Wendy Morton’s big moment got its start in Port Alberni.
From “poet of the skies” for WestJet to poetry parking tickets, the Sooke poet has undertaken a number of novel projects to connect the dots between her chosen art and the public.
Repeatedly going out on the metaphorical limb has fueled efforts like Random Acts of Poetry around Canada.
In 2012, she was awarded the Colleen Thibaudeau Outstanding Contribution to Canadian League of Canadian Poets. In 2017, the Meritorious Service Medal from the Governor General of Canada
However, it’s Morton’s work on The Elder Project—which started in Port Alberni—that caught the eye of the selection panel for the Order of British Columbia, presented Thursday, Dec. 14.
Morton was involved in a couple literary festivals in Port Alberni, when then-Alberni Valley Museum director Jean McIntosh invited her in 2008 to write poems from archival photographs.
By the time she’d finished 20 poems to accompany photos about the Alberni Valley’s historic roots, she realized the First Nations people of the region—the Tseshaht, the Hupacasath, the Ahousaht, the Nuu-Chah-Nulth—were a critical part of the region’s roots, with unique stories to tell. First Nations people were invited to bring their stories.
As a result, the 68-page book includes poems detailing residential school accounts in the straightforward, dramatic words of those who experienced them.
Conducting the interviews and writing the poems was an unforgettable experience, Morton said.
“I got a real education that never left me,” she said.
The concept evolved into students interviewing their elders, then writing poetry about them—a concept in perfect sync with a Lawrence Ferlinghetti expression Morton adapted: poetry is the shortest distance between two hearts.
“It’s a worthy project. I’ve seen elders who have been largely ignored. I’ve seen them shine and have a connection that was not there,” she said.
The Federation of British Columbia Writers (FBCW) now helps fund Elder Projects around the province, thanks to funding secured from the B.C. Arts Council.
“What Were Their Dreams?” led to more projects with more school districts, including Chemainus, Vernon, Duncan, Golden, Nanaimo, Victoria, Saanich, Abbotsford, Salmon Arm, Torngat Mountain National Park in northern Labrador.
The projects are tailored. “Who We Are,” first funded by the Federation of British Columbia Writers, allowed Nanaimo high school students of First Nations and non-First Nations backgrounds to interview and write poems for each other.
“We paired them up and broke the close circle, that tight convenient circle, and they just stayed that way, all through the day … There was this beautiful closeness that came because they talked to each other and told stories, and the kids turned them into poems. Beautiful, beautiful,” she said.
Many Elder Project books later, Wendy Morton is going strong at 77 (“That seems incredibly old to me,” she says with a chuckle).
She’s written six books of poetry and a memoir, Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, chronicling her adventure as a corporate sponsored poet.
Today, she champions her projects with the same determination she first learned in over three decades spent as an insurance investigator.
“I’m just a person who asks for stuff and usually I get it. There are only two responses to a question: yes or no, right? Also, I’m annoyingly persistent,” she said with a chuckle.
“I’m a terrifying bugger … I’m really bad about bugging people, I have to do it.”
One of 16 British Columbians chosen from 175 nominees for this year’s cadre who received the OBC at Government House on Dec. 14, Morton said she’s floored by the honour.
“When I saw the list of the people who were getting it I kind of got weak in the knees. These are people who have done incredible things, just amazing,” she said in a December interview.
Ann Graham Walker is president of the Federation of British Columbia Writers. She’s pleased with the FBCW’s partnership in the Elder Projects, and she sees Morton’s latest honour as an affirmation of writing in general.
“The wording of Wendy’s Order of BC award recognizes the important ways poetry builds and rebuilds connections in communities—not just in the Elder Project but through all of her efforts to make poetry accessible to people,” Walker said.
“It’s kind of a gift to all writers for those values to be celebrated.”