Simon Brault delivers a speech in Germany about the Canada Council’s role in supporting Canada’s cultural diplomacy.

Cultural Diplomacy:
Canada and Germany in 2020

April 5, 2019

Summary of Simon Brault’s Speech
Kanada Haus, Embassy of Canada to Germany
April 5, 2019

As an arts council, what role does the Canada Council play in supporting Canada’s cultural diplomacy efforts?

Simon Brault, Director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts, gave some insight into this question in a keynote address to the public—which we summarize here.

In particular, Simon Brault spoke about the Canada Council’s role as Canada plays Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2020. The presence of Canada in Germany on this occasion is the result of a partnership among several players. The Department of Canadian Heritage is responsible for organizing and coordinating Canada’s participation, along with support from the Department of Global Affairs Canada. And the Canada Council for the Arts is responsible for Canada’s artistic presence with Frankfurt 2020, an initiative which provides grants to support the translation of Canadian literary and non-literary works into German.

While the Canada Council has long supported artists in international exchanges, the coordinated efforts around the Frankfurt Book Fair make cultural diplomacy a very real and tangible aspect of the Council’s activities—and it crystallizes the Council’s unique role within the broader network of Canada’s diplomatic work.

The Canada Council’s Unique Contributions to Cultural Diplomacy

Simon Brault launched the discussion by noting how the past informs the current moment: the Canada Council was created in 1957, in the post-World War Two era, when there was a heightened awareness of how governments might manipulate the arts for propagandistic messages. He noted how the Council’s original architects designed the organization to have an arm’s length relationship with government so that it could support the arts while also respecting the freedom of artists to undertake work that matters to them.

This autonomy gives the Council and its contributions a unique position vis-à-vis cultural diplomacy—including with the Frankfurt Book Fair. The Council’s support to artists, and the autonomy embedded in the design of this funding, allows artists to present work that addresses the issues they consider important. In other words, their work doesn’t need to reflect the position of the Council, the government, or even the image of the country the ruling class might want to project.

The advantage to this approach? It means artists can express concerns that politicians or other leaders might be reticent to share. When artists voice these concerns, they connect with society on a fundamental level, and they generate transnational conversations that promote and secure the cultural rights of citizens and the democratic values of our society.

A Renewed and Inclusive Approach to Cultural Diplomacy

Simon Brault believes that if the Council wants to foster a form of cultural diplomacy that has an artistic dimension and that reaches across the divides of our perceived differences, it needs to ensure a full breadth of artists can participate.

To advance this goal, the Canada Council has special measures in place to ensure those artists who can speak to the many diverse experiences of Canada—including those from Indigenous, culturally diverse, Deaf and disability, and official language minority communities, as well as the next generation of creators—can connect with German audiences and have their voices heard through the events planned in the lead-up to the 2020 Frankfurt Book Fair.

Simon Brault noted the importance of changing the game not only to identify, recognize and support creative forces in our own countries, but also to propel diverse voices abroad. Institutions like the Canada Council need to make bold decisions and reposition their investments as tools for changing the landscape.

The Boomerang Effect of Cultural Diplomacy

It’s important to keep in mind that cultural diplomacy is about much more than just being heard. Simon Brault emphasized to audiences at Kanada Haus that cultural diplomacy also involves listening, exchanging and furthering a conversation together. This means Canadian artists will return from Germany with new perspectives to re-engage home audiences—a sort of boomerang effect.

He acknowledged this boomerang effect will not be immediate, as Canadian artists supported by the Council in Germany will use this platform to launch the presentation of their work in many other countries. He added that the full boomerang effect comes with the accumulative experiences of an artist abroad. As artists continue to travel, the conversations they seed in Germany will spark additional conversations—conversations about creating a common, inclusive, just and equitable future.

To close, Simon Brault emphasized that cultural diplomacy is powerful because of its flexibility and its unique ability to reach an ever-increasing number of people through the opportunities for exchange and reciprocity, renewed interest, and mutual understanding it generates.