Trevor Donald, Environmental and Communications Intern
I spoke to author and Globe and Mail feature writer Ian Brown about his experience in Banff. Ian Brown is one of Canada’s leading writers, winning several national magazine and newspaper awards. Born in Lachine Quebec he currently lives and works in Toronto. We met at a local hangout called Wild Flour Artisan Bakery and Café in Banff, fittingly the café is on a street called Bear Street. Brown became a correspondent for the Globe and Mail at the Banff Centre in March. In that time he has written several articles, among them Why we are so drawn to the magnitude and beauty of mountains, A city slicker reports on the wild life in Banff, Where the citizens fight, but don’t hold a grudge In Banff, and a whiff of warmth brings spring fever. Many Banffites though will remember an article he wrote last year called Welcome to Banff, home of service with a vacant stare. Brown is also the chair of The Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism program. In early 2010, Brown won Canada’s most prestigious non-fiction prize, British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction as well as the Charles Taylor Prize for his memoir The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Disabled Son. Previous books include Freewheeling, which won the National Business Book Award, and Man Overboard.
I asked Brown what it feels like living in Banff for the summer. He told me he’s in Banff as a correspondent for The Globe and Mail and his job is to rove and write stories about The Banff Centre, the town and the mountains. He’s been here for 6 months so far, telling stories and trying to pitch them to his Editor and his readers in Toronto. He said it can be difficult to write stories of national interest about a small town while you live there, and how it is sometimes necessary to leave Banff to get some distance on the place. I had to ask Brown what it means to be a local in Banff. I just spent my third summer here and I still don’t know. Brown replied he didn’t know either. Like in Sackville, my hometown, people have lived here for 10 years and they still are not sure they are considered local. Brown told me he’s not sure he could ever be a local in Banff. He also said it’s rare to find people in town who are local and independent and not buying into the boosterism of the town. Boosterism is largely the act of “boosting” or promoting a town, city, or organization, with the goal of improving public perception of it. While there is no crime in doing this, trying to boost tourism for a town that is in the middle of Canada’s premier national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site is almost counterproductive, though many here would disagree. Brown admits his writing just scratches the surface of the town and what it means to live here.
I asked him why he thinks everyone wants to be a local in Banff. He told me simply because it’s beautiful. He went on to say that it’s hard to overestimate physical beauty and as the world becomes more populated and more sprawled it’s harder and harder to find great beauty. Brown said “you can have the same feeling standing in front of a mountain or a great church: we have spiritual feelings when we see large and detailed things.” I also asked him if there is any disconnect between the campus of the arts school and the town. He told me there is less and less of a disconnect, and that the school has plans to make itself even closer and more available to the community so it can in turn make the centre more its own.
Brown has a wife, daughter and a son with special needs. I asked what the difficulties were being away from his family. He said he is lonely at times; his 20 year old daughter came out west for a week and is now travelling in Europe. His wife has traveled to see him and he travels home to Toronto to see her and his son. His son Walker has yet to visit him in Banff: though it is somewhat feasible for him to travel, it is also a full-time job taking care of him, which is not possible when Brown is working. Walker has a rare genetic disorder, Cardiofaciocutaneous Syndrome (CFC), but his father would love to take him to the mountains and find a way to put him on a pair of skis. Brown is an outdoor enthusiast and does activities like mountaineering and glacier skiing in the Rockies. He tells me though he is still just a city slicker from Toronto.
I put to him the difficult question of what he hopes the message is that people are taking away when they read his articles about Banff. He told me he hopes people at least get a partial understanding that to be in awe of Banff and its beauty is not the whole story of the town. Banff is a community where people live, fight and still get along at the end of the day. He hopes people here in Banff will allow him to continue telling their stories.