Moving Forward: Research on the Value of Public Funding for Indigenous Arts and Cultures

A photographic work of art representing fourteen hand-built sleds standing upright equal distance apart across the sea ice under a light blue sunny sky.
Moving with joy across the ice while my face turns brown from the sun, 2019, by Maureen Gruben — one of 28 new artworks by Indigenous artists recently acquired by the Canada Council Art Bank. Courtesy of the artist, and Cooper Cole, Toronto. Photographer(s): Brandon Clarida Image Services

June 2023 – Former Canada Council Director and CEO Simon Brault and Director of the Creating, Knowing, and Sharing program Odile Joannette share their thoughts on work done further to the publishing of Research on the Value of Public Funding for Indigenous Arts and Cultures, 2022.

Q: Simon and Odile, how are the findings from the 2022 research influencing the Canada Council?

Simon: I think the research has been transformative for the Council. It helped honour Indigenous ways of knowing, and helped us hear artists’ voices, acknowledge our biases, and know what’s working and what needs improvement.

The research results confirm the impact of the Creating, Knowing, and Sharing program, which represented a change in our way of supporting artists and arts organizations. Since the launch of the program, the Canada Council has more than tripled its annual support for Indigenous arts and cultures—a significant step. The research also confirmed where the Council’s everyday efforts are helping, and where we can go even deeper with things, like pursuing different co-delivery models for our funding.

Of course, the effort is far from over. The research shows where improvements can be made in providing better access to Council programs. This needs to happen over time as we need to keep learning and trying what works, what doesn’t work, and to find what’s sustainable.

Odile: For over 20 years, I’ve participated in all kinds of consultations and contributed to all kinds of reports. I think these research results stand out because they not only reiterate what First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples have been asking for, for a long time, they reflect a collaboration between both Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers and different ways of doing research, which helps build understanding enormously.

The results also help highlight what art means to Indigenous Peoples, and how that expression links to their culture, ancestors, communities, and the artists’ responsibility to future generations. I think it’s all helping the Council support this broader definition of art, as well as Indigenous self-determination.

The findings also clearly recognize all the efforts the Council is making and that we are on the right path.

Q: Looking back over the years, how has support of Indigenous artistic and cultural expression evolved?

Simon: I think the biggest evolution is our deeper understanding of what Canada is and should be, and in the recognition of Indigenous Nations. Over my years at the Canada Council, there has been sincere effort to try to make Canada Council programs more accessible and representative of Indigenous realities and perspectives.

There has been incredible progress over the past decade. Today, strong and diverse Indigenous voices are found across every form of art and cultural expression in Canada, from theatre festivals, literature, and opera, to visual art, cinema, dance, and architecture. And there is incredible recognition and appetite for Indigenous creations, not just here, but on the international stage as well.

Indigenous artists are busier than ever and have never been as recognized—and this must absolutely continue to grow. Creativity is a beautiful, inspiring, and brave avenue for reconciliation.

Odile: Over the two years I’ve been here, what strikes me is the increasing number of Indigenous projects funded across several Canada Council programs—they are clearly valued here. The fact that the Creating, Knowing, and Sharing program now has 5% of the Council’s funding envelope is a major step. And that’s not including all the initiatives the Council supported outside the program.

I’ve also seen things increasingly going in the right direction around supporting Indigenous artists in terms of mentoring, language recognition, capacity development, the recognition of transport costs for those living in rural and northern areas, and the updating of outdated program criteria and old notions of professionalism and “excellence.”

But, as Simon says, there is more to do in terms of making sure people know about and can access Council programs, especially for applicants with limited Internet connectivity or for those who communicate and share best by speaking.

Q: You’ve talked before about how Indigenous and non-Indigenous worldviews can come together to create a better shared future. What does this “decolonizing” journey at the Canada Council look like to you?

Simon: The word “decolonizing” keeps being used in different places, and it’s a word that can be confusing, it might mean different things to different people, or not be understood at all.

I think the journey at the Canada Council will not be to define a word or to define a linear process, but to simply co-develop a short and a long-term vision of where the Canada Council and Indigenous communities want to be in terms of supporting Indigenous artistic and cultural expression.

I think that the power of art is immense and that in this journey around supporting artists, you must guard against old habits, words, and notions, and not try to bureaucratize social change. For me, the main thing is to recognize and support artistic talent and acknowledge that profound change is about changing hearts.

It all takes time, but there is always room for joy in our efforts and encounters.

Odile: I think we must keep trying to understand historic challenges and the broader barriers Indigenous communities are still facing in areas like education and isolation.

Moving forward, some key guiding principles include things like decentralizing our approach, increasing the Council’s understanding of different regions, and recognizing the complex relationships among all Indigenous cultures in Canada. It also includes working more with partners, youth and elders who understand communities and their priorities, and trying to be nimbler.

There is a lot of enthusiasm at the Council about the opportunities ahead for creative Indigenous people, and I think that as leaders in Canada keep engaging in self-determination, that the experiences of future generations of Indigenous artists will be very different from the past. We want the next generation of Indigenous artists to aspire to a career in the arts.

For more about this and other research, visit the Canada Council research page