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What would Massey see today? The Massey Commission and its Legacy

March 27, 2014

Speaking Notes for Robert Sirman, Former Director and CEO
Canada Council for the Arts
Walter Gordon Symposium
Massey College, University of Toronto
March 27, 2014

The Mandate of the Massey Commission

With apologies to those already familiar with the background, some essential facts about the Massey Commission. The Commission’s official name was The Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences. It was established by Order in Council in April 1949 under the Liberal Government of Louis St. Laurent. There were five commissioners: Vincent Massey, Chair, a former diplomat and Chancellor of the University of Toronto; Arthur Surveyor, a Civil Engineer and businessman based in Montreal; Norman A. M. MacKenzie, President of the University of British Columbia; the Most Reverend Georges-Henri Lévesque, founder and Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Laval University; and Hilda Neatby, a History Professor at the University of Saskatchewan. So, four men, one woman. Vancouver, Saskatoon, Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec City. Four anglophones, one francophone.

What is most striking today is the extraordinary breadth of the Commission’s original mandate. As stated in the opening paragraph of the Report, the Commission’s mandate covered “the entire field of letters, the arts and sciences within the jurisdiction of the federal state.” The Order in Council lists the following:

  1. “the principles upon which the policy of Canada should be based in the fields of radio and television broadcasting;
  2. “such agencies and activities of the government of Canada as the National Film Board, the National Gallery, the National Museum, the National War Museum, the Public Archives and the care and custody of public records, the Library of Parliament; methods by which research is aided including grants for scholarships through various Federal Government agencies; the eventual character and scope of the National Library; the scope or activities of these agencies, the manner in which they should be conducted, financed and controlled, and other matters relevant thereto;
  3. “methods by which the relations of Canada with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and other organizations operating in the field should be conducted;
  4. “relations of the government of Canada and any of its agencies with various national voluntary bodies operating in the field with which this inquiry will be concerned.”

As if that were not enough, the Prime Minister wrote to the Commission a year later to add:

  1. “Methods for the purpose of making available to the people of foreign countries adequate information concerning Canada.
  2. “Measures for the preservation of historical monuments.” (Letter from Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent, April 25, 1950)

The scope of the enquiry was unprecedented in Canada, and has never been repeated. Given the expansion of all fields of activity cited in the original mandate, it is unthinkable that such a broad mandate could be assigned to a five-member Royal Commission today.

In the two years following their appointment, the Commissioners hosted 114 public hearings in 16 cities in all 10 provinces. They received over 1,200 witnesses and 462 briefs. They commissioned studies on specific topics, established four advisory committees, met 224 times, and logged over 10,000 miles. When they finally reported in May 1951, the 517-page Report contained 146 recommendations, and was accompanied by 55 volumes of supporting documentation.

The Establishment of the Canada Council for the Arts

The reason I am here today is because the apex of the Massey Report was the recommendation to create the Canada Council, with the final chapter of the Report entitled “A Council for the Arts, Letters, Humanities and Social Sciences.” The recommendation reads: “That a body be created to be known as the Canada Council for the Encouragement of the Arts, Letters, Humanities and Social Sciences to stimulate and to help voluntary organizations within these fields, to foster Canada’s cultural relations abroad, to perform the functions of a national commission for UNESCO, and to devise and administer a system of scholarships as recommended [earlier in the Report].” (p. 377)

The Canada Council was indeed established five years after the release of the Report, becoming operational in 1957 while St. Laurent was still Prime Minister, and it is this body, the Canada Council for the Arts, which I head all these years later.

The Canada Council was seen at the time as a distinctly Canadian solution to bring together in one organization mandates similar to those of the Arts Council of Great Britain (developing culture within Canada), the British Council (promoting cultural relations outside of Canada), and a national commission for UNESCO (fulfilling the vision of UNESCO’s founders that member nations have a mechanism to unite both government bodies and civil society in its work).

The initial legislation, Bill 47, was entitled An Act for the Establishment of a Canada Council for the Encouragement of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Its name in English was to be the Canada Council, and in French, Le Conseil des Arts du Canada. Twenty years later, in 1977, the Canada Council was severed into two separate bodies, the Canada Council for the Arts and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

Some of you may be old enough to recall that in 1992 the Federal Government announced its intention to merge the two organizations back together again, and add the International Cultural Relations Program of the Department of External Affairs, but despite approval by Parliament, the legislation was defeated in the Senate in 1993 and the merger abandoned.

From the Commission to Today

One of the pleasures of the current enterprise is to image what Vincent Massey would think if he were alive today. How would he respond to the world outside our doors, given what we know from the contents of the Massey Report?

The Canadian Conference for the Arts

Well, as a start, Massey would be totally perplexed at the recent demise of the Canadian Conference of the Arts. In Massey’s day, the Canadian Conference of the Arts was called the Canadian Arts Council. It had been formally constituted in 1945, four years before the Massey Commission, as a multidisciplinary national arts advocacy body. When the Massey Commission was launched, the Canadian Arts Council took full advantage of the opportunity to put forward a strong vision for the future of the arts in Canada and recommended: establishing a national arts board independent from government; creating a National Library of Canada; establishing a national commission for UNESCO; strengthening Canada’s arts training infrastructure; increasing the public’s access to art; prioritizing cultural expression indigenous to Canada; improving the economic circumstances of artists; and promoting a tri-level – federal, provincial, municipal – model of public support for culture. Sound familiar? It ought to. These are in broad strokes the same recommendations the Commission brought forward two years later. The Canadian Arts Council, an artist-based advocacy body, had largely anticipated the recommendations of the Report.

The Canadian Arts Council changed its name to the Canadian Conference of the Arts in 1958 to avoid confusion with the newly established Canada Council. Under its new name the Canadian Conference of the Arts continued to operate for another half century, doing important work in regularly convening the sector, undertaking research on critical issues, and contributing to broad public debate on a range of subjects, including taxation, status of the artist, broadcasting, copyright, cultural policy, corporate and private philanthropy, and public investment in the arts. Over time it became increasingly reliant on that same public investment, and when its federal funding dried up during the last round of federal government constraints it literally collapsed. Despite efforts to secure alternative funding, it found itself without the financial means to continue and simply shut its doors.

The vacuum created by this action – the absence of a united and independent voice for the Canadian cultural sector – would be particularly distressing to Massey because of a theme that runs through the Report, and that is the critical role played by what are identified as voluntary societies. Chapter VI is entirely devoted to this subject, and includes the statement: “In our examination of the voluntary societies we were struck by the manner in which they reflect the general processes of democracy, adapted to particular conditions in Canada.” I am struck by how much this sounds like Alexis de Tocqueville in his two-volume study Democracy in America. Especially in the second volume published in 1840, Tocqueville argues that a critical underpinning for the practice of democracy in the United States is the way Americans voluntarily come together to get things done, and how this practice is scalable from the smallest village to the nation as a whole.

The Massey Report’s recommendation to create the Canada Council is largely a provocation to Government to better support the work of voluntary societies – and by extension, democracy. It would be unfathomable to Massey that Canada’s cultural well-being is no longer a sufficiently compelling common interest to sustain a national advocacy body.

The role of Georges-Henri Lévesque and Voluntary Societies

I have been referring solely to Massey in these comments, but this is a bit of an heuristic shortcut. The chapter on voluntary societies has the strong stamp of another of the Commissioners, the Most Reverend Georges-Henri Lévesque. Take this passage, for example: “The importance of voluntary societies in a democracy needs little emphasis in this generation which knows that their suppression is the first move of a dictatorship; but it is perhaps not fully realized to what extent democracy depends upon their activities. The fine tradition of the voluntary society which performs work of national importance beyond what government can or will do is perhaps rightly regarded by English-speaking Canadians as their special contribution to our common life in Canada. This claim is partly although not entirely justified, since France too has had her tradition of voluntary effort; but in a more fully centralized state the role of the voluntary organization has been inevitably less vigorous.” (p. 66)

This is language that bears the mark of a social scientist committed to bridging the two solitudes of English- and French-speaking Canadians, and that is Lévesque. A close reading of the Report makes clear the strong contribution he made to ensuring that the Report give more than lip service to French-speaking Canada, and I suspect he was also responsible for the Report’s including an epigraph from St. Augustine’s The City of God.

Massey would be amused, nevertheless, to discover that over the years the Commission and the Report have been subject to subtle revisionism, and are often referred to today – presumably on the grounds of political correctness – as the Massey-Lévesque Commission and the Massey-Lévesque Report.

It reminds me of a challenge I faced when I arrived at Canada’s National Ballet School in 1991. Betty Oliphant had led the School for its first three decades, and during that time she had gradually assumed the title “founder” and written Celia Franca out of the record, despite Celia’s role as the driving force behind its establishment while Director of the National Ballet of Canada. Trying to put Celia back into the record was a nightmare. “Celia was the real founder,” Betty once told me, “but I deserve the title.” Fortunately, time has its advantages. Two decades later both women are gone, and the School’s letterhead now celebrates them both as co-founders, listed alphabetically.


The demise of the Canadian Conference of the Arts is small potatoes compared to what has happened to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation portrayed in the Report. At the middle of the last century, the CBC was the strongest, the most enlightened, and the best resourced cultural player in Canada. According to the Massey Report, it had three objectives: to provide adequate coverage of the entire country; to ensure opportunities for Canadian talent and self-expression; and to resist Canada’s absorption into the “general cultural patterns of the United States.” In summarizing its impact after 15 years of operations, the Report identified the CBC as the most critical player in the development of Canadian music, Canadian writing, and Canadian theatre. It was the strongest uniting force for a small population – 14 million – in a large country, and the nation’s most powerful weapon against the cultural domination of its people by American mass media.

How different the CBC’s circumstances today. Despite so many other cultural gains for Canada, Massey would be greatly distressed by the diminishment of the CBC.

Three Themes of the Massey Report

This is a good place to talk briefly about three themes that weave themselves throughout the report.

Historic role of American foundations

The first is the historic role of American foundations in supporting higher learning in Canada. At the time of the Massey Commission the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Guggenheim Foundations were major investors in Canadian scholarship, and the Report goes to some pains to document the significance of this investment in its appendices. Following the Second World War, university enrolment in both the United States and Canada ballooned with returning veterans, and in the early 1950s these American-based foundations signaled their intention to withdraw from Canada to better meet growing demands at home.

These circumstances put pressure on the Canadian Government to establish the Massey Commission in the first place – how would Canada replace the American foundations in the realm of higher education? - and it is the foundation model that likely inspired the Government to establish an endowment to underwrite the Canada Council’s budget. The Council began with no other source of revenue than the income of its endowment, but in short measure its needs far outpaced its resources, and in 1965 it received its first Parliamentary appropriation. Today the Council’s Parliamentary appropriation covers roughly 95% of its budget.

New Technology

The second theme is new technology. The extensive discussion of how the arrival of television was changing cultural practices makes for fascinating reading all these decades later. In particular, the Commissioners critiqued what they saw as an increasing cultural passivity, triggering the following observation: “The fact that there is a tendency to spend increasing leisure in gazing and listening or in aimless motoring has been presented to us as a growing threat to culture and even to intelligent behaviour.” (p. 70)

Today we are conscious of another technological challenge. While in the past new technologies like roads and railroads tended to unite, today’s technological advancements seem only to connect. It is not the technology that unites, but the content transmitted by that technology, and the biggest challenge today is strengthening the public’s engagement with that content.

Supply and Demand

The third theme I wish to highlight is the degree to which the Report reinforces the belief that there was a strong demand in Canada for more indigenous cultural expression. The notion of need, hunger or appetite is repeated throughout, and while I noted one contrary observation – “The Canadian hunger for music of Canadian composers is not difficult to satisfy” (p. 185) – I would argue that this exception simply reinforces the rule.

We know that today this proposition has been turned entirely on its head. There is far more supply than demand in the cultural sphere, although people still “hunger” for meaningful experience. A 21st Century Commission would almost certainly focus more on engaging the public with the cultural offer than on increasing the offer itself.

As part of its work the Massey Commission contracted Robertson Davies, at the time a well-known Canadian writer and actor, to prepare a special study on “The Theatre in Canada.” The Massey Report summarizes Davies’ conclusions as follows: “The point was made to us, in general, that the burdens now pressing upon drama in Canada should be lessened, but that there should be for Canadian drama no direct contribution of public money.” (p. 199)

From the theatre community’s perspective, thank heavens Davies’ opinions had minimal sway at the Canada Council. In constant 2013 dollars we estimate that over its history the Canada Council has invested more than $6 billion in grants and payments in the arts sector in Canada. Easily a fifth of this has gone to theatre, so by my estimate the theatre sector would be short a billion dollars if the Council had followed Davies’ advice. I can only assume his judgment had improved by the time he became Master here at Massey College.

The Report makes special reference to how “wittily” Robertson Davies presented his arguments, so I think it only fair to return the compliment and underline how well-written, certainly by today’s standards, was the Massey Report. Consider, for example, this excerpt from the section on architecture and town planning (yes, there was a section on architecture and town planning): “We were told, for example, of a housing project for veterans arranged by one federal agency directly in the path of the Trans-Canada Highway.” (p. 220)

Or this on the subject of archives: “The history of Canada’s public records goes back to 1872 when a petition…induced Parliament to vote $4,000 and the services of a ‘senior second class clerk’ for their collection and preservation. This activity was carried on in that traditionally hospitable department, the Department of Agriculture.” (p. 111) Massey would be aghast, I think, at what passes for professional report writing today.

A Constant: Artists’ Standard of Living

Artists’ Remuneration

Some things never change, and one of them, unfortunately, is the poverty of most practicing artists in Canada. In the chapter “The Artist and the Writer” the case is made that no artists can live off their art in Canada. The authors typically use the term “artist” to refer to visual artists, but a similar observation is contained in the chapter “Music,” and I quote: “The Canadian concert artist and the Canadian professional musician fare rather better than the Canadian composer since they find it not entirely impossible but only extremely difficult to gain a precarious livelihood from their art.” (p. 188)

Enormous progress has been made on many fronts since 1951. In 2011-12 the Canada Council provided over $79 million in operating grants to 800 arts organizations, not including book and magazine publishers. These same 800 organizations – 798, to be exact – reported revenues that year of almost $1.2 billion. This is big money, and it’s numbers like this that support economic arguments for public investment.

But these big numbers do not necessarily translate into significant compensation for artists. Based on the 2006 census, median earnings in the nine arts occupations specifically tracked by Statistics Canada were less than half the median earnings of the overall labour force. For the 140,000 people identified in 2006 as actors and comedians, artisans and craftspersons, authors and writers, conductors, composers and arrangers, dancers, musicians and singers, other performers, producers, directors and choreographers, and visual artists, median earnings in 2005 were $12,885. The average worker, by comparison, earned $26,850. No matter how you slice it, the average artist in Canada is living well below the poverty line.

Existential vs. Instrumental Economics

Trying to make sense of these numbers reminds me of an experience I had a few years ago here at U of T – at the Rotman School of Management, actually – where I spoke to an MBA class about public investment in the arts. In the course of the exchange the teacher mentioned in passing that there were several instances in the economics literature of how artists acted irrationally. He cited, as an example, a mathematical formula used by economists to predict how much education someone would pursue. According to this model, people went to school until they realized that they could not regain their investment of time and money in their working lives, at which point they left the educational arena and entered the labour force. The big exception, said the teacher, was artists, who continued to study long after the prospect of any possible benefit. Ergo, the irrationality of artists.

You can imagine how outraged I was by all of this, and how relieved I was to subsequently stumble upon a subset of economists who challenge this totally instrumental view of human behaviour. One economist explained this to me as the difference between existential economics and instrumental economics, with the existential economists concerned with how society places value on experience, especially as it contributes to quality of life and the state of one’s soul, while instrumental economists prioritized consumption, especially as it satisfies basic physical needs and urges, and the creation of wealth.

This debate has considerable resonance with much of the conceptual underpinning of the Massey Report. The opening chapter states: “There have been in the past many attempts to appraise our physical resources. Our study, however, is concerned with human assets, with what might be called in a broad sense spiritual resources, which are less tangible but whose importance needs no emphasis.” (p.4)

Balance: Economic, Social and Cultural Development, and Public Service

The Report goes on to frame the development of those human assets in the context of life-long learning or life-long education. “Culture is that part of education which enriches the mind and refines the taste. It is the development of the intelligence through the arts, letters and sciences.” (p. 7) “If the Federal Government is to renounce its rights to associate itself with other social groups, public and private, in the general education of Canadian citizens, it denies its intellectual and moral purpose, the complete conception of the common good is lost, and Canada, as such, becomes a materialistic society.” (p. 8)

Imagine what Massey would feel about the Canada of today. The Massey Report argues for a balance between economic development (largely based on the exploitation of natural resources) and social and cultural development (largely based on “the development of the intelligence through the arts, letters and sciences”). In the words of the Report: “Canadian achievement in every field depends mainly on the quality of the Canadian mind and spirit. This quality is determined by what Canadians think, and think about; by the books they read, the pictures they see and the programmes they hear. These things, whether we call them art and letters or use other words to describe them, we believe to lie at the roots of our life as a nation.” (p. 271)

By contrast, political messaging today largely asserts the primacy of economic wealth, and advocates harnessing culture to contribute to that wealth. Despite Massey’s appeal for balance, in today’s society the economy rules.

There is clear evidence in the Report that Massey was aware of this danger, especially in the sections on broadcasting and new technology. “The tidal wave of technology can be more damaging to us than to countries with older cultural traditions possessing firmer bulwarks against these contemporary perils,” said the Report. (p.272) The Commissioners were heavily lobbied by private broadcasters to dismantle the protection and control that the CBC had enjoyed as Canada’s public broadcaster for the previous 15 years. Two competing models for broadcasting are presented in the Report, the industrial model practiced in the United States, and the public trust model followed in Great Britain and France. The Report clearly sides with the public trust model, and recommends that the CBC be the single federal authority providing national broadcasting service in both radio and television in Canada, including regulatory oversight for private networks. With reference to television, it recommends: “that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation exercise a strict control over all television stations in Canada in order to avoid excessive commercialism and to encourage Canadian content and the use of Canadian talent.” (p. 305)

But the writing was on the wall, even then. The Commissioners were not in fact unanimous on this issue. One of them, Arthur Surveyer, signed the Report but filed a separate statement of Reservations and Observations siding with the private broadcasters and recommending the creation of an independent regulatory body for broadcasting. He also recommended that the National Film Board be legally required to give work to outside film producers and photographers equivalent to 50% of its yearly sales or annual production budget.

Despite the Massey Report’s recommending the public trust option, the private broadcasters, with Surveyer’s support, won the day. In 1957 the Liberal Government of Louis St-Laurent fell to the Diefenbaker-led Conservatives, and a year later an independent Board of Broadcast Governors was established. This is the body that we know today as the CRTC – the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission.

Canada’s Role on the International Stage and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO

Similar erosion took place from a cultural perspective in Canada’s role internationally, but this is far more recent. The Report’s initial vision for Canada on the international front, including advancing the work of UNESCO, was embraced by the federal government for many years. The Canada Council was given authority to work in this arena in its 1957 founding legislation. The Council in turn recruited a network of government bodies, institutions, associations and individuals into the Canadian Commission for UNESCO to assist it in delivering on these responsibilities. The Department of External Affairs added staff and resources to support the nation’s cultural diplomacy objectives, and in 1995 the Government added culture as the third pillar of foreign policy, working with the Canada Council in supporting a range of international cultural activities, including international touring, in its PromArt program. The Department of Canadian Heritage also took a proactive stance on a number of fronts internationally, including the introduction of its Trade Routes program in 2001 to address the trade imbalance in the cultural sector through promoting Canadian cultural industries abroad.

The last decade has seen a clear pull-back in this activity, and today there is little formal acknowledgment of a federal cultural diplomacy agenda. It is hard to know how much of this is intentional and how much the unintended consequence of a succession of fiscal restraint exercises. The result, nevertheless, is indisputable: Canada is out of step with many other nations on this issue. Asian powers, especially China and Korea, have ramped up their investments in so-called soft power, setting off alarm bells for many Western European nations like the UK and France who have traditionally lead in this arena. Even the US is doing more, as we saw last week with Michelle Obama’s calligraphy classes and ping-pong diplomacy in China.

If the positioning of the National Arts Centre Orchestra’s recent tour to China is any indication, I suspect that Canada’s ostensive withdrawal from the field of cultural diplomacy will prove to be short-lived. In the meantime, we are living through a period of heightened competitiveness, more “Own the Podium” than “Welcome the World.”

Still, Massey would be encouraged by Canada’s continuing commitment to UNESCO. While much more could be done, the Canadian Commission for UNESCO is among the most active and successful national commissions in the world, and Canada continues to be an active player at the UNESCO table.

Massey would also approve the expanded vision of UNESCO from advancing a culture of peace to building sustainable futures. Less certain would be his endorsement of Canada’s approach to the extraction of non-renewal resources, and its record on First Nations.


To end on a high note, let me list some things about the Canada of today that I think would give Vincent Massey a deep sense of pleasure and fulfillment. In no particular order:

  • The riot of colour in downtown St. John’s – in Massey’s day, the wood-framed houses were white;
  • Leonard Cohen, who received a grant from the Canada Council in its first year of existence;
  • Cirque du Soleil, providing quality, Canadian-branded entertainment on a global scale;
  • Alice Munro and the other Canadian writers who put Canadian literature on the world stage;
  • Inuit art, and the ascension of Aboriginal arts practice from coast to coast to coast – a totally unimagined possibility at the time of the Massey Report;
  • Jeff Wall and Denys Arcand and Stan Douglas and Atom Egoyan and the countless others in the world of Canadian film and photo-based art;
  • The explosive diversity of an hour spent on the Toronto subway, or the Vancouver Skytrain, or the Montreal Metro;
  • The theatre and gallery and music listings in every urban centre in Canada;
  • The National Gallery of Canada, which in Massey’s time had no building and a staff of four;
  • Karen Kain and Angela Hewitt and Marie Chouinard and Wanda Koop and Ann-Marie MacDonald and all the other women who changed the gender landscape of arts practice in Canada;
  • The new Canadian War Museum (at the time of the Massey Report, the War Museum was in a 48’ by 110’ stucco building, occasioning the observation: “Because of its inadequate facilities, the [war] museum finds it impossible to accept for display a great number of interesting but bulky items such as aircraft, guns or tanks” (p. 90));
  • Canada’s tax laws that allow voluntary societies to be considered for charitable tax status – just a dream at the time of the Massey Report;
  • The enormous expansion of post-secondary education in Canada;
  • The presence of specialized arts training institutions like the National Theatre School of Canada and the National Circus School and the National Ballet School;
  • An annual Arts Summit of the 50 largest arts organizations in the country, each with a budget of many millions of dollars;
  • The existence of cultural districts in major Canadian cities;
  • Political acceptance of the arm’s length principle; and
  • The Theatre Centre’s transformation of the former Carnegie Library on Toronto’s Queen Street West into an incubator for Canadian theatre.

It is a mixed picture, to be sure, and grossly incomplete, but this is some of what Massey would see today.

Robert Sirman
Robert Sirman

Former Director and CEO

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