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Jesse Wente Headshot
Jesse Wente
Co-Executive Director of the Indigenous Screen Office and Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts

Canada’s Full Potential: Cultural Capital and Indigenous Reparations

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Takeaways

  1. Canada has a unique culture but we must step up our global export and promotion of it to realize our full potential.
  2. With more stable income support, Canadian artists can continue to comfortably pursue their careers and push boundaries.
  3. Canada should see Reparations as an economic and social boon and focus on giving back to Indigenous communities.

Action

Canada cannot capture its full potential without supporting the arts scene or Indigenous people. New industries can be built and existing ones uplifted in an endeavour to give back to Indigenous people and better support artists.


What is the state of the arts economy in Canada today and how is our cultural capital perceived by the rest of the world?

There is a significant recognition that Canada has a vibrant culture, particularly First Nations, Métis and Inuit culture, which is particularly sought after globally because it is unique to Canada. There is certainly a growing appreciation and demand for that. At the same time, Canada has not totally fulfilled this potential globally in terms of being a place with such rich diversity. There is an opportunity for Canada to disseminate more of its culture globally as it has so much of it – people still have strong connections to their cultures whether they were the first to settle on Turtle Island or they are newcomers here. Many people still maintain those connections with their cultures and can speak to a wide variety of audiences. Canada has an enormous opportunity to take a larger global role in terms of exporting our arts and culture, even though we already hit above our weight historically.


What kind of support and policies do we need to grow the arts and culture ecosystem in Canada and especially Indigenous artists?

As you probably know, there was the Arts and Culture Summit in Ottawa in May and a lot of the focus onstage was on the policy and legislative changes the government is seeking to pass this session. But what was more interesting to me was the discussions among the audience, artists or my peers who lead arts organizations. The policy change that most artists want is to see the advancement of more stable income support for artists. They are still characterized as gig workers. Their jobs are seasonal and go up and down. They are not necessarily working nine-to-five jobs as artists. Furthermore, events like the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the traditional economy and these folks are often the most vulnerable. They do not have an employer that is looking to make sure they can support the work throughout this. It is very different. We heard a lot of conversations around ideas like a universal basic income or some sort of guaranteed basic income that we saw in countries like Ireland, which introduced this specifically for artists. 

“Increasingly, public grants for the arts have become part of a social safety net for artists in a way that was not intended when those systems were initially set up.”

One of the challenges we face in Canada’s arts and culture ecosystem is public granting. The government is heavily involved in production and the sector itself. Increasingly, public grants for the arts have become part of a social safety net for artists in a way that was not intended when those systems were initially set up. Increasingly, more and more artists have been sustaining themselves through the grants that the Canada Council for the Arts, Indigenous Screen Office or any arts granting agency gives. That is not really the intent of those grants. Their intent was to foster artistic practice, not necessarily keep the lights on for the artist.

This issue also holds true for many people across the economy and throughout different sectors. When your primary concern is simple survival, it is really hard to innovate, grow, expand, experiment and take risks – all of which are elements that propel not just the economy but all sorts of systems forward in the world. 

I also heard a need for a formal move to pass the Massey Commission, which was the foundation for all Canadian cultural infrastructure. That commission and its work need to be updated just like the Broadcasting Act. It is painfully out-of-date and we need to think about Canadian culture and what support for that will look like in the context of 2022 and not 1950. That would be a worthy endeavour and I would agree with that as well.


In your book Unreconciled: Family, Truth and Indigenous Resistance, you criticize the concept of Reconciliation. What is your take on Economic Reconciliation in Canada? 

When I was 10 years old, I got a brand-new BMX bike. If you were a kid in the 1980s, you knew this was an exciting moment in your life. The first time I rode that bike out in the neighbourhood, a neighbourhood bully punched me and took the bike. This is a true story. 

I went home and my dad asked me, “Where is the bike?” I told him that someone punched me and took it. My dad took me over to this kid’s house. This is where I ask the question, what do you think my dad did? Do you think he said to the kid and his parents, “Just say you are sorry. Keep the bike but just say you’re sorry and it is all good,” or do you think my dad said, “Give the bike back and then say you are sorry, and then we can have reconciliation”? I would ask any parent what they would do. I have yet to hear any parent say, “We let the kid who stole the bike keep it because they said they were sorry.”

“The interim step to Reconciliation is Reparation,”

Currently, Canada frames reconciliation as it getting to keep the bike if it just says it is sorry. The interim step to Reconciliation is Reparation, which is a term used more often in the south of the Medicine Line than here in Canada. Reparations are in order and that is when we get to the discussion of Land Back and what that would actually look like. Only then will we be on the pathway towards what might be described as economic reconciliation. Until we are having those discussions, any initiatives for equality of access are blunted by the fact that it is hard to get equality of access when you have been expressly excluded from those systems up until very recently. What are we talking about when we talk about equality of access in 2022? What about the previous 150 years that my community was impoverished by and that the rest of Canada was made wealthy by? What about those 150 years? Is there no equality for that?

Canadian cultural industries, because of the Massey Commission, were expressly constructed to exclude Indigenous people. When the Canada Council for the Arts was founded in 1957, no Indigenous arts were eligible. If you were an Indigenous person and you wanted a grant, you had to be performing a European art form. The connection is right there and until we disrupt that, Reconciliation is going to be a challenge.

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What must be done to change the approach Canada has toward Reconciliation or Reparations for Indigenous people? 

Could Canada not build an industry around giving back to Indigenous people just like it built an industry around taking from them? It required concerted efforts and enormous investments to ensure that I would not be able to speak my language beyond just the torturing of my grandmother and setting up residential schools. Tons of people were employed, buildings were built and there was a whole Indian Agency in Ottawa. Thousands of people were engaged in this industry across the history of Canada, why can’t thousands be engaged in returning the language to my community? Why can’t thousands be engaged in returning the culture to my community?

“Could Canada not build an industry around giving back to Indigenous people just like it built an industry around taking from them?“

If folks had come here with an idea not of dominion but of partnership and kinship, the wealth would have been much more extraordinary than it has been and you would not have had to wage wars and done all of this other stuff that is incredibly costly to get it. There is a lot of fear that because Canadian prosperity came because of the oppression of Indigenous people, the reverse will be Canada’s downfall. In other words, when Indigenous people prosper, Canada will nosedive. But that is just not real. In fact, how much healthier would Canada be now if it had not done those things to Indigenous people? How much healthier would Canada be today?

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Jesse Wente Headshot
Jesse Wente
Co-Executive Director of the Indigenous Screen Office and Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts

Bio: Jesse Wente is an Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster, speaker and arts leader. He is the Co-Executive Director of the Indigenous Screen Office and Chair of the Canada Council of the Arts. He was a columnist for CBC Radio’s Metro Morning for 24 years and then spent 11 years with the Toronto International Film Festival, the last seven as the director of film programmes at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. He is a member of the Serpent River First Nation

Organization Profile: The Indigenous Screen Office (ISO) is an independent national advocacy and funding organization serving First Nations, Inuit and Métis creators of screen content in Canada. The ISO’s mandate is to foster and support narrative sovereignty and cultural revitalization by increasing Indigenous storytelling on screens and promoting Indigenous values and participation across the sector.