Jesse Wente’s Speech at the 2021 Annual Public Meeting

January 26, 2021

I’m speaking today from Tkaronto, where the trees meet the water, and the territory of the Dish with One Spoon covenant. This is an agreement that predates Canada between the Haudenosaunee and the Anishinaabe, my people, and it has a couple of different teachings. Namely, the dish is our shared place, and the spoon is what we are allowed to bring to the dish—not a knife, a spoon—and we only take one spoonful so that others may also bring their spoon.

It’s a very old lesson and one that has kept the peace between our nations for centuries. And it’s a lesson that applies today, that reminds us of the importance of sharing, reciprocity, and care for the communities we come from and the ones we create together.

Reflections on the Chair’s role

I’m very honoured and pleased to join you today for the first time as Chair of the Canada Council.

It’s certainly been an interesting start to my term, but I’m extremely proud of the work the Council has done in this most challenging of years.

When I think about the ways in which a chair can influence an organization such as the Canada Council, I, of course, think of the most obvious ways—the current strategic planning process, for example. I also think about how we approach the issues that face us and the perspectives we bring to our common challenges as opportunities to influence the path of a place like this. A chair’s role is certainly in the boardroom, but not to the exclusion of being with the people we serve. And I certainly look forward to gathering again, with my colleagues at the Council, the remarkable artistic community they serve, and the audiences that we all belong to.

I also want to acknowledge that my presence here, in the way that I am here, is unique. As the first Chair of a Crown corporation who is also Indigenous, I hold that responsibility very close. It is important that we take on leadership roles in the institutions and organizations that affect us, and my hope is that my presence here is but another step in a journey we are all on together.

The arts at an inflection point

This journey has brought us to a moment where inequities should be obvious to all. Where anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism has once again been laid bare for all to see, and for all to work against.

This while the world continues to grapple with the ongoing pandemic, which itself has only further exacerbated existing inequalities.

We are at an inflection point, perhaps more than one, and while there is much to navigate, we are nonetheless presented with the opportunity to change, and to do so boldly. The arts are well positioned to lead this change, as it has already started, and artists are always at the forefront of guiding us beyond inflection moments.

The Canada Council has a key role to play as our sector evolves, supporting artists and organizations as they reorient themselves to new realities and best practices. The Council itself must also continue its evolution to ensure we are serving our community of artists and organizations through this moment and into a future of renewed purpose and potential. 

Yes, there is much to be done. And yes, there is much that is unknown. But we should embrace this moment not with fear, but with promise. We know we can change, we know we can adapt, we know we can make things better—as long as we focus on what we know, there is little to fear from what we do not.

Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank the Government of Canada for its ongoing confidence in the Canada Council and the work that we do.

I’d like to acknowledge the tremendous work and dedication of the Council’s staff, executive management team, Director and CEO Simon Brault, and my colleagues on the Board in the past year, responding to the pandemic while also maintaining regular activities. It’s been amazing to witness, and I am deeply proud of the work the staff and executive team have achieved during this challenging time. Chi Miigwetch.

I look forward to seeing you all again soon.

I’d like to now introduce Carolyn Warren, Director General of Arts Granting Programs, to speak more to the Council’s activities during the pandemic.