A local author who achieved national recognition as a social justice playwright is being commemorated through a new award that encourages students to promote social justice in the Okanagan.
Two annual awards valued at $1,000 each have been established in memory of renowned Canadian playwright and novelist George Ryga, whose work explored complex issues of race, class, wealth, opportunity, privilege, and social structures in Canada.
The fund was established by Ryga’s sister and brother-in-law, Anne and Ted Chudyk, and is open to Okanagan College students interested in creating awareness around social issues.
“George had a passion for writing but an even greater passion for people,” said Ted Chudyk. “He was fascinated by people, especially the struggles and injustices they faced, and that fascination came out in his work. There were no bad people in George’s mind. He saw the value in everyone and he fought for them through his writing.”
Ryga garnered national acclaim for his play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, in 1967. The play, written at his home in Summerland, is considered by scholars and critics to be an important landmark in modern Canadian theatre; it has been studied in post-secondary institutions across Canada, performed from coast-to-coast, and also adapted into a ballet by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
Ryga’s sister recalls his struggles to support a family while pursuing his writing career in the Okanagan valley.
“He’d be picking apples by day and writing by night,” said Anne. “It was a struggle and a labour of love. We hope George’s struggle, and the struggles he explored in his work, will inspire students to try to make a difference.”
Anne said that the award is meant to inspire students to follow in Ryga’s footsteps, but they need not be writers.
“It is more important that they demonstrate a strong interest in promoting social justice in some way that will benefit the community,” said Anne.
The fund also supports the production of the Ryga Journal, an initiative of Okanagan College’s English Department of the Faculty of Arts.
“George Ryga established a high standard of social commentary in Canadian literary and theatrical works,” said Dr. Robert Huxtable, the college’s Dean of Arts and Foundational Programs. “We’re very proud to celebrate his legacy through these awards and hope students will be inspired to follow the example set by a local author who had an immense effect in raising awareness of social justice issues in Canada.”
Ryga was born in Richmond Park, AB, near Athabasca, to poor Ukrainian immigrant parents. He displayed a talent for writing at a young age, working through grade school in only six years and completing high school by correspondence while working a variety of jobs to support himself and his family. He later studied at the Banff School of Fine Arts.
Ryga moved to Summerland in 1962, where he lived until his death in 1987 at the age of 55. Ryga’s final published work, Summerland, a collection of previously unpublished works, was printed posthumously in 1992.
The Anne and Ted Chudyk Memorial Awards in Memory of George Ryga are open to full-time students enrolled in any program at Okanagan College. Recipients must submit an essay explaining their interest in social justice. Applications will be accepted from June 1 to July 31, 2015. For more information, please contact Okanagan College’s Financial Aid and Awards Department at firstname.lastname@example.org or 250-862-5419.
More information about this award and other Okanagan College awards, bursaries, and scholarships, can be found at www.okanagan.bc.ca/awards.