The clerks are out of control
How the Canada Council has gone from funding art to directing it
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The Massey Commission (1951), from which all public funding of arts, culture, and scholarly research in Canada derives, and out of which our flagship granting body, the Canada Council for the Arts, was born, knew that it was pushing the nation into perilous terrain. “The dangers inherent” in any system of grants from the central government to arts, letters, and culture was that “the government or its agents would attempt not merely to encourage but to direct” artistic and cultural expression.
The Massey Commission was not the first entity to confront this issue. Much like the Great Canadian Baking Show is a re-staging of the Great British Baking Show, the Massey Commission itself was a knockoff of a UK original (a sad commentary on an initiative intended to define and promote Canada’s unique national identity). The UK effort resulted in the establishment of the British Arts Council, initially chaired by Lord Keynes (above). Massey quoted him at length on the potential pitfalls of arts funding:
At last the public exchequer has recognized the support and encouragement of the civilizing arts of life as part of their duty. But we do not intend to socialize this side of social endeavour. Whatever views may be held by the lately warring parties, whom you have been hearing every evening at this hour, about socializing industry, everyone, I fancy, recognizes that the work of the artist in all its aspects is, of its nature, individual and free, undisciplined, unregimented, uncontrolled. The artist walks where the breath of the spirit blows him. He cannot be told his direction; he does not know it himself. But he leads the rest of us into fresh pastures and teaches us to love and to enjoy what we often begin by rejecting, enlarging our sensibility and purifying our instincts. The task of an official body is not to teach or to censor, but to give courage, confidence and opportunity."
The founders of the Canada Council felt so strongly about the dangers of political interests imposing themselves on the arts, using federal money to force artistic and cultural activities in one direction or another, that they built checks and balances into its founding legislation. The Canada Council was made a crown corporation, at arm’s length from political types, and its board members were required to “avoid the promotion of any personal interests” or any other specific interests, whether on behalf of regions or “stakeholder groups.”
I can’t speak to the whole of the Canada Council’s activities, but from what I’ve seen of its annual reports, public statements, and funding practices, the Canada Council has jumped the tracks and is now fully dedicated to teaching, censoring, and directing artistic endeavour.
Here’s Simon Brault, chief executive of the Canada Council, giving an enthusiastic endorsement of the core Trudeau government priorities of Indigenous rights and environmental activism:
“We need to reimagine an arts sector determined to eliminate racism and discrimination in every form, and the legacy of colonialism. We need to reimagine the arts’ rightful place in the conversations that shape our future. And we need to reimagine, through the arts, a greener and more just and equitable world.”
Even if you agree with Brault’s priorities, you have to admit that he is not straightforwardly supporting artistic endeavor but pushing the arts-and-culture sector toward the achievement of a socio-political program.
This mission is also explicit in the Canada Council’s new five-year plan, which has surprisingly little to say about lifting artists and arts organizations out of penury, which some might consider a laudable goal after years of financial crisis and pandemic:
Those are the council’s highlights, not mine.
This past week, the politicization of the Canada Council reached new heights when Brault announced that in solidarity with the Ukrainian people he would cease to fund any “activity involving the participation of Russian or Belarusian artists or arts organizations…. This includes partnerships, direct and indirect financing of tours, co-productions, participation in festivals or other events held in Russia.”
In other words, because Russia invaded Ukraine, Canadians won’t be able to enjoy performances by pianists who had the misfortune to be born in Moscow, even if they hate Putin as much as the rest of us. It’s right up there with that Italian university canceling a course in Dostoevsky, although the Italians had the wit to climb down when their silliness was exposed.
Brault went further, saying he would act similarly in response to any “unjust wars, genocides or conflicts,” a policy so idiotically broad that it could conceivably be invoked against American artists in response to another Vietnam or Iraq II, Chinese artists in light of China’s treatment of its Uyghur population, not to mention Canadian artists now that Justin Trudeau has proclaimed our historical treatment of Indigenous peoples genocidal.
I’m as appalled as anyone by what’s happening in Ukraine, and I’d be delighted if every member of the Canadian arts community rose to speak out against Russia’s aggression. But it should be at the discretion of the artists, not at the direction of a bureaucrat. Any grant-receiving artist who does speak out on Russia (or a progressive cause) now looks like a functionary bought-and-paid-for by another functionary.
Later questioned about his decision, Brault maintained that “it’s a signal that the arts are not in a bubble.”
Just as his earlier quote suggested that reimagining the arts is too important to be left to the artists, here Brault implies that Canadian artists would not have noticed what was happening in Ukraine or would not have known how to respond without his guidance.
With benefit of hindsight, it was naïve of the Canada Council’s founders to think that the people handing out cheques wouldn’t consider themselves masters of the recipients. The Russia policy is a new extreme, but it is by no means unusual. The council has been imposing its agenda on the arts for decades. Its political program is baked into its granting procedures, which operate like the Chinese social credit system. Points are handed out—literally—for good social behavior. Have you done something equitable? Inclusive? Sustainable? Great! Might not have anything to do with art, but more funds for you!
So much for those undisciplined, unregimented, uncontrolled artists.
Two years ago, Indigenous activist Jesse Wente (below) was named chair of the Canada Council’s board, notionally making him Brault’s boss. It wasn’t an objectionable appointment, given Wente’s background in arts and cultural organizations. But rather than rein in his CEO, Wente has used his office to promote his preferred Indigenous issues while keeping up his pre-council activism.
The framers of the council recognized that no individual would come to its board of directors free of allegiances or interests. Members would have backgrounds in particular regions or ethnic communities or arts sectors or political parties or investments. So the framers wrote extensive conflict-of-interest guidelines (p. 29 here) and decreed that board members had a responsibility to leave their personal interests at the door and attempt to represent the whole of Canada as best they could. Yet here is Wente running around telling Canadians that Indigenous issues should be central to the nation’s political agenda, directing us on how to vote, and promoting his book on Indigenous issues.
Again, nothing wrong with artists or arts organizations dedicating themselves to progressive causes, the defense of Ukraine, Indigenous issues. The problem is state officials directing political activity. It would be similarly outrageous if Prime Minister Pierre Poilievre made Tamara Lich head of the Canada Council and she funded the reconstruction of the truckers’ concert stage on Wellington Street. (This is what the arts community seems to forget when it bites its tongue over the council’s activism. Different governments have different priorities and if one can use arts funding to pursue political objectives, so can another. You might think the current government benign; the next one may not be.)
It’s not a great time to be an artist in Canada, especially one in need of federal support. Your mendicancy is being exploited to command your social obedience. A funding institution that was conceived to encourage you as a creator, walking “where the breath of the spirit blows,” has instead reduced you to cannon fodder in the agitprop arsenal of Blithering Colonel Brault.
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