“We believe that the artists of our country do not want to perpetuate darkness.”
— Simon Brault and Steven Loft
In a recent Globe and Mail article, Simon Brault, director and chief executive of the Canada Council for the Arts, and Steven Loft, director of Creating, Knowing and Sharing: The Arts and Cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples, outlined the Canada Council’s response to “the question of the appropriation of Indigenous cultural knowledge and heritage.”1 Brault and Loft write,
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report highlighted repeated attempts at cultural genocide vis-à-vis this country’s Indigenous peoples. In doing so, it posed a historic challenge to every institution in Canada, including the Canada Council.
How will the Canada Council meet that challenge?
When artists and organizations seek Canada Council grants for projects that address, deal with, incorporate, comment on, interpret or depict distinctive aspects of First Nations, Inuit or Métis culture, they must demonstrate genuine respect and regard for Indigenous art and culture in their artistic process.
We won’t dictate a specific or prescribed way of demonstrating this, but we will expect some indication that authentic and respectful efforts have been made to engage with the artists or other members of the Indigenous communities whose culture or protocols are incorporated in any project for which Canada Council funding is being requested.
They elaborate in a CBC News article: “‘This isn’t about the council becoming the art police or limiting freedom of expression,’ Loft said. ‘I don’t think artists should be scared.’”2
But I am scared. Just telling artists they shouldn’t be scared is, of course, scary. What is genuine regard? How does an artist demonstrate it? How will a jury discern it?
According to the Canada Council website, “Peer assessment at the heart of its decision-making processes.”3 The applicant’s “peers” – i.e., other artists – discuss and rate an application. Money is scarce and grants are competitive, so it often takes only one low score to remove an applicant from contention. One juror – adamant, perhaps, that only Indigenous people should write on Indigenous subjects – can sabotage an application.
In the Globe and Mail, Brault and Loft hasten to reassure us:
The Canada Council defends – and will always defend – the free expression and artistic independence of the creators and producers of culture. At the same time, we are also formally committed to respect the histories, traditions, languages and contemporary practices of Indigenous peoples. These two commitments are not mutually exclusive.
Sorry, but they are. You cannot insist on “free expression” and “respect” at the same time. Brault and Loft seem to believe they can make the conflict disappear by asserting there isn’t one. Of course, there are reasonable limits to free expression – plagiarism and libel, for example. But it’s guaranteed that any controversial play will be seen as disrespectful by some people. Do we really want to sacrifice free expression for something as vague and subjective as “respect”? Brault and Loft use “respect” or “respectful” six times in the two articles. The word “risk” – until recently a mainstay of writing about the arts – does not appear. “Controversy” appears once, in the CBC article, and it’s assumed to be negative.
Supporting Indigenous Art in the Spirit of Cultural Self-Determination and Opposing Appropriation, a document available on the Canada Council website, tells us that Council
considers it normal to ask the artists and organizations applying for grants for projects that address, deal with, incorporate, comment on, interpret or depict unique aspects of the First Nations, Inuit or Métis culture, to show that they have respect and true regard for Indigenous art and culture in their endeavours.4
Incorporate or depict, sure, but deal with or comment on? Does the Council really mean that if I want to write anything to do with Indigenous people in Canada I will have to demonstrate not my knowledge or abilities or plans, but my good intentions?
Brault elaborates in the CBC article:
There’s an expectation that we will find in your application the description of your project, a demonstration that you really paid attention to make sure that … you’re not approaching your project from a colonialist perspective.
A colonialist perspective? Are they going to ensure that jurors are familiar with Frantz Fanon and Karen Stote? If a non-Indigenous writer – a settler – writes about an Indigenous issue, is that writing from “a colonialist perspective”? If a writer ignores entirely the history and present state of Indigenous people in Canada, is that a colonialist perspective?
And there’s more. “The conversation about cultural appropriation is not limited to Indigenous cultures,” according to the CBC article. So a grant application for any controversial project could be legitimately sabotaged by a single assessment committee member who genuinely believes or merely claims that the artist didn’t “demonstrate genuine respect and regard for … .” The result will be more caution in an already overly cautious herd of writers, boards, artistic directors, general managers and jury members.
According to Brault and Loft in the Globe and Mail, the change is “a continuation of the council’s journey toward decolonization and reconciliation.” Arts-funding bodies are funding more Indigenous artists and arts projects than ever before; this is as it should be. But what could be more colonialist than the assumption that Indigenous artists need government bureaucrats to protect them from their non-Indigenous colleagues? Could they not show a little faith in the peer assessment process that they promote and the jurors that they select?
“Art and culture have always been at the forefront of these kinds of discussions of rights,” Loft says in the CBC article. Well, maybe. But Brault and Loft are not artists; they’re bureaucrats. And they’re not leading a discussion; they’re threatening artists who don’t toe their line.
I don’t know how you step back from this authoritarian nonsense. Brault needs to resign.
1 Simon Brault and Steven Loft, “Choosing Change and Reconciliation in the Arts,” Globe and Mail, September 7, 2017, retrieved from https://beta.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/choosing-change-and-reconciliation-in-the-arts/article36201909/
2 Chantelle Bellrichard, “Canada Council for the Arts Confronts Cultural Appropriation in ‘Post–Truth and Reconciliation Era,’” CBC News, September 8, 2017, retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/indigenous/canada-council-arts-appropriation-reconciliation-1.4280304. On September 24, I inquired of the Canada Council if it had “responded in any way to the CBC News story of September 8, 2017, by Chantelle Bellrichard.” The response I received offered no corrections or amendments. Presumably the Council accepted the article as a fair and accurate representation of Brault’s and Loft’s statements and beliefs.
3 Canada Council for the Arts, How We Make Funding Decisions, retrieved from http://canadacouncil.ca/funding/funding-decisions. In the process of writing this, I learned that the terms jury and juror disappeared from formal Canada Council usage some ten years ago. They’ve been replaced by peer assessment committee and member of a peer assessment committee. Catchy, no?
4 Canada Council for the Arts, Supporting Indigenous Art in the Spirit of Cultural Self-Determination and Opposing Appropriation, retrieved from http://canadacouncil.ca/about/governance/corporate-policies