When David Thompson University Centre closed in 1984, around the same time the Kootenay Forest Products mill shuttered, Verna Relkoff watched Nelson become a shadow of its former self.
She was the only one of her friends with reliable employment, businesses left in droves and the younger generation went in search of better opportunities.
“You could’ve bowled in the streets. Twenty five per cent of all the people in town left. I would say maybe a quarter of the houses were for sale. The loss of the university was the last straw. Everything else had been taken away.”
Despite these circumstances, Relkoff remained in the Kootenays and developed a successful career as a literary editor. And ever since, she’s been spearheading a local effort to build a collaborative community of writers, establish a local literary culture and restore university-level creative writing education to Nelson.
As part of this drive, Relkoff helped organize the now-flourishing Elephant Mountain Literary Festival. She’s been involved in initiatives such as the Kootenay Literary Competition and has campaigned hard to bring opportunities for young writers to Nelson.
Now, come September, Relkoff’s goal will be realized: the University of British Columbia has announced it intends to offer a themed course here called Writing from the Ground Up as a pilot program to gauge the community’s interest in creative writing education.
Relkoff said this announcement is a huge step in the right direction.
“We need to build our university presence back. What Nelson has done, which is quite amazing, is we’ve thrived without any major industry in town. We have 1,600 small business licenses here. It’s the city itself, and the tenacity of the people who want to live here, that makes this possible.”
Winlaw poet Tom Wayman agrees.
“This is part of a larger push to create a local literary culture. We’ve been fighting and working to increase the vitality of the writing scene here, and what’s exciting about this isn’t just the course and the opportunity it provides. What’s exciting is the potential to have a university, UBC, back in town.”
Wayman envisions the course being the first of many.
“The potential for way more programming exists,” he said.
Wayman said once UBC Okanagan was established in Kelowna, he figured it would be a natural progression for them to continue developing eastward.
“Where better to come than Nelson?” said Wayman, noting the region’s propensity for launching post-secondary institutions such as David Thompson, Notre Dame and Kootenay School of the Arts.
“How many [places] have started a post-secondary institution in Canada? Probably one.”
Writing from the ground up
Wayman and Relkoff worked closely with Dr. Ashok Mathur of UBCO to bring the course to the Kootenays.
Mathur said the course will be community-oriented.
“The course is themed to help show that writing arises from and returns to one’s community — human and natural. Writing from the Ground Up provides a solid foundation for further studies in creative writing, as well as a chance to develop an appreciation of many possibilities as a writer.”
Wayman said they need 15 people to enrol, and they’ve already received interest from people in the community — including two city councillors.
“You can write about anything, in any genre, but the emphasis is going to be on writing in community, whether that’s a natural community or a biological one.”
The course will be offered as an intensive every second Friday evening and on Saturdays. It will run Sept. 25 and 26, Oct. 9 and 10, Oct. 23 and 24, and Nov. 6 and 7.
Mathur said registration for the credit course will be handled on a first-come, first-served basis. Registration will open on the UBC registration site later in May.
No portfolio is required for admission, and the cost will be approximately $500. Still to come are details on who will teach the course, and where in Nelson classes will be held.
UBC is currently going through the hiring process, and Wayman said he’s thrilled by some of the potential candidates.
“We’ll be publicizing details as they become available, including how to register, both in the media and on the website of the Elephant Mountain Literary Festival,” said Relkoff.
For more information, visit emlfestival.com and click the Courses tab. Questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.