An award-winning writer donates money from her life’s work to help people whose struggles mirror those of her favourite character

It isn’t often that a writer is approached by Library and Archives Canada with a request to buy one’s drafts and letters.

Nancy Huston, winner of a Governor General’s Award and Prix Femina, however, has been approached twice. Twenty years ago, she gracefully declined. “Death didn’t seem anything real to me then,” she laughs. Then in 2014 the request came with a $300,000 offer.

Without that scholarship and loan … I might still be fighting cockroaches in the Bronx.

The Calgary-born author of 45 publications, which include essay collections, plays, children’s books and novels, began to pack up her professional and personal papers. Her journals, letters, and draft manuscripts spanned a four-decade career. The material filled 14 boxes and included a USB stick with digital materials that could have filled 14 boxes more. After packing everything into a delivery truck, she snapped a photo of her life’s work before it sped out of her driveway in Strasbourg, France and headed to Canada as summer began.

The $300,000 cheque for her material, however, was never drafted in her name. On Huston’s request, the money was seamlessly transferred to Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF) to create the Awinita Scholarship Fund.

Despite having lived abroad since 1973, she has followed the news in her birth province closely. The inequality that Aboriginal women face, and the impact of the oil sands on their traditional territories, has troubled her. She wanted her archives to have a further legacy, a legacy that impacted this injustice in some way.

The year she sold her archives, she also released her novel, Black Dance, in English (it had been released in French in 2013). It is the story of fictional screenwriter Milo Noirlac’s life written as though it were the draft of a screenplay by Noirlac and his partner. The book’s threads follow Milo, his grandfather Neil and his mother Awinita. Awinita is an aboriginal teen working the Montreal sex-trade in the 50s, and of all the characters Huston has invented, Awinita is one of her favourites. “I learned a lot from her,” says Huston. “She is tough as nails and very funny.”

Her lawyer suggested she contact ECF about her desire to support women like Awinita. Then ECF connected her to the Centre to End All Sexual Exploitation, (CEASE). From this collaboration, the bones of the Awinita Scholarship Fund took shape.

Beginning in 2015, scholarship grants will be awarded to women (priority given to First Nations and/or Métis women) who have been, or are at risk to become, sexually exploited. The award can be used for post-secondary education or professional training.

Scholarships also played a significant role in Huston’s own life. While she was raised in a loving family, they struggled financially. “When I was living in New York at age 18, I could very easily have gone off on that path,” Huston says.

Then, a scholarship and loan package ensured Huston could follow her dream. She attended Sarah Lawrence College. From there she completed a year abroad in Paris, and an incredible career writing in both French and English followed. “Without that scholarship and loan …” she says, “I might still be fighting cockroaches in the Bronx.”

Now 40 years later, she hopes that the Awinita Scholarship Fund will help others follow their dreams.