Amid the recent debate about cultural appropriation and freedom of creation and expression, the role of the Canada Council for the Arts in awarding grants to artists and arts organizations has also been publicly questioned, particularly with respect to Kanata, Robert Lepage and Ex Machina. Although the Canada Council does not publicly comment on unsuccessful grant applications, we feel that, in this instance, it is relevant to outline certain facts and their chronology.
The Council’s special one-time program New Chapter was launched in May 2016. The program was designed to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary by investing close to 90% of the new funding that the Council had started to receive under the gradual doubling of its budget by 2021 in artistic creation.
The New Chapter program did not impose any specific themes, and was open to all artistic and literary disciplines. The arts community was invited to submit ambitious new projects given the program’s exceptionally high grant ceiling of up to $500,000 per project. The program also encouraged collaborations and partnerships that could advance artistic practice and lead to the widespread dissemination of new creation both nationally and internationally.
The number of applications submitted by artists and arts organizations was phenomenal and despite an unprecedented budget, 90% of the submitted projects were not awarded a grant. Of the 2,226 applications received requesting a total of $441.5 million, 201 projects received $35 million.
Ex Machina’s Kanata, a new dramatic work offering a reinterpretation of the history of Canada through the relationship between European settlers and Indigenous peoples, was already under development in 2015. The work was submitted to the New Chapter program in 2016. It was assessed by a peer committee on the basis of the program’s criteria, and was not recommended for a grant.
Ex Machina subsequently asked for feedback on its application. In response to the request for feedback, the Council indicated that the application had made no mention of consultations with – or inclusion of – Indigenous peoples as part of the creative process, and that this had been flagged by the peer committee as a concern.
It was not until the following year – in the fall of 2017 – that the Council formally published a statement on Indigenous cultural appropriation. This statement does not prescribe any specific approach, quota or obligation. Rather, it invites artists and arts organizations who hope to receive Council support to demonstrate genuine respect and consideration for Indigenous arts and cultures in their creative processes.
The issue of appropriation of Indigenous culture by non-Indigenous artists is not included in the Canada Council’s eligibility or funding criteria, but continues to be a topic of discussion in many peer assessment committees, as it has been for many years. The Council entrusts committee members to evaluate the feasibility and artistic merit of the projects they assess. If the issue of Indigenous cultural appropriation is raised, the committee can refer to Council’s statement to inform its deliberations.
Ex Machina has been receiving core grants from the Council for over 20 years. These grants cover a wide range of expenses, including the development and creation of projects such as Kanata and SLĀV. Ex Machina was highly assessed by a peer committee in 2017 and, as proactively reported on the Council’s website, was awarded a core grant of $420,000. The company has also been successful in applying for other grants for travel, circulation and touring.
It should be noted that the Canada Council for the Arts is a Crown corporation that develops policies and programs and makes funding decisions free from any political interference or influence. For the Council, peer assessment continues to be the best way to identify artistic excellence and merit. With a decision-making process that incorporates a variety of professional expertise and knowledge, freedom of thought and freedom of expression can thrive. Overall, the Council’s peer committees reflect the diversity of Canada’s population, including representation from Indigenous, culturally diverse, Deaf and disability and official language minority communities, as well as regional representation and a balance of gender, age and official languages. These committees assess grant applications according to the Council’s Funding Principles.
Art has the power to generate debate in society. The Canada Council is actively following the current debates, and encourages dialogue and openness. As a public arts funder, it will continue to support respectful dialogue among artists and also among committee members about concerns surrounding the appropriation of Indigenous cultures. The Council will also continue to uphold the principle of freedom of expression as a cornerstone of democratic society.
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