A Page-turning History
The Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) has played an important role in the cultural life of Canada since it launched in 1974 as a reading series on Toronto’s waterfront. In 1980, the Festival as we know it today was born, with the debut of the Harbourfront International Authors’ Festival. In 1986, it was incorporated as a charitable organization called International Readings at Harbourfront, and over the next decade became known as the International Festival of Authors (IFOA). The IFOA embraced its Toronto roots in 2018 by rebranding to the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA).
Today, TIFA operates as a home to many programmes and events that complement its flagship annual Festival, including a year-round series of authors in conversation (TIFA Presents), and a book launch series (Toronto Lit Up, in partnership with the Toronto Arts Council). TIFA also works with multiple partners to produce and present additional annual programmes, including the Forest of Reading Festival (May), Book Summit (June) and the Canadian Writers’ Summit (every third June).
Most TIFA events are digitally recorded on photo, video and audio. As of 2006, these recordings are sent to the holdings of the Library and Archives Canada, making them available to researchers, documentary makers and preserving them for future generations.
A series of author readings is established at Toronto’s newly created Harbourfront Centre, based on a similar series held at the now-legendary Bohemian Embassy (which featured an eclectic mix of artists including Al Purdy, Gordon Lightfoot, Lorne Michaels and Margaret Atwood).
The Harbourfront Reading Series is born, and in its first years the programme features Canadian talent Leonard Cohen, Mordecai Richler and Irving Layton.
The Harbourfront Reading Series welcomes its first international writers, the American novelists John Cheever and Joyce Carol Oates and the English poet George MacBeth.
The inaugural Festival, then called the Harbourfront International Authors’ Festival, is presented as a six-day event at the end of October featuring 23 authors from a dozen countries. The Polish-American poet Czesław Miłosz participates and wins the Nobel Prize for Literature just a few weeks before his scheduled appearance in Toronto.
The Harbourfront Festival Prize is established to annually recognize an author’s contribution to the Canadian literature community.
International Readings at Harbourfront is incorporated as a charitable organization.
We fill Massey Hall’s 3,600 seats with a night featuring British author Anthony Burgess, of A Clockwork Orange fame and Robertson Davies. “Scalpers cleaned up,” the New York Times later noted. (Clyde H. Farnsworth, The New York Times, 14 July 1994, C15)
Literary biographers become included in the Festival, as an expansion of its “Lives and Times” series.
During its 15th anniversary, the Festival is hailed in The Globe and Mail as “…Undoubtedly the most prominent, admired program of authors’ readings in the world.”
The Festival is dubbed the “Olympics of literature” by Douglas George Fetherling. (qtd. in Los Angeles Times, 27 October 1995)
Geoffrey E. Taylor becomes director of the Festival, after spending 12 years as the managing director. Geoffrey quickly moves to include a broader range of genres, including graphic novels, children’s literature and mysteries.
The Festival launches its international touring initiative, to showcase Canadian authors at other literary festivals around the world.
The Festival sets a Guinness World Record for “largest audience at a book reading (multiple authors)” when J. K. Rowling, Kenneth Oppel and Tim Wynne-Jones read at Toronto’s Skydome to 20,264 people. (Guinness confirmed in May 2019 that the record still stands.)
The Festival introduces new youth programming to its roster, through a series called Step Into Stories, later known as YoungIFOA.
The Festival presents its first feature focus on graphic novels, with two visual arts exhibits and a roundtable discussion between legendary comics creators Charles Burns, Seth and Chris Ware.
Queen Silvia of Sweden attends the Festival to participate in a panel discussion called Children’s Right to Read. Also on the panel is noted youth activist Craig Kielburger.
The Festival begins touring authors to communities throughout Ontario, under the name Lit On Tour.
The first Forest of Reading® Festival of Trees™ event for young readers is presented, through partnership with the Ontario Library Association. By 2019, this has grown into a three-day event drawing more than 12,000 students to Harbourfront Centre every May.
Author Colm Tóibín joins as the Festival’s first guest curator, with a mandate of bringing a special focus on Irish writing to the 29th edition of the Festival.
The International Visitors (IV) Programme is established to generate exposure for the Canadian publishing industry and strengthen links with its international counterparts.
To celebrate the Festival’s 30th anniversary and its Writing Scotland focus, the Festival commissions and registers its own official tartan. Any past or present participant in the Festival may use the striking design of purple, magenta, blue and green.
The Word Alliance is founded, inspired by a conversation between the TIFA’s festival director, and those of the Edinburgh and Berlin literary festivals.
The Delegate Programme is created, giving local writers and creators the opportunity to enrich the level of discussion at events at the Festival. The programme is modelled after a similar project at the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference.
The organization rebrands as the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA). When the Festival began, it was the only international literature festival in Canada. We’re still proud to be the country’s largest and longest-running festival of words, but it is time to embrace our relationship with this city!