Equity in the Arts

Equity in the Arts: Opening the Doors for a Better Future

21 September 2016

By Simon Brault

Keynote Address: Opening Gala – Prismatic Festival
Pier 21, Halifax

September 21, 2016 at 7 pm

Good evening.

It’s a pleasure and honour to be here with you this evening. It has already been a full and moving day in my first visit in Nova Scotia in an official capacity as Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts.

We are, of course, in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People. This afternoon I went to the Mi’kmaw Native Friendship Centre to visit the exhibition This is What I Wish You Knew. It’s a project funded through the Canada Council’s {Re}conciliation program created in partnership with the Circle on Philanthropy and Aboriginal Peoples and the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation. If you haven’t seen the exhibition yet, I encourage you to do so. It is a strong statement about cultural identities and just how defining, complex and multifaceted they can be.

Just a few hours ago I had the opportunity to tour this building. I was impressed by the sheer numbers and the personal stories of men, women and children who arrived at Pier 21 throughout the 20st century. And I’m very conscious of the fact that we are minutes away from Africville, settled by Black Nova Scotians who came here as freed slaves and refugees from the War of 1812.

These sites speak the many cultures that comprise Canada. But above all they speak to experiences of tragedy and resilience; discrimination and marginalization; and identities lost, found or rebuilt. These narratives are Canada’s inconvenient truths. They are a reminder that we still have to do better.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am convinced that the arts can lead us on a pathway to a better future. And that the Canada Council, as a public arts funder has a role in ensuring this happens. This is the impetus behind the large-scale transformation that his now underway at the Council.

But before we talk about our immediate future, let’s take a look at our past.

Council then and now

In 1957, Pier 21 welcomed ships carrying close to 1.2 million passengers from abroad. These men, women and children would go on to create new lives, but often in the face of great hardship and discrimination.

That same year, Mi’kmaq children were living at the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, far from their families, forbidden to speak their language, and subject to other prejudices. This tragic experiment in cultural cleansing was carried out across the country until as recently as the 1990s with deep consequences that endure today.

Also in 1957, Halifax’s North Shore Development Plan called for the removal of Africville. Despite the protests of its residents, everyone was forced to leave; their homes destroyed. The neighbourhood remains a symbol of Black oppression.

Meanwhile… that same year, back in Ottawa, work has being done to nurture Canada’s fledgling identity. In that post-war era it was felt that Canada had something unique to offer the world – and that the arts could play a valuable role. The Canada Council was established to foster the growth of the arts at a time when there was a lack in infrastructure and support.

The Council’s mandate was – and remains – highly relevant. In hindsight, however, we can see that the Council in 1957 was still very much a product of its time.

The selection of disciplines eligible for funding was informed by a Western European vision. The Council’s legislation mentioned “architecture, the arts of theatre, literature, music, painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts and other similar creative and interpretative activities”.

Over the years, these disciplines would change. Their boundaries would expand and merge. So did our understanding of the relations of art to society and human development. In the 1990s, the Council began groundbreaking work to recognize certain marginalized groups. It created an Equity Office and an Aboriginal Arts Office which did extraordinary work with the modest envelopes of funds that they administered. But still, their sphere of influence remained too limited in the larger context of Canada’s professional art sector.

In recent years, it has become obvious that the discipline-based funding structure no longer works. Globalization, changing demographics, digital technologies. These are all powerful drivers of change in society – and in the arts. They are challenging the Council to be more inclusive, agile and relevant.

At the same time, artists like you – from culturally diverse and Indigenous communities – still face systemic barriers to the Council’s funding. Our applicant base, and Canada’s wider arts sector, still isn’t indicative of the rich diversity of cultures represented in our population.

We have to do more. And we are doing more. And I’m here to talk about how we will do it.

Seizing an historic moment

I firmly believe that this is an unprecedented historic moment for the Council and for the arts in Canada. One that we must seize.

Last spring we released our strategic plan Shaping a new future 2016-2021. I’m proud of its ambitious vision. It positions the arts as an essential part of our belonging – to a community, country, society and to humanity itself. includes clear commitments and actions that will create more opportunities for emerging artists and new audiences in a way that empowers and gives voice to the full range of creative expression in our country.

Because a vision alone is not enough. We need a clear path to achieve it. The courage to face adversity. The wisdom to partner with the most progressive forces in society. And the money to back it up.

A major step in our transformation is a profound restructuring of our granting programs. We call this our New Funding Model. We announced the first outlines of the programs in the spring. We’ve been finalizing the guidelines throughout the summer, and we’ll be ready to launch them in 2017.

We built this new funding model based on years of feedback from the arts community. It is comprised of 6 national non-disciplinary programs. These replace the more than 140 programs that had built up in an organic but somewhat ad-hoc way over the decades. It has been designed to be more inclusive. To give us more flexibility to adapt to trends as they emerge. And to give us a greater capacity to react to social shifts in a strategic and timely way.

Then, last spring, just as we were about to announce the new funding model, the first step in our transformation, the new Federal Government announced an unprecedented reinvestment in the arts. It committed to double our budget over five years. This represents 550 million dollars. We have pledged that 88 percent of that money will go directly to artists and artistic organizations. This is an increase of a scale that has never been seen in the history of the Council – one that makes us a rarity amongst arts council’s worldwide.

At the federal level, momentum for public support of the arts is high. I realize that’s not the situation in some of our provinces and cities – but it is still a point of leverage in your work at the community level.

For example, over the past months, researchers, economists, civic leaders and policymakers have made strong, high-profile statements about the role of public funding of the arts. It has been seen as a way to optimize Canada’s diversity, the socio-economic benefits of the arts, and the power of Canada’s cultural exports in the country’s influence on the world stage.

This discourse was taken up by the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly and many other members of the Cabinet, not to mention Justin Trudeau himself. In fact, right now as I speak, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, is hosting a panel discussion at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The topic: “Diversity is Strength.” The conversation is focused on how we can work together to leverage the economic, social, cultural and civic benefits of diversity and inclusion.

It’s obvious that a new social contract, a post-national state and cultural diplomacy are very much at the forefront – all with a strong relevance for us in the arts.

So – all of these factors are coming together. Everything is in place. There will never be a more opportune time to be ambitious about the arts in Canada. I want to make sure we don’t miss this opportunity for the Council – and for all of us here – to step up to the plate and make a lasting impact on the state of the arts, and on the destiny of our country.

In order to do this and to be truly focused on the future, we have to create more opportunities for those who have traditionally faced barriers to our funding.

Indigenous arts and reconciliation – an issue of nationhood

Communities that urgently deserve much better include First Nations, Inuit and Métis – the Indigenous Peoples of this land.

This is a pivotal time in history when the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and the Canadian state has been called, by John Ralston Saul, the defining issue of our times.

For example, this territory is covered by the “Treaties of Peace and Friendship” which the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet people first signed with the British Crown in 1725. The treaties did not deal with surrender of lands and resources but in fact first recognized the title of these peoples and established the rules for what was to be an ongoing relationship between nations. And that is what we are trying to do at the Canada Council.

We know that Indigenous arts hold tremendous potential to change the tide in this relationship for a common future.

As a public arts funder, the Canada Council is conscious – in a way we weren’t 60 years ago and even quite recently – of the deliberate attempts throughout our country’s history to eradicate the cultures and languages of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. Recognizing the existence of a cultural genocide in our own country can only lead to bold decisions about arts funding.

We’ve asked ourselves: How can we turn this around? How can arts funding contribute to a cultural renaissance in the nations that survived this period and are reclaiming their full self-determination.

We have an obligation and a responsibility to act; to transform the Council to better support Indigenous artists and communities, on their own terms; to invite the arts to fulfill a significant role in a journey of conciliation and decolonization.

One of the most powerful ways we will fulfill this commitment is through what we’ve named the Creating, Knowing and Sharing Program – one of the six programs under the new funding model.

The program will take a unique approach informed by the notion of self-determination and the aspiration of self-governance. This means it will be guided by Indigenous artists’ values and worldviews, administered by staff of Indigenous heritage.

This program is designed to respond specifically to the unique communities it serves. For example, unlike any other Council grant program, some funding for small-scale projects is available to non-professional – or aspiring artists.

Applications to the program will be assessed by Indigenous artists and experts. Its impacts will be reported on in an Indigenous cultural and artistic context. It will both inform and be informed by global movements for Indigenous rights.

And this fundamental change in thinking is backed by a significant financial commitment. Over the next 5 years, we intend to almost triple our investments to Indigenous artists and arts organizations.

I’m also immensely proud to be able to honour a personal commitment I made when I arrived at the Council. That is, to create, for the first time, an Executive leadership position for a person of Indigenous heritage.

To sum it up in a phrase, I would say that we’ve approached our support of Indigenous arts is an issue of nationhood.

We see our approach to supporting equity in the arts as an issue of inclusion. An issue of building the sustainability of the arts in Canada. And it must be intrinsically tied to advancing diversity within the professional arts sector, and the audiences that we want to engage with.

Equity – an issue of inclusion

For the Council, equity and diversity is about empowering and “opening the doors” to artists and audiences from communities that have been marginalized and disenfranchised because of race, age, disability, economic status, genre, or sexual orientation.

When I say the phrase “opening doors,” it reminds me of a quote by Rosemary Brown, from British Columbia, who as you may know, is the first black woman to be a member of a Canadian parliamentary body. She wrote:

“We must open the doors and we must see to it they remain open, so that others can pass through.”

Ms. Brown’s statement also applies to the arts. We recognizing that complex historical, systemic and cultural barriers exist in our society and by extension in our arts ecology and public institutions.

To advance equity in the arts, we need to open the doors so that all artists have opportunities to create and disseminate work.

We need to open the doors so that citizens of all backgrounds can access art, engage with it and see themselves in it.

And if we recognize that Canada, as one of the most diverse countries, has great cultural treasures, unique practices and excellent artists to share with the world… Then, as the national public funder, the Council has a role in fulfilling this potential and capacity for the benefit of all Canadians.

But for the Council, equity isn’t just a principle. It’s a process. We realized that to have a greater impact in terms of equity and diversity – especially in the context of a doubled budget – we need to move beyond a purely vertical top-down approach. We want to take a more horizontal approach where equity is made a reality – and diversity becomes a non-negotiable priority that we are all accountable for. Not just for one section of the Council. But across all our programs and activities. And not just informed from the top down, but rather from the ground up.

This means that rather than concentrating our interventions in a small set of programs run by one office, we want to have an impact across all programs through strategic mechanisms and measures. We want equity and advancement of diversity to be a priority across our organization. And more importantly we want it to be embraced by the wider professional arts community asking for more public funding. This is where we can have a greater and a more sustained impact.

As I said from the beginning, our transformation is not about leaving anyone behind – especially not the artists and groups that have been historically disadvantaged. We are transforming to become more inclusive. To break down barriers. To scale up our impact.

Artists, like many of you who have accessed our targeted programs in the past, will continue to be well-served by our new programs. But we hope they will give you even more opportunities and funding options. And for those of you who have never before applied to the Council, we hope that you will now find some entry points to our programs.

Here are a few concrete ways that we’re making this happen.

We know that arts organizations are key partners is building community and in nurturing arts practices. That’s why we will be asking organizations that ask for core (or operational) funding to be more accountable and to take bold steps to advance equity and reflect diversity. It’s not just a matter of checking off a box on an application form. The funding criteria will call on them to be sure that their leadership, staff, programming and outreach reflect the diversity of their community.

I’m really excited about this change. We are the only arts council I know of that is doing this by providing the opportunity to access significantly more funding.

We also know that some of the groups doing the most exciting work in culturally diverse and Deaf and disability arts communities are not organized around the non-profit model that the Council has unintentionally favoured for so long. That’s why we are introducing what we call “composite grants.” This will allow these groups to access adequate funding that covers multiple projects at one time. At the same time, it recognizes the diverse organizational structures in which artists are currently working.

Some of you have previously accessed our grants as “cultural connectors.” You play a key role as movers and shakers in your communities and we will continue to offer project funding for this important work.

We are introducing new policies for our peer assessment process. This will help us to optimize the expertise of our peers by focusing their time on the qualitative evaluation of grant applications. Council, on the other hand, will be responsible – in a fully transparent way – for making the budget decisions in line with the peer assessment. Some of you have served on our peer assessment committees – and I hope you will continue to bring your expertise and insights on diverse arts practices to this vitally important process. We’ll be launching a call for peer assessors in December. I encourage you to apply.

There are also other changes and interventions pertaining to the new funding model that will be particularly interesting for many in this room.

Take note of this commitment because it is extraordinary: we will invest twenty-five percent (25%) of our new funds to first-time grant applicants. This will open doors to many young, culturally-diverse and deaf and disability artists who haven’t yet sought out Council funding. I’m thrilled about this direction and look forward to seeing the exciting work that will come out of this major investment in emerging artists.

Equity-seeking groups have been some of the most innovative in promoting and advancing non-traditional art-forms. Our new funding model recognizes more fields of practice (including circus arts, Deaf and disability arts, digital arts, music and “sound” arts). And it builds in flexibility to more easily support emerging fields of practice as they develop.

Many of you are doing fascinating work in the digital realm – or you may be looking for more ways to reach a broader audience. We are developing a digital strategy in order to better support innovation. We will be releasing the results of a survey we conducted recently to get input from the arts community. And I invite you to watch for details on a digital summit we will be hosting in Montréal in March 2017. These will guide a very substantial investment we’ll be making in a Strategic Fund we’re calling “Arts in the Digital World” which will complement and support our 6 new funding programs.

Finally – I want to flag another opportunity. It’s not a program under the New Funding Model, but it is the first special initiative we’ve launched with our new budget allocation. This one-time program we call “New Chapter” has been set up to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

For this program we’re looking for projects that interpret Canada in 2017 and envision our shared future. We’re looking for powerful, daring and exceptional projects. This is an opportunity for you to take greater risks and think big. The final deadline is October 31. I invite you to find out more about New Chapter on our website.

Now, I want to take a moment to look beyond granting programs… because the Council’s commitment extends to all of our activities.

The Equity Office has done exceptional work over the years. It has built the Council’s internal capacity to understand and appreciate diverse arts practices and the unique challenges of artists in marginalized communities. It has also, within the scope possible given its limited budget and resources, helped artists and organizations like you to build your capacity. Now, rather than administering small funding programs, Equity Office will take a more strategic role within the Council. It will develop the framework, policy and measures that will allow us to set, meet and report out on our ambitious goals across the organization and in the wider professional arts sector.

This global approach to advancing equity and diversity is perfectly aligned with the Council’s larger goals – to have the arts play a larger role in creating the policies that will shape our future. And that’s where I want to end this evening…

Equity in the arts = a better future for us all

Worldwide, it’s obvious that the gap in understanding and empathy between cultures is only growing. We can certainly observe this in the ongoing electoral campaign south of our boarder. In Europe, this summer alone the public discourse was full of heated, often misinformed and racist rhetoric around Brexit and burkinis. Running deep beneath these debates are issues around cultural rights and empowerment. Addressing these issues is key to coming together as a society.

I see equity and diversity in the arts as a way of reimagining and revitalizing the concept of Canadian citizenship at home and abroad. A healthy and diverse arts milieu can help counter fragmentation and disenfranchisement. It can stimulate engagement amongst communities and generate a refreshed sense of belonging.

Because if we want a society that is creative and altruistic, resilient and peaceful, harmonious and prosperous. A society where each person is able to express themselves fully and freely. Then we have to encourage the most authentic and wide-ranging engagement of citizens with the arts, culture and heritage.

For me personally – and for all of us at the Council, if in 10 years, we see the same distribution of funds, it will mean that we failed to seize this moment in history to make real change on the equity front, to make real change in the arts sector and in Canadian society. We are determined to make real change.

Recently the celebrated philosopher and intellectual Achille Mbembe was interviewed on the on the state of cultural conflict around the world. What he said inspired me – and makes me think of the Rosemary Brown quote I cited earlier…

He said: We have to open the doors and windows. We need a bit of air in these tense and stuffy times. This era is putting us to sleep while preventing us from dreaming. We have to give dreams and poetry a chance. We have to find new ways to fight – this time on a truly global scale.

I want to close by recognizing the vital work that you are all doing – often in the face of great obstacles.

When I began my speech I mentioned the history of settlement in Halifax… over time these waves of settlement have led to the renowned and diverse art scene that this city now enjoys. You, and your many vibrant arts practices, have built this art scene. And you’ve do so, despite a history of segregation and disenfranchisement. Despite the real public funding challenges in the region. And despite feeling outside of the funding culture.

I urge you to continue to push against doors and windows. Now is the time to be ambitious. Equity is everyone’s concern. Diversity is an absolute condition to a viable society. It’s time to be bold. And the Canada Council is right here with you.

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 Spotlight Equity Indigenous {Re}conciliation