Drek Daa started the ball rolling on what is now known as The Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in the fall of 2003, when he applied to the Canada Council for funding to create an organization to oversee an inaugural festival. Daa had been involved in the lively Vancouver slam scene from 1999 to 2002, and he had founded Winnipeg’s first slam in 2003. According to Daa, “I was talking to people in Vancouver, to my friends out there, and they were all encouraging but of course you need somebody to take the initiative. So I applied for this, and got a little grant and I created a website, all the content for the website, and I started talking to people about doing a festival in 2004. Of all the people in the Canadian scene, I connected with Anthony Bansfield, from Ottawa, and so we decided we were going to do a festival.”



In 2004, Bansfield and Daa decided to host the inaugural festival – called The Canadian Spoken Wordlympics – in Ottawa that year. Daa applied for and received substantial grants from the Canada Council for the festival. “I got two big grants,” said Daa. “First a festival grant, and then we got the travel grant. So, Canada Council was amazing with that. Then Anthony came on board, he applied to Ontario, I think he got a couple of grants from Ontario.”


Difficulties arose during the organizational phase of the Canadian Spoken Wordlympics, because Bansfield accepted a position with the Canada Council and had to step back from a hands-on role with the festival. Daa explained, “This first festival, I oversaw all the aspects of creating the structure of the festival. Creating all the physical materials like all the sheets, all the nametags, I even hand-built the trophies. I did all that from Winnipeg, and I also organized everything. Anthony was working from Ottawa and he organized the whole crew, and Anthony got the National Archives, which is an amazing venue because everything was in one place.”


Oni Joseph, known as Oni the Haitian Sensation, had been a force on the Ottawa spoken word scene since 2001. By 2004 she had already performed at the American National Poetry Slam finals in Chicago, and had gone on to perform at several other American venues. She met Daa that June on the Wordlympians European Tour. “We got funding from the Canada Council to tour Europe, and to get this festival organized. So I met Darek on a plane. I participated in the national poetry slam that France had, France had their first national poetry slam in July 2004. We went to Germany, went to Holland, went to Belgium, we just toured and did some gigs all over the place. Slam was so huge back then.”


Joseph’s involvement in the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival helped secure the initial funding for the Canadian Spoken Wordlympics. “In around 2002, I was curating a slam for the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival, and the event that I had organized was called the Festival Slam.... I was the only organized person ... that had a slam within an established festival, which was one of the main criteria for funding from the Canada Council for the Arts. So Anthony Bansfield approached me and said, ‘Oni, instead of doing your festival slam, would you consider having the Canadian Spoken Wordlympics happen in lieu of your event?’ And I said, ‘Sure. Why not? Let’s do it.’”


Joseph stepped up to handle the organizing of the Canadian Spoken Wordlympics when Bansfield was hired by the Canada Council. “I pretty much did all the work in Ottawa, with poets in Ottawa. I was in the kitchen, I was on the mic, I was in the media room ... MuchMusic, Zed, everybody was [in Ottawa] for this. We got everybody involved, it was an amazing festival. There were 85 poets from five different countries. It was a great festival, it went off very well, and it was a catalyst to what’s happening now.”


Daa was equally thrilled with the festival. “Oh man, that was so cool. The programming was very diverse. I really loved the festival, everybody did. It was all located in one place so everybody hung out all the time together.... It was great, so much cameraderie.”


Both Daa and Joseph stepped back from the organizational side of the Canadian Spoken Wordlympics after that first year, but the administrative energy, the diversity of talent and the structure of the festival have all carried on since then. For the 2005 festival, the name was changed to the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, due to concerns that there might be legal issues around the use of the ‘lympics’ tag.


Each year’s festival has been curated by Spoken Word Canada, or SpoCan, and coordinated by the host city’s Festival Organizing Committee. Daa feels SpoCan hasn’t fulfilled its initial promise as a promoter of spoken word in Canada: “The organization, SpoCan, hasn’t really strengthened that much since. It’s been going, but it’s been predominantly going in the context of the festival. The festivals keep going ... a city picks up the festival and there is a committee or a person that takes over and does an amazing job every year. Since then we’ve had a super-nice festival.”


David Silverberg, the organizer of this year’s Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in Toronto, led the 2004 Toronto slam team to the Canadian Spoken Wordlympics. “The talent I saw, the organizational powerhouses that made their way to Ottawa whether they were from Vancouver or Montreal or Winnipeg – to see that kind of talent and organizational capacity really inspired me to get [the Toronto Poetry Slam] going.”