Rencontres de la diversité

Simon Brault at the Rencontres de la diversité

18 May 2016

Speech by Simon Brault

At the 10th Rencontres de la diversité culturelle
Montreal, 18 May 2016

Plans and Vision on a Human Scale

I am delighted to be here today and to take part in this meeting.

Over the past few months, Council has communicated extensively with the arts community and the general public. Our New Funding Model, together with the announcement that our budget was going to be doubled gradually over five years, the launch of our Strategic Plan and, most recently, the announcement of our New Chapter program, which represents a direct investment of $33.4 million in creative work, have been extensively discussed in face-to-face and virtual meetings, in both social and traditional media.

We are looking to the future with genuine optimism and a growing sense of accountability as we come to realize that we are currently the beneficiaries of a fortuitous alignment of the planets. We are also keenly aware that if we do not manage to achieve major and lasting accomplishments for our fellow citizens, if we are unable to reaffirm the central role of the arts in the emancipation of individuals and in the emergence of a human and social future that is fair, inclusive, sustainable and promising for everyone, then we will have wasted a historic opportunity that many had already ceased to hope for.

Those who have been following, if only from a distance, the efforts to reposition, transform and reinvent the Canada Council for the Arts over the past year and a half have noted that our arguments in favour of major government reinvestments have been built around the importance of: innovation in the 21st century’s digital economy; the primacy of Indigenous issues for the country’s future; issues pertaining to diversity; a focus on youth; a concern for public engagement in the arts; and the importance of international outreach, and reciprocal international exchanges.

The promised doubling of the Canada Council’s budget in September 2015 (a promise made only a few steps away in Montreal’s Quartier des spectacles), the 19 October election and the tireless but successful efforts of Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly to have the federal budget increase spending on culture to a record total of $1.9 billion, have all attracted our attention, and inspired us to excel.

Between 22 September 2015 (the electoral promise to double our budget) and 26 April 2016 (when we launched our Strategic Plan), we worked tirelessly to finalize our strategic priorities so that we could make clear decisions and align gradual spending over a five-year period with the strategic commitments we had announced.

Thanks to Council’s autonomy, we were able to make the most of our own reinvention, and establish our own directions, priorities and budget targets. These all found favour with the new government, and never risked compromising the invaluable independence from government granted to us under our status as a Crown Corporation, which has continued against all odds since 1957, and which must remain one of Council’s cornerstones.

The Aboriginal issue and the transformation of the Canada Council for the Arts

Our great transformation began in the wake of an in-depth review of our programs to support First Nations, Inuit and Métis artists, and the activities of the Aboriginal Arts Office established 20 years ago at Council, a review that had been launched well before I came to Ottawa.

The Aboriginal Arts Office has worked actively over that time to ensure that the needs of Indigenous artists were translated into Council policies, services and programs. I believe that Council has contributed significantly to the advancement of Indigenous arts. However, the initial conclusion of the critical review revealed that most Indigenous artists wanted more support in their own cultural-specific context rather than through the prism of an objectively Eurocentric, and perhaps even colonial, artistic disciplinary configuration.

As someone who had just arrived from Quebec, I very quickly realized that the issue of self-determination for First Nations, Inuit and Métis could not be ignored, particularly at a time when, like everyone else, I was just learning about our Supreme Court's historic decisions and monitoring the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had just revealed the disastrous consequences of a lengthy and concerted attempt at cultural genocide.

Through the work of its Indigenous and non-Indigenous employees, Council, with the support and courage of its Board, soon announced its intention to establish an Indigenous program, based on cultural self-determination, before the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was even published – a report that we felt represented unequivocal confirmation of our approach.

Since then, Prime Minister Trudeau has announced that there will be nation-to-nation negotiations. Just recently, the Supreme Court ruled that Métis and Non-Status Indians are all Indians within the meaning of the Indian Act, which is also excellent news indeed.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission told the general public that it was urgent to review relations between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people. The realities of the living conditions for Indigenous peoples in Canada are alarming and shameful. The arts can and should contribute to the affirmation and return of full-fledged dignity for Indigenous peoples. The report of the Commission was eloquent on this score (and I quote):

“In every region of the country, creative expression can play a vital role in this national reconciliation, providing alternative voices, vehicles and venues for expressing historical truths and present hopes. Creative expression supports everyday practices of resistance, healing, and commemoration at individual, community, regional and national levels.”

Only a few days ago, the CBC broadcast an inspiring report about the primary school on Warpole Island that explained how reading had restored Indigenous students' belief in themselves and their future. My view is that the lesson to be learned is that we are responsible for giving people and communities the means they need to shape their own future. These principles of openness and self-determination are very much part of our commitments. And they take tangible forms. Last year, we launched the {Re}conciliation Initiative to promote artistic collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists in order to stimulate dialogue, understanding and change. Six artistic projects received support. We were recently able to support four new projects as a result of a budget surplus. Likewise, one of the six arts support programs under our New Funding Model will be devoted to Indigenous arts. This new program, called Creating, Knowing and Sharing: the Arts and Cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples, is based on an approach that focuses on Indigenous peoples, their desire for self-determination, their values and their visions of the world.

This program – and the investments we are preparing to devote to it – will contribute to enriching national and international movements on behalf of Indigenous rights, and draw inspiration from them. The program can definitely have a considerable influence on communities, and in particular Indigenous communities, where the healing power of the arts and cultural identity are deeply rooted.

More generally, our New Funding Model and its six programs have been designed to address current realities, and we want to capture these realities in all their artistic and cultural diversity in every form of expression.

The equity principle

For this diversity to be fully present and active, our equity values need to be authentic, visible and incorporated into our everyday behaviour, our policies, the design and delivery of our programs, our communications, and the way we operate. They must also influence our budget allocations. This is absolutely essential for us.

In view of our recent history and the current transformation we are undertaking, we are frequently asked questions like: “How will this equity principle be applied if the Equity Office no longer offers specific grant programs? How will this principle translate into our New Funding Model and our transformation?”

For a complete answer, I need to return briefly to the concept of equity and the role it has played over the years at the Canada Council. In 1991, Council established its Equity Office to provide enhanced access and better support to different voices and artistic practices for artists from diverse cultures and Indigenous artists. Such an office was essential in 1991, and it is still essential in 2016.

It still enables us to analyze whether the population, in all its diversity, truly has access to Council programs and services, and if not, to properly determine how to fix things and take action.

Over the years, the constant updating of the equity concept led to the establishment of specific programs, innovative partnerships and targeted initiatives not only for Indigenous artists and people from the various ethnocultural communities, but also for artists in official-language-minority communities, disabled or Deaf artists as well as artists from underserved regions. In short, the Canada Council’s Equity Office has always performed a monitoring role and has had a direct impact on Council’s actions. The Office also monitors linguistic, ethnic and regional representation on Council’s staff, its peer assessment committees, and, where possible, its Board of Directors. The Equity Office is therefore not about to disappear. It will continue its proactive equity mission in the Policy, Planning and Strategic Foresight Division. This team plays a key role in the development and implementation of Council policies, and the Office will continue to provide its renewable resource of expertise.

We have gone even further by planning targeted investment in our new programs to ensure that organizations formerly supported directly by the Equity Office will be able to build capacity and scope more quickly over the years covered by the Strategic Plan, and we will be publicly reporting on our actions.

Equity, the Funding Model and the Strategic Plan

However, much more remains to be done. We are also aware that the monitoring and ongoing promotion of equity principles requires determination and a keen understanding of the demographic changes shaping our communities and society. Equity and access affect everyone. This means equity and access both for artists and the public.

Over the next five years, we will continue to proactively ensure that all artists have equitable access to our programs and that all Canadians, and particularly arts organizations and activities financed with public funds, feel represented in our country’s arts landscape. This means that our actions must be precise, tangible, identifiable and measurable. Our Research Division has been investigating best practices that Council might be able to implement in order to gather information about the internal diversity of arts organizations.

With our New Funding Model, arts organizations, with due regard to their size and context, can become levers to affirm, respect and implement equity principles. Equity and the reflection of diversity will therefore, for the first time in our history, be used as assessment (and funding) criteria in several components of our new programs.

The implementation of equity practices will therefore be built into our processes, from the submission of the application to its assessment.

Youth: central to our visions

We have also made commitments in our Strategic Plan to youth, who are very diverse and growing rapidly in Indigenous communities.

Council needs to provide more opportunities to the next generation, for whom access to public funding is all too often token, derisory, restrictive and riddled with systemic barriers.

Council also recognizes the importance of support for the engagement of young audiences, particularly children and adolescents, in Canadian arts and literature. Adapting financial support to current and future realities, intergenerational transmission, mentoring and leadership development are among Council’s priorities in providing more support for emerging artists and new audiences, because they are the key to the future of our sector and society.

We must also increasingly call upon individual accountability and civic responsibility, both within and beyond our institutional structures because the actions of every member of the arts community and all citizens determine what will have an impact on the cultural advancement of society, and on the progress made towards sustainable development. Citizen participation is more than a mere counterbalance to our institutions; it is also the very thing that makes renewal possible. In this capacity, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, which reports to the Canada Council, encourages participation at the citizen level. The Commission makes a remarkable contribution to the advancement of a society in which Canadians exchange knowledge and learn about one another at the local and global level, with a view to building a future characterized by peace, equity and sustainability.

In Council’s new Strategic Plan, we put forward a vision for the future of the arts sector in Canada. This vision takes rapidly developing social changes into account, and the determination to preserve the common values that define us as a democratic society.

I am particularly pleased to be here in the flesh today, because the important thing to remember about the major transformation I have just discussed, as with any significant transformation, is that it depends on people – on each and every one of us. The vision we are putting forward is powerful because it is inclusive and bottom-up/top-down; our vision is firmly anchored in an inclusive future shaped by the arts and by diversity.

Our plans and our vision are on a human scale, and conducive to a variety of different kinds of encounters. Incidentally, in my work, and at the various meetings I have had on Indigenous or equity issues, I am often reminded of the words of Australian activist Lila Watson, who used to say (no doubt to well-intentioned funders):

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This is a powerful quote, and an antidote to condescension and political correctness.

I will leave you with another quote, this time from Christi Belcourt, an outstanding Métis activist, who has just won one of the first Governor General’s Awards for Innovation after being nominated by the Canada Council for the Arts:

“I stand today willing to help in any way I can to create the change the youth are asking for and I urge all Canadians to join me in supporting the youth who are calling for foundational change and the good work Indigenous Peoples are doing already to improve the lives of our Peoples.”

Portrait - Simon Brault 2014
Simon Brault, O.C, O.Q.

Director and CEO

Simon Brault is the Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts. Author of No Culture, No Future, a collection of essays on the rise of arts and culture on public agendas, he has participated actively in initiatives such as the Agenda 21C de la culture au Québec. An initiator of Journées de la culture, he was also a founding member and chair of Culture Montréal from 2002 to 2014. In 2015, he received the Quebec CPA Order’s prestigious Outstanding Achievement Award for bringing together “two worlds that were once disparate – the arts and business – an alliance that significantly benefits society at large.” Follow Simon Brault on Twitter: @simon_brault

Tagged As New Chapter Speeches {Re}conciliation