Pacific

office on Main Street in Vancouver. Both very approachable, both expert and willing to help members.

JW: A related question. Do you do any workshops for writers, where, for instance, you discuss how to improve one's writing or how to get published? I'm just trying to gauge the level and kind of help you give.

BB: We tend not to have open-to-the-public or sign-up kinds of workshops. A lot of our members however teach writing classes, or they might do workshops on their own. But the Union does not tend to have that kind of service. It does, however, have a manuscript evaluation service where you can submit a manuscript and the union will give it to a member whose name is kept confidential and the member will do an assessment, I think for, $300- $400, depending on the size of the ms. You will get a professional assessment of your manuscript. You don't have to be a member for that. They also provide a variety of forms of information on contracts, publishers, various aspects of writing and publishing.

JW: Can you speak some more about your experience of the approachability of the people in the Union?

BB: Well its interesting. At my very first meeting, as with my dinner with Nichole Brossard, I was wanting to meet people and I found members very receptive and I met one fellow who was an Indo-Canadian writer and who writes in English, Erdu, and Punjabi, and I think Hindi, and I just introduced myself to him. In a few minutes he happened to mention that he worked for a business firm in Vancouver and I said do you know my friend John Gillis, and he said yes he used to be my boss. And that's the kind of small world I think it is. He has become a very close friend and colleague.

JW: Sounds like the beginning of a short story.

BB: Yes. But above all, for the Union, I sense that people feel that they are in this together. That they generally work so they support each other. Most people are willing to listen to problems and take an interest, no matter the genre.

JW: You don't then have to be in creative writing?

BB: Absolutely, I think that is one of the stereotypes of the Writers' Union and it needs to be dissolved. I was invited to join the Union after publishing a book on the Midwifery Movement in Canada. At first I figured the invitation was a clerical error. I actually put the invitation aside. But then, from curiosity, I approached it again. During an exploratory phone call, they said "'absolutely' we have people working in non-fiction and many other genres". Again, I think the foundation of the Union was creative writing and its still a very strong aspect of it. But we now do have historians, academics, writers of all stripes in it.

JW: What about that old notion that people in the creative side of things usually don't like joining unions. Unions mean uniformity, consolidation, the non-creative. In this view, unions seem antithetical to creative freedom, the freedom to go where you want thematically to say what you want, and not have to toe any party line.

BB: Well this issue has been raised very rarely in my few years with the Union. Though I do remember some discussion about whether it should be called an Association rather than a Union. I always think of something really elegant like "The League of Canadian Poets", that's a wonderful name. But I think the term "Union" does have a far more positive connotation. I know it can refer to something hidebound and that there is a very negative "identikit" that can surround the union idea. But bear in mind that a lot of other aspects of the Union's history are extremely positive and often mean working in common against oppressive working conditions and then having your voices heard, having a say, and this is exactly I think where it works.

One example of this is the recent resolution in the BC/Yukon membership that we protest what we see as deterioration in the presentation of BC books on the BC Ferries. These are books that are either written by BC authors, published by BC authors, or that have a major focus on BC. And we have protested the replacing of the contract with Duthies to BC Ferries and the Ministry and also to the news group that currently holds the contract that replaced Duthies Books. We've been very concerned with what we see as deterioration of coverage and were very concerned that there is not enough BC fiction and poetry on the Ferries, few collections of short stories, novels and the like. Instead it tends to gear more towards "Supernatural BC" (with no offence to our writers who work in those genres). But we'd definitely like to see a better balance. We have a lot of the spectacular beauty, the hiking the kayaking, the topography of BC--but we should also use the Ferries to show more BC fiction writing . For instance, we have a number of new writers such as Phinder Dulai, Kuldip Gill, Rita Wong, and Rajinder S. Paul. They all write from different outlooks and if you don't have their books on the ferries, chances are you are also not going to see them in mainstream bookstores as much. We've been very involved in this and our membership has been very volatile about it. In contrast, some members are quite supportive of what the BC Ferries are doing now and what the news group is doing. This is a example, however, of where as a Union we can continue to exert pressure to make sure that BC books have more prominence.

JW: I understand Howard White of Harbour Publishing was involved for a long time in this project to change BC Ferry bookshelf policy?

BB: He still is and has been very active in this helping us understand the issue from a publishers' point of view.

JW: You know I met a woman on the Ferry on the way to Victoria about a year ago. One of the newer large ones, not the Fast Ferries, and she said that for years she used the book shelf to buy "books for her reading week". We both were at the bookshelf where BC Fiction and creative writing usually appeared, and she knew where it was and I was trying to find my way to it. We both realized at about the same time that it was down to two shelves and we'd have to compete for it. I said, "you know, I think we're both looking for the same thing." And she said "Yes I always come here and get my reading for the week. And its decreased measurably over the past months or so and I'm really upset about it." I said "let's go complain to the clerk". And we did. That is, it's not just literary folks, writers, agents, and unions that are involved, the reading public is too.

BB: Thanks for the anecdote. It feeds into my next point. One question I'm always asked is "What's in it for me?" "What's in it for me when I join the Union?" And I hear that quite routinely from people who are prospective members. What I've generally said is, "I think the social, collegial aspects of joining the Union cannot be underestimated. I find it a very constructive union, people are very friendly. And because writing life can often be quite isolated, working, if you are lucky, within a small circle of friends, it is a great advantage to suddenly belong to a group of 1200 people, to find a constituency.

The membership fee is $180 a year. And you can claim it against tax. For emerging writers who could not otherwise join they can be sponsored for half price. And if you don't know a sponsor then the Membership Committee will arrange a sponsor. We've also just initiated a lottery for people who wish to go to the AGM. In every region, the Maritimes, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies, BC/Yukon, one person's name will be drawn and that person will get their residence accommodation paid for, their registration fee waived, and they are still eligible for the travel subsidy, which members may collect. It works out to about a 100% subsidy for those who cannot usually afford attendance at the AGM. It also provides a list server for people who wish to be in touch through email; and also provides web pages, which are linked to the TWUC home page, and a web page with your photograph and a biography, plus links to your work. So its keeping that spirit of working together among writers and that is very important. Also we hold regional meetings. We try to spread them out so they are not just based in Vancouver or Toronto. I just returned from Victoria and I'll be going to Salt Spring Island in the spring. So we are making wide efforts to make our Union more inclusive.

JW: Doing the math in my head; it seems to me that you are not realizing much income from the membership. How do you pay your bills? Who funds the Union?

BB: Well, the Canada Council is about to reinstate operating funding. And that will help the membership quite a bit. Our primary source of income is membership dues and the reading fees. Believe me, though, the Union is not making a lot of money. We do occasionally get donations and bequests, and they help immeasurably, but we are a pay-as-we-go organization.

JW: We'll thanks very much for all this information. Last word?

BB: Yes, I think its clear. If you are a writer, think about joining our Union--the advantages are enormous.