The Arts as a Vector of Social Cohesion and Development in Canadian Communities

This year’s Walter Gordon Symposium is co-hosted by Massey College and the School of Public Policy and Governance, and explores the oft-overlooked subject of public policy in the arts. In the week leading up to the March 26-27 event, the PPGR will be featuring writing on the subject of the arts, cultural policy, and the ‘soft’ power of civilizations.

Vasuda Sinha

Immigration is held as a defining component of Canada’s social fabric. The irony, however, is that immigrants whose experiences form a part of the Canadian  myth often do not feel wholly “Canadian” themselves. One reason for this derives from the fact that the stories of recent immigrants are not intertwined with the history of the country itself: the absence of an established historical connection can limit the emotional connection one can have with one’s geographic home. That said, there is no doubt that immigrants to Canada often become some of its most socially-engaged residents. Something about the immigrant experience can ultimately lead to the forging of an emotional connection to the nation—the question is: how?

In my own experience as an immigrant who grew up on the prairies, the absence of a historical connection with my “home” province of Saskatchewan was gradually overcome as I participated in cultural experiences aimed at highlighting the province’s history. Some of my most memorable experiences in this regard were school trips to museums and galleries  designed to emphasize particular aspects of Saskatchewan’s historical importance within the Canadian story. While I had no personal history that connected me to the wheat and canola fields that surrounded Saskatoon, through visits to the Western Development Museum I was taught to be vicariously proud of the prairies’ farming history and the role it played in Canada’s sea-to-sea development. Similarly, school trips to Wanuskewin Heritage Park helped highlight the importance of the deep connection between the First Nations and the country’s early history, while visits to what remained of the village at Batoche sensitized me to the some of the darker aspects of the Canadian story.

Visiting museums and historical sites of these kinds, that anyone from outside of the prairies would surely consider bizarre, helped to forge a “prairie identity” in me even though I had no reason for one otherwise. The reality is that those bizarre cultural experiences were one of the ways in which I developed a connection with Saskatchewan and its history. And though I’ve lived abroad for half my life, I do consider Saskatchewan “home” in many ways.

History and culture are deeply intertwined conceptually and in fact. The Canadian context allows this to be taken one step further, however, as the idea of historical learning as a cultural experience is a way of facilitating our social cohesion. This is because participating in a cultural experience, whether in a museum, or gallery or historical site, is almost certain to elicit an emotional response. The simple act of learning or experiencing history collectively, whereby a group of people may undergo similar emotional responses to a piece of national history in which they may not all share, is a way that the social ties that bind us are developed and strengthened.

The reality is that for social cohesion to have any strength or meaning, it has to be rooted in emotion: for the demographically and geographically disparate individuals  that form Canada’s population to sustain interconnectedness, we have to feel a reason to be interconnected. However, such interconnection is difficult to foster in circumstances where the personal histories of so many people are not unified with national history.

One way to overcome that difficulty is to unify Canadians through how they experience Canada and its history. The idea of Canadian history as culture, and the collective experience of that culture is one way to develop the social unity that is so critical to a healthy democracy.

Vasuda Sinha is an alumna of Massey College at the University of Toronto.

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