The Festival has grown over the years to attract more than 15,000 readers to a six day festival that features over 80 writers in more than 70 events.

The initial seed for Wordfest was planted in 1995 when The Banff Centre, interested in profiling its Writing and Publishing programs, sponsored the Hospitality Suite at The Vancouver International Writers Festival. Don Stein, then Associate Director, Planning for The Banff Centre, established a relationship with the Writers Guild of Alberta and a number of other interested parties, to explore the realities of establishing a Banff-Calgary International Writers Festival.

Wordfest was established in 1996 as a project of The Banff Centre, Calgary Public Library, Mount Royal University and The Writers Guild of Alberta. The Banff Centre then approached respected arts professional Anne Green to develop the Festival and create an independent entity. The annual Festival would take place in October and feature international, national and local writers.

Founding Festival Director Anne Green programmed the first Wordfest, featuring 50 writers and two dozen events, taking place over four days. The 1996 line-up featured Margaret Atwood, Roch Carrier, Wayson Choy, Tomson Highway, Paul Quarrington and Sheri-D Wilson.

In 1997, Wordfest was incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation. This year also marked the inaugural Summit Salon, hosted by The Banff Centre. The Summit Salon was an exclusive writer retreat immediately following Wordfest and preceding the Vancouver International Writers Festival.

Since its inception, Wordfest has presented many notable and world-renowned writers, such as Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Louis de Bernières, Joseph Boyden, Eleanor Catton, Wayson Choy, Douglas Coupland, Roddy Doyle, Richard Ford, Diana Gabaldon, Rawi Hage, Tomson Highway, Nancy Huston, John Irving, Barbara Kingsolver, Dany Laferrière, Alexander McCall Smith, Annie Proulx, Mordecai Richler and David Suzuki.

The Festival has grown over the years to attract more than 15,000 readers to a six day festival that features over 65 writers in more than 60 events. Wordfest also includes a celebrated youth education program, formerly the First Calgary Financial Book Rapport and now Wordfest Youth events, and also previously held the dedicated French-language component Festival des mots. In addition to the annual Festival in October, Wordfest now also presents events throughout the year.

Outside the October festival and year-round events, Wordfest actively engages its audience, volunteers and community partners through special initiatives and projects designed to further the mission of Wordfest and its stewardship of the literary arts in Canada.

In 2010, Founding Festival Director Anne Green introduced Festival audiences to incoming Director Jo Steffens. While honoring the mandate of the Festival and continuing its legacy, Executive Director Jo Steffens launched new programming elements that encouraged audiences to think differently about the literary landscape.

New programming initiatives have included a series of art installations and rich-media experiences presented around Calgary each year during Wordfest under the title, Word Projects. Past examples have ranged from radio-play adaptations of short stories by Festival artists and a looped audio exhibition inside a shipping container, to projections of letraset art on the Calgary Tower and poetry on outdoor digital billboards.

Steffens successfully introduced alternative and experimental event formats to the Wordfest program through partnerships with local, national and international arts organizations.

Wordfest has presented writers in unscripted storytelling events; film and short-animation screenings about books and literary topics; curated presentations of essays inspired by online videos; live illustrations; and friendly competitions in which writers improvise a performance of their writing on-stage. These program innovations and others are designed to broaden the audience for the Festival and to foster an appreciation of the variety of forms in which the literary arts can be experienced.

On April 28, 2014, the Board of Directors of Wordfest announced Shelley Youngblut as the Festival’s Interim General Director, effective May 1. In December 2015, Youngblut became the permanent director, and since then has worked to ensure Wordfest continues in and expands its goal of bringing life-changing ideas and writers to Calgary.

Last updated May 2017.

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