Art and Social Cohesion: Who Narrates the Myths of Canadian Identity?

web-massey-commissionThis 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.

Sonnet L’Abbe

When I was accepted into a PhD program at the University of British Columbia seven years ago, Michael Valpy suggested that I try living at Green College, which he called the Massey College of UBC. I joked–I was only half joking–that in that environment I was sure to lose my “edge.”

What I meant was that I felt what informed my desire to write, and to participate in Canadian culture through writing, was a sense of having been unjustly excluded from entitlement and ownership of the very identity of being “Canadian,” a sense imposed on me by a childhood spent trying to come to terms with the phrase “visible minority.” What I was outside of, I felt, was full participation in the social and cultural life of those who called themselves, without ethnic hyphenation or racial barrier, “Canadians.”

My undergraduate arts education at York University was deeply informed by leftist, feminist, and postcolonial thinking, and had given me language to describe my sense of my sociocultural situation. It was always seeking to access, inform, break into, resist, or transform the cultural norms of a wealthy, Anglo elite, but could never actively embody those norms. I remember my shock one day at work at the University of Toronto, as I sat in a board room in the Prichard Alumni House listening to my team leader weigh the long-term communications strategies best befitting the top university in the country. I realized, as though waking from a dream, that I was in fact sitting at a table entirely surrounded by people who could and did embody those norms. I was, at however junior a level, part of a conversation that was not asking “How do we access power?” but “What do we do with this power we have?”

The artist in me found herself in a position she had never identified with, and was not sure she wished to. But by later seeking and accepting a spot as a PhD student at UBC, a school that was basically as blue-blood as U of T, and settling in as part of the Oxbridge-styled community of Green College, I essentially admitted a degree of identification with the navy blue thread of Canadian liberalism. Still, I worried that by pursuing a degree at a “Canadian ivy-league” institution, even if it was on the West coast, I risked losing the perspective of the margins and losing touch with the tender place from which, I felt, all my artistic impulse arose.

I have lived out west for seven years now, long enough to sometimes be approached to represent British Columbia as an artist, but a short enough time to still be surprised by such requests. I was recently included in an anthology of B.C. poets, for example, and was as awkwardly pleased by this inclusion as when I was invited years ago to contribute to an anthology of South Asian Canadian poets. The habit of wanting out of a minority-group box has made me unused to initiating alliances along any kind of minority lines, either racial or provincial.

So I feel–perhaps by this habit–that my take on B.C. cultural life is still somewhat that of the outsider. But as an outsider, one perhaps notices things that insiders might take for granted. One of the first things I noticed upon my arrival in Vancouver was the strong visual, public presence (in the airport, in the parks, on the university campus) of First Nations art. On one of my first walks on the campus around Green College I came across a sign on a lawn near the that read, BRITISH COLUMBIA, written in reverse, then, today your host is Lil’Wat. Another sign, again addressing a reversal of the words British Columbia as though addressing me, told me my host was St’at’yemc. The signs are part of an installation by the Cheyenne and Arapaho artist Edgar Heap of Birds.

I was also struck by the difference in the conventions of the B.C. cultural elite after all three of the first moderated events I attended opened with a recognition of the land on which we stood as the traditional territory of the Musqueam, or Squamish, or Tsleil-Watuth nation. It took me a few listens in conversation to understand that the phrase “unceded lands” didn’t mean land on which no agriculture had taken place.

This was in 2007. The way I described the difference in atmosphere between Vancouver and Toronto to my friends and family back east was that the cultural presence of the First Nations of the Lower Mainland was simply stronger than it is in Toronto. I was interested in the successful visibility of these groups of people who fit into neither dominant box: neither an immigrant visible minority nor the cultural majority. Moreover, I had been made to recognize myself as a girl from Southern Ontario, and to wonder who, if I looked at Ontario in reverse, my hosts were. I vaguely remembered a high school class about the Iroquois helping Jacques Cartier.

Moving to BC, and having the opportunity to come across First Nations cultural objects again and again in the urban landscape without having to seek them out, made me more aware of the relatively lower visibility of First Nations culture in Toronto. Toronto nurtured my multiculturalist ideals, but to state Toronto’s current ambition as moving toward an increasingly multicultural cosmopolitanism seems a limited, colonialist vision, that imagines a rainbow of immigrant colours composed harmoniously within a either a municipal or federal frame. To consider that another composition of cultures preceded these framings, one that has resisted all attempts to erase it completely. That is still there but has been treated as no more than the mounting board to this new federalist objet d’art by the narratives of cultural progress I was raised on, has had me reconsider my own position of power in what is called Canadian culture.

What I’m trying to say is that while living in British Columbia I have thought more about my own sympathies with the same reluctance some First Nations communities might feel about participating in administrative structures whose power is grounded in the appropriation of territories. I have become less interested in my participation as an immigrant-daughter in the narrative of Canada as a colony-become-nation, and more interested in how my Canadian identity might be a grappling with my own implication in that story of appropriation.


I will be moving back to Ontario from British Columbia later this year. While I have been gone, the presence of a First Nations consciousness in Ontario-based public culture has increased greatly in the wake of the attention drawn to aboriginal identity through the Attawipiskat controversy, the Idle No More movements and the activities of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. A 2013 article in NOW Magazine informs me that the practice of acknowledging that Canadians stand on land that has known inhabitants since long before European colonization is gaining popularity in Ontario. Apparently Premier Wynne often opens speeches by calling Toronto “the traditional territory of the Mississauga.”

It’s a step, say the Anishnawbe.

There are pockets of Canadian culture concentrated on campuses and in galleries, more passively accessible in BC, which are supportive of the public expression of indigenous voices that do not merely critique, but flatly deny, the very governing structure to which they appeal.

Such pockets of culture, if seen in the long-term as having been supported by federal arts policy, may seem an ironic outcome of the high-culture, modernist and nationalist impulse that created the Canada Council and the university scholarship system. As Paul Litt notes, “The commissioners would probably be appalled at some of the artistic activities that would be sponsored by the government cultural apparatus they helped to create.”

However, it is precisely in the multiple instances of that irony, seen in the CBC, in our university system and in our vibrant arts culture, when the Canadian government facilitates the public staging of its own critique, that the Canadian government also convincingly demonstrates its liberal democratic ideals. The irony is, in the end, that I am an effectively supported artist contributing to my country’s liberal humanist cultural atmosphere only insomuch as I retain, and speak from, my own “edge.” I am inspired by the work of Turtle Island artists like Edgar Heap of Birds and look forward to bringing back with me to Ontario the consciousness I gained in B.C., a consciousness now refined to an even sharper edge by my dual acculturation to old-school networks of nationalist power and to the thrumming, rising power of First Nations’ retelling of our nation-founding myths.

I’ll say more about what I think this cultural atmosphere means in terms of international soft power at the symposium.

Sonnet L’Abbe is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and Poetry at the University of British Columbia. She is also a panelist for the 2014 Walter Gordon Symposium.

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