– Written by Dave Margoshes for Sage Hill’s 30th anniversary

The Sage Hill Writing Experience, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2019, rose like a Phoenix out of the ashes of the late and sadly lamented Saskatchewan Summer School of the Arts at Fort San.

The 30th birthday was noted with a visit and talk by Steven Ross Smith, the noted poet and arts administrator who, for almost two decades, was the man who put Sage Hill on the literary map of Canada and kept it there.

(Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Richard Ford was guest speaker for the program’s 20th anniverary.)

Several of the writers who heard Smith eloquently speak about the origins of the program were alumni not only of Sage Hill but of the Fort San program which operated for years in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s near Ft. Qu’Appelle, in the beautiful Qu’Appelle Valley.

The summer school, which was run by the Saskatchewan Arts Board at the old tuberculosis sanatorium, had components for many arts disciplines, but its writing program in particular was legendary. It had its roots in writing workshops led by the legendary W.O. Mitchell in Ft. Qu’Appelle starting in 1952, only three years after the Arts Board was created by a stroke of Premier Tommy Douglas’s pen. The Liberal government of Ross Thatcher which succeeded Douglas’s CCF in 1964 pumped more money into the Arts Board to allow creation of a full-fledged summer school of the arts starting in 1966, with the pie-in-the-sky notion of developing it into a year-round school along the lines of the then-pubescent Banff Centre of the Arts.

But under the Conservative government of Grant Devine, the Arts Board and the School of the Arts first prospered, then choked. When the cash-strapped Arts Board pulled the plug on the summer school in 1989, it sent shock waves through the province’s artists, but only the tightly knit writing community did anything about it.

A couple of generations of Saskatchewan writers had cut their teeth at the beloved Fort San and were horrified at the province’s loss.

In late fall of that year, Ven Begamudré, a Regina writer who was then president of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, wrote to a couple dozen high-profile writers inviting them to a meeting in Davidson to discuss the possibility of starting a writing school to replace it.  A dozen or so people showed up. Begamudré remembers that he opened the meeting by asking if there was in fact any interest in starting a school. “Someone (he can’t recall if it was Anne Szumigalski or Gertrude Story, both well-known Saskatoon writers) said, ‘well, we’re here, aren’t we?’ And that was that.”

A steering committee was formed and Smith was quickly hired to run the show. A location for the school was found at an abandoned military base, part of the old DEW line of radar installations, at a place called Sagehill, near Bruno, not too far east of Saskatoon, lending its name to the program. Poet Gary Hyland suggested the word “experience” be added to the name.

The school moved to the former St, Michael’s Retreat Centre at Lumsden, in the beautiful Qu’Appelle Valley, in 1994; and, following a fire there, to the Benedictine monastery St. Peter’s at Muenster last year.

Smith, who led Sage Hill for 19 years before moving to bigger pastures at the Banff Centre, where he headed literary programming for a decade or so, recalls that he “had no idea what it would become.” A poet with background in television and video production, he’d moved from Toronto to Saskatoon a few years earlier after attending a writers’ colony and falling in love with Saskatchewan.

“The only thing I had in the way of vision was to find some money and make it a national thing,” Smith says. “The board wanted to make sure it had more than just a Saskatchewan focus.”

Indeed, writers come to Sage Hill from all over Canada, including the territories, and a handful from the U.S. have attended, although usually a big chunk of every year’s crop is from Saskatchewan, and the Saskatchewan Arts Board continues to be the major funder.

As at Fort San, faculty have been recruited from the best writers in Saskatchewan and nationally.

Among them: Governor-General’s Award winners like Jane Urquhart, Erin Mouré, Don McKay, Fred Wah, Nicole Brossard, Colleen Murphy, John Pass, Rosemary Sullivan, George Elliot Clarke and the late Robert Kroetsch – and present or former Saskatchewanians Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Tim Lilburn, Arthur Slade and Diane Warren. Saskatchewanians David Carpenter, Terry Jordan, Bill Robertson, Liz Phillips, Jeanette Lynes, Sharon Butala, Sandra Birdsell and a number of others have also been on faculty, including two former poets laureate, Robert Currie, and Judith Krause.

Among the several hundred alumni, including best-selling novelist Lisa Moore, are a who’s who of writers from Saskatchewan, including Griffin Prize-winning poet Sylvia Legris, former Saskatchewan poet laureate Louise Bernice Halfe – Sky Dancer, Brenda Baker, Hilary Clark, Larry Gasper, Jill Robinson, Leona Theis, Gerry Hill, – all Saskatchewan Book Award winners.

Considering that he wasn’t hired till late December and the first program was just six months away, Smith says he was “surprised by how smoothly things went” that first year.

The SWG gave the new organization a $3,500 forgivable loan – never repaid – and the Arts Board, perhaps feeling twinges of guilt over closing the summer school, chipped in a small grant. Altogether it was enough to run a small program for one summer. The first year, 1990, there were three programs – two in fiction and one in poetry – conducted over an intense, heady five days.

“Our plan was to run it just for one year, and see what happened,” says Begamudré. “And that first year was pretty lean. But it was a success, so we decided to go year by year.”

There was “an obvious hunger” for what Sage Hill was offering, Smith says, and “not a lot of competition in those days.”

By the second year, with better funding established, the program had been extended to a full week (it’s now 10 days), and more sessions were added, including an introductory workshop. In the 28 years since, over 300 fledgling writers from all over the country have gotten their first real taste of the craft they love in that introductory course alone. They’ve been joined by hundreds of other, more experienced writers, taking more advanced courses in fiction and poetry, and rotating workshops in children’s writing, nonfiction, and drama. Teen writing camps, first in Saskatoon and Regina but now also in Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Prince Albert and, La Ronge, were also added, partnering with those cities’ public libraries.

“From the start, Sage Hill envisioned engaging writers from everywhere and anywhere, including Saskatchewan writers,” Smith recalls, “but also drawing from beyond provincial borders. We wanted to bring fresh air into the Saskatchewan writing community, and to share Saskatchewan writing beyond geographic boundaries.

“Writers form a community that is in fact national and international, so we hired quality faculty writers, local and from away, to enhance attraction. We also maintained a grass-roots ambience – all writers as peers with no hierarchy or super-star treatments – though we did have, from time to time, some stars among us. The method was successful. It has proven a vital formula that has enabled Sage Hill to thrive for thirty years. The evidence is in the writers for whom Sage Hill provided a jump-start, or supportive affirmation, or crafty manuscript insights, that have led to personal or publishing success.”

Dave Margoshes