Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize Series, with Jacques Poitras

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Jacques Poitras

This year marks the twelfth iteration of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, presented by the Writers’ Trust of Canada. The prize rewards the year's finest book tackling a political subject of interest to Canadian readers.

This year, Open Book speaks to each of the five finalists as the April 25 announcement approaches. Be sure to visit our site and catch all of the interviews!

We launch this series with Jacques Poitras, the author of Imaginary Line: Life on an Unfinished Border (Goose Lane Editions). In Imaginary Line Jacques, who is CBC Radio's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick, examines the history of the New Brunswick-Maine border and the fate of communities along it in the post-9/11 era.

Jacques talks with Open Book about rural-to-urban demographic shifts, what makes a political book and post-9/11 security issues.

Open Book:

Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.

Jacques Poitras:

The section of the Canada-U.S. border that divides New Brunswick and Maine is the oldest part of the border — it began to take shape formally in 1783, but has its roots in the early 1600s — and there are deep, organic connections between communities on the two sides of the line, whether cultural, commercial or social. I was intrigued by how that came about, and by how those links have been disrupted by security measures since 9/11. The more I explored the topic, the more connections I found in the form of compelling, human stories — particularly the persistent efforts to overcome this inconvenient administrative barrier between neighbours.


In your opinion, what qualities or characteristics signify that a book can be considered political writing?


I cover provincial politics for the CBC News, so I’ve dealt with questions like this many times. My first book told the story of the New Brunswick Progressive Conservative Party grappling with the bilingualism issue over a 40-year period; it could be described as a more conventionally “political” book because its characters are mostly elected politicians. But I believe good political journalism can also tell the stories of individuals and communities affected by policy decisions. I try to do that in my CBC work and I’ve tried to do it in Imaginary Line.


The prize is presented at an evening event in Ottawa called Politics and the Pen. What are you most looking forward to about P&P? Have you attended before?


I have not attended before. It’s a happy coincidence that the two masters of ceremonies for Politics and the Pen are the Canadian Ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, and the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, David Jacobson. So I’m looking forward to talking with them about the border. As well, though I consider the New Brunswick-Maine border a microcosm for the entire Canada-U.S. relationship, my book might easily have been categorized as “regional.” I’m delighted the judges have treated it as a national book, and the event will be a very tangible reflection of that.


If you were to recommend one past finalist or winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize to readers, which title would you choose?


I would choose Doug Saunders’ book Arrival City. It brings together disparate stories and trends into a single, cohesive, well-explained argument. It is a fabulous piece of journalism. And while it tells the story of rural-to-urban migration on a global scale, its insights are relevant at other levels. In New Brunswick, where I cover politics, there’s a huge rural-to-urban demographic shift underway. It is the subtext for many of the major policy debates that I cover, and Doug’s book provides a template for thinking about those debates.


What can you tell us about your next project?


I like to take a year “off” after publication before even thinking of a new project. I have, however, pondered writing a book about the Irving newspaper monopoly in New Brunswick. The Irvings are one of Canada’s wealthiest families, and their newspapers (where I used to work) have themselves been the setting for some compelling stories. The subject is more nuanced than what either the company or its critics have put forward.

Jacques Poitras has been CBC Radio's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He has written numerous award-winning feature documentaries and has appeared on Radio-Canada, National Public Radio, and the BBC. Beaverbrook: A Shattered Legacy was a finalist for the BC Award for Canadian Non-fiction and won the 2008 Best Atlantic Published Book Award.
Poitras' first book was the critically acclaimed The Right Fight: Bernard Lord and the Conservative Dilemma. Jacques Poitras lives in Fredericton.

For more information about Imaginary Line: Life on an Unfinished Border please visit the Goose Lane Editions website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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