Cultural Appropriation and the Canada Council's approach

We have prepared a series of context briefs that contain key information and resources about emerging, minoritized and less-understood arts communities and practices. Our intention is to foster greater understanding, and help ensure that internal and peer committees are equipped to make informed recommendations.

Each Context Brief is a living document and is updated from time to time to evolve with the ongoing dialogue about the topic.


Cultural appropriation is pervasive and controversial

The issue of cultural appropriation has been hotly debated in Canada since the 1980s. In recent years, fuelled in part by the rise of social media, the issue of cultural appropriation has become a global phenomenon. Often raised in the context of the mass consumption of cultural products, the issue of cultural appropriation is increasingly debated in the fields of artistic and literary creation.

Cultural appropriation has made headlines in the media and propelled issues of artistic freedom, intellectual property, identity politics, human rights, diversity and social inclusion to the forefront of public discourse. Examples include the following:

  • Theatre directors have been called to account for how they have represented cultures and communities that have been systemically disempowered or marginalized.
  • A magazine editor proposed an “Appropriation Prize” for writers.
  • Singers have used sign languages and objects associated with disability culture to fascinate or shock audiences.
  • Non-Indigenous visual artists have incorporated Indigenous sacred signs and symbols into their original works.

Questions about cultural appropriation and intercultural dialogue have long been discussed by the Canada Council’s peer assessment committees. Increasingly, program officers are called upon to facilitate the sensitive and complex conversations that are necessary in a pluralistic society. However, the importance of these discussions should not preclude a fair and rigorous assessment of applications based on the Council’s program criteria.

The Council recognizes the complex nature of assessing artistic projects and the inevitability and complexity of the cultural appropriation debate. Based on its principles of diversity and inclusion, the Council believes that art is strengthened and more pertinent when it is rooted in rigorous research, genuine consultation and dialogue.

Therefore, the Council considers that “cultural appropriation” applies when cultural borrowings or adaptations from a minoritized culture reflect, reinforce or amplify inequalities, stereotypes and historically exploitative relationships that have direct negative consequences on equity-seeking communities in Canada.

Issues and analysis

Cultural appropriation in the context of artistic and literary creation

There are multiple challenges for defining, identifying and managing potential cases of cultural appropriation in the context of public funding for the arts. Not every claim of cultural appropriation is necessarily legitimate or reasonable, especially given the wide spectrum of context-specific scenarios.

Artistic and literary creation is symbolically powerful, as it is intimately linked to and inseparable from the larger social environment. According to a universalist ideal, all artists should be able to freely draw upon shared themes, motifs or elements. However, even if creative freedom should be rightfully safeguarded, it does not constitute a cultural exception that transcends power relations or renders under-representation invisible. In a society where inequalities persist, unilaterally borrowing from a culture that is marginalized or disenfranchised can lead to many negative effects, including disempowerment, exploitation, misrepresentation and fetishization.

These adverse effects may be present even when the creator approaches the borrowed material with the best of intentions. They are especially present when under-represented communities face barriers in speaking on their own behalf. Moreover, the negative effects of cultural appropriation are amplified against the backdrop of Canada’s colonial history at a time when genuine efforts are being made to advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples based on recognition of rights, respect, cooperation and equal partnership.

Just as the Canada Council upholds the freedom of artistic creation and the advancement of equity, it also encourages democratic and civic engagement. The rights and freedoms of all citizens to engage in, critique, or celebrate artistic or literary creation―and to voice their opinions about works that depict, represent and question their culture and community―are one of the attributes of a democratic society.

The Council’s approach

A peer assessment system that reflects the diversity of Canadian society

As Canada’s public arts funder, the Canada Council is committed to the sound stewardship of the funds it receives and bases most of its funding decisions on peer assessment, according to published program criteria. The Council views peer assessment as the best way to identify the merit, relevance and impact of a project, and believes that freedom of thought and expression benefits from decision making that embraces diverse professional expertise and knowledge.

The Council invites a wide range of peer assessors to participate in its decision-making process in order to provide the highest degree of accountability, fairness and transparency. The peer assessment process at the Canada Council strives to reflect Canada’s population by representing Indigenous, culturally diverse, Deaf and disability communities and all regions, as well as ensuring a balance of gender, age and official languages.

Respect for First Nations, Inuit and Métis artistic expression, cultural protocols, rights, traditions and worldviews

In the fall of 2017, the Canada Council published a position paper entitled Supporting Indigenous art in the spirit of cultural self-determination and opposing appropriation. This paper does not prescribe a specific approach. Rather, it invites artists and arts organizations to demonstrate that “authentic and respectful efforts have been made to engage with artists or other members of the Indigenous communities whose culture or protocols are addressed by the project for which the Canada Council’s support is sought.”

Adhering to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Council supports a self-determined approach whereby respecting First Nations, Inuit and Métis artistic expression, cultural protocols, rights and worldviews is a fundamental part of the processes of conciliation and reconciliation in this country.

In keeping with this perspective, artists and arts organizations that apply for project funding are asked if their project touches upon Indigenous traditional knowledge, or linguistic or cultural intellectual property. They are invited in the Council’s application forms to describe their relationship to the content and outline how appropriate protocols will be observed or addressed. These considerations are not scored but can be discussed by the peer assessment committee if relevant. Where there are concerns, Indigenous staff members in the Creating, Knowing and Sharing: The Arts and Cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples program are available to provide additional context and expertise.

An equity policy that governs and supports the Council’s application of equity principles

The reality is that not everyone enjoys the same level of cultural access, authority and freedom. Due to systemic barriers and historical oppression, some sectors of the population are able to benefit fully from a shared culture, while others face obstacles that prevent them from expressing and living their own culture. They are therefore forced to assimilate into more dominant cultures.

Because of this power imbalance, the more powerful in society often qualify, define and claim the ability to exercise artistic autonomy and freedom of expression. When freedom of expression (including creative freedom) is framed against the backdrop of inequality and accompanied by a lack of sensitivity and inclusion, it becomes an expression of privilege and entitlement.

The Council recognizes that systems of power and systemic discrimination have created unequal conditions—including unequal distribution of financial resources—that prevent many Canadians from fulfilling their cultural capacity and fully engaging in the arts. This impacts the health, well-being and sustainability of our entire society. The Council’s Equity Policy governs and supports the application of equity principles and practices in all the Council’s activities, including those related to granting.

A practical toolkit and flexible processes support informed discussion

Grant applications are evaluated against published criteria. The regular process of peer assessment allows for discussion and debate about the current artistic and social context. Through this process, the Council strives to ensure that its funding remains relevant and that all Canadians can see themselves reflected in the country’s arts landscape.

It is important to note that the perception that cultural appropriation may be present in an application does not make it ineligible for funding. An engaged discussion involving diverse voices, opinions and perspectives should always take place. The final decision resides with the peer assessment committee in accordance with the Council’s granting procedures and published assessment criteria.

The Council encourages thoughtful and nuanced discussion of projects that involve borrowing content from or collaborating with minoritized or fragile cultural communities in Canada. Concerns related to cultural appropriation can surface in a number of ways in the peer assessment process and can be discussed in the context of various assessment criteria.

To support informed discussions about cultural appropriation, the Council provides program officers with a toolkit that includes this context brief, an FAQ and a discussion guide. Program officers may ask applicants for more information if necessary or suggest that certain funding conditions be applied to a recommended grant to mitigate concerns raised by a peer assessment committee.

A balance of freedom, responsibility and equity

The Council believes that it can respect freedom of artistic expression while also advancing equity in publicly funded art. Freedom of creation, as a principle, does not exempt artistic or literary works from public critique or questioning; artists, like all citizens, must exercise civic and democratic responsibilities. At the same time, artistic creation is not protected and isolated from systemic or historical injustices, many of which persist today. Indeed, art offers society the opportunity to engage in a critical dialogue based on interdependence and shared responsibility that advances a collective cultural construction that is truly inclusive.