As Canadian icon Gord Downie makes history and our nation approaches its 150th birthday, the time is ripe for government to promote and strategically invest in our artists and cultural industries.
On August 20, millions of Canadians collectively wept as lead vocalist Gord Downie gave the performance of a lifetime during what was likely to be the last-ever Tragically Hip concert. After publicly announcing his struggle with terminal brain cancer, Downie poured his heart and soul onto the stage for nearly three hours in the final show of their Man Machine Poem tour, a show that was broadcast live in bars, basements, and public squares across the country. It was heart-wrenching and hopeful all at once: watching a man sing at his own wake and knowing the legacy he’ll leave behind. It also marked the bittersweet end of an era, the retirement of a band that many describe as the most Canadian thing they know.
As if the entire evening didn’t inherently showcase enough bravery, Downie took it a step further. Knowing that the entire nation was hanging on to his every word, he drew attention to the dire situation of many Indigenous communities in Northern Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – who in true Canadian fashion was in attendance – was called out. Downie praised him for his compassion, but asked Canadians to hold him accountable. His call for reconciliation was heard loud and clear, echoing through the headlines in the following days.
Shortly after, Downie announced the upcoming release of an album and graphic novel that follows the life of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year old Anishinaabe boy who died in his attempt to flee the terror of residential schools. Secret Path, the collaborative effort with illustrator Jeff Lemire, was released on October 18 and is already receiving praise for delivering on its heavy ambition. The project has also inspired an animated film that will be broadcast by CBC in an hour-long special on October 23. Many are anticipating the impact that both projects will have on Canada’s approach to addressing this crucially important issue.
Art is a direct commentary on society: sometimes it leaves you beaming with Canadian pride, and sometimes it makes you cringe because we have so much work to do to improve how society treats its most vulnerable.
The legacy of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip may be unmatched, but there are countless Canadian artists doing this work every day, and it’s important that their tireless efforts be supported. Art is inherently political, and has always acted as a catalyst for social change (think: Picasso’s Guernica). After all, it’s a direct commentary on society: sometimes it leaves you beaming with Canadian pride, and sometimes it makes you cringe because we have so much work to do to improve how society treats its most vulnerable. These realizations are often deeply uncomfortable. But that’s the point – it gets people thinking, talking, and mobilizing towards real change. Government has a crucial role to play in supporting artists that facilitate this conversation.
Compared to other countries, Canada has done well in this regard – although some governments have done better than others. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was notorious for slashing millions of dollars in arts and culture funding and often expressing an overall lack of appreciation for the industry by claiming that ordinary people simply didn’t care about the arts. Many are hopeful that Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government will rebuild the relationship between government and the arts community. The 2016 budget showed a commitment to invest heavily in these areas, allocating double the annual $182 million budget of the Canada Council for the Arts over the next five years, and investing an additional $675 million to modernize and revitalize the CBC for a new digital era. This is a good start, but there’s more we can do to ensure our arts industries flourish.
Subjects like music, the fine arts, photography, and cultural studies are important factors contributing to how a young person develops their worldview, and the benefit of giving an outlet for creative expression during a student’s development years cannot be overstated.
For starters, provincial education ministries should ensure that arts and culture programming is part of the public school curriculum and is adequately funded, designed, and delivered. In Ontario, only 43 per cent of elementary schools have a specialist teacher dedicated to music curricula – the lowest percentage of all Canadian provinces. While some have visiting or itinerant teachers, 29 per cent of Ontario schools do not have a music teacher at all. Subjects like music, the fine arts, photography, and cultural studies are important factors contributing to how a young person develops their worldview, and the benefit of giving an outlet for creative expression during a student’s development years cannot be overstated.
Of course, we know that policymakers are constantly navigating fiscal restraint, scarce resources, and an inflow of new policy challenges – and we also know that simply giving more money to Canadian artists isn’t a silver bullet solution. Existing arts funding bodies are already doing great work, and could have even more impact by being more strategic about their eligibility requirements. Institutions such as the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings (FACTOR) should ensure that grants helping new and emerging musicians who need the funds more are prioritized over grants for established recording artists. One way to do this would be to earmark larger amounts of cash and ease requirements for first-time applicants. Other funding bodies such as Telefilm could do more to improve diverse representation. For example, they could address the gender imbalance in the Canadian film industry by requiring that female directors are better represented in their share of grant recipients.
Through the requirements of grants or other means, governments at all levels should ensure that smaller communities and rural areas are both represented in and have access to the arts. While urban centres like Toronto and Montreal have a thriving arts scene, rural communities tend to lack the capacity and resources to prioritize and invest in these areas. Without widespread appreciation or prominent status for the arts, practitioners face challenges in obtaining and retaining volunteers – which are often at the core of cultural organizations – and feel overlooked by “city-centric” funding approaches. By embracing unique local heritage and showcasing it through events and festivals, smaller communities can reap huge economic benefits through cultural tourism – but only if it’s done right.
We have profoundly troubling issues to deal with – but we also have a lot to be proud of.
We’re on the right track. As Downie’s Secret Path project reminds us, we have profoundly troubling issues to deal with – but we also have a lot to be proud of. With a shift in policy priorities over the past year, Canada is once again projecting an image of stability and inclusivity against a backdrop of chaotic global politics. You can feel a deep sense of Canadian pride and identity right now, as our nation approaches its 150th birthday. It’s crucial that we harness this moment of Canadian pride to put our artists front and centre, and to rethink the way we look at arts and culture policy and funding.
Jordann Thirgood is a Policy Associate at the Mowat Centre, an independent policy think tank focused on providing a non-partisan, evidence-based voice on Ontario’s policy innovation. She is an SPPG alumni, having completed her Master of Public Policy in 2016 at the University of Toronto, and holds an Honours BA in International Development studies from the University of Guelph.