Glittering gala toasts 2017 Governor General’s performing arts laureates

The 2017 laureates from left: Jean Beaudin, Brigitte Haentjens, Michael Buble, Gov.-Gen. David Johnston, Sharon Johnston, Yves Sioui-Durand, William Loewen, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox. Photo: Peter Robb

A jam-packed Southam Hall fêted the 2017 Governor General’s Performing Arts Award laureates in an emotional almost joyous gala evening that marked the 25th anniversary of the awards.

The evening could be considered the opening act of a full weekend of celebration of Confederation’s 150th birthday.

Walking the red carpet into the National Arts Centre lobby Thursday evening were two of Canada’s best known cultural exports, comedian Martin Short and actor Michael J. Fox.

The singer Michael Bublé was in attendance too, although he did not walk the red carpet. He was the winner of the 2016 National Arts Centre Award but the illness of his  son Noah, who is fighting a childhood cancer, kept Bublé away from the ceremony last year.

All the laureates received their medals in a ceremony at Rideau Hall Wednesday evening. Following his award, Bublé spoke in public for the first time in many months and told the assembled audience: “I stand here truly humbled that I have been allowed to be one of your musical representatives and that you would choose to bestow this honor upon me during what has been an emotional and difficult time for my family,” he continued, referencing his son’s diagnosis. “I thank you for the love and support that you’ve given and for the pride I’m filled with every single time I’m able to stand on a stage and say, ‘My name is Michael Steven Bublé and I’m Canadian.”

Also honoured Thursday evening were the Quebec film director and screenwriter Jean Beaudin; theatre director and current NAC artistic director of French Theatre, Brigitte Haentjens and Yves Sioui Durand, a leading indigenous writer, theatre and film director, actor and producer in Quebec.

Michael J. Fix jams with Joan Jett in a surprising moment during the 2017 Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards gala. Photo: Peter Robb

Winnipeg businessman and philanthropist William Loewen is the recipient of the 2017 Ramon J. Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts. A strong supporter of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra over the years, he has also worked on behalf of the Manitoba Opera, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the Manitoba Choral Association, the Winnipeg Chamber Music Association and the St. Norbert Arts Centre.

The awards were started in 1992. Some of those honoured over the past quarter-century are Leonard Cohen, Oscar Peterson, Neil Young, Christopher Plummer, Atom Egoyan, Sarah McLachlan, Jean-Marc Vallee, Mary Walsh, Gilles Vigneault, William Shatner and Denis Villeneuve. On Thursday night, 50 past laureates were in the balcony of Southam Hall sitting behind this year’s inductees.

Beaudin started his career at the National Film Board. He is best known for films such as J.A. Martin photographe, which won an award at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival and many Canadian Film Awards, Being At Home With Claude and his much-heralded TV series Les Filles de Caleb.

The 78-year-old is one of the founding figures of the modern Quebec film industry. His career goes back over 50 years and connects the late Claude Jutras with current stars of world cinema, such as the directors Jean-Marc Vallee and Denis Villeneuve.

He told ARTSFILE when his award was announced that his philosophy if film-making is “be who you are. I’m am doing it with my own sensibility and the way I feel things and the way I see it. I just do it, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work very well.” He says there is one other film he hopes to do. It is about his life with the actor Domini Blythe, who passed away in 2010. On Thursday night the actor Marina Orsini, who starred in Les Filles de Caleb, paid tribute to her mentor.

Haentjens’ career has taken her from Paris to Canada at age 25. She landed in Sudbury,Ontario where she was the artistic director of Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario from 1982 to 1990 where she worked with Michel Marc Bouchard and Jean-Marc Dalpé. She then moved to Montreal’s Nouvelle Compagnie Théâtrale. She found her own company Sybillines in 1997. She won the Siminovitch Prize in Theatre in 2007. She was honoured by three of her colleagues from francophone theatre, Anne Marie Cadieux, Sophie Desmarais and Sylvie Draoeau.

Sioui-Durand founded Quebec’s first French language Indigenous theatre company Ondinook. Sioui Durand is a member of the Wendake Huron-Wendat Nation. His career has spanned more than 32 years. In that time he has written close to 20 stage plays and directed some 28 productions.

He said: “It has come at the right moment in my life. It gives me confidence that I am on the right path. For my people in Quebec this is very important, the recognition will help the next generation. They will see (theatre) as a way to reconquer their identity. In all my artistic work I have tried to go for the deepest thing, I work to reconstruct (Indigenous) culture.”

He was honoured by the Innu singer-songwriter Florant Vallant (formerly of Kashtin), Andree Levesque-Sioui and Rejean Bouchard.

Loewen’s friend Bramwell Tovey, the music director of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, recalled their long friendship in offering his tribute, to the Winnipeg philanthropist.

Honouring Martin Short, the creator of comic characters such as Ed Grimley and Jiminy Glick, prompted outright belly laughs from a video appearance by the American late night host and comedian Jimmy Kimmel, and the former SCTV alumnus Eugene Levy, who appeared in his own video and then walked on stage to continue the skewering. Another SCTV alum, Andrea Martin, was a witty closer.

Michael J. Fox’s tribute was greeted with real emotion from the audience who honoured his career and his courage in the face of Parkinson’s Disease. But in a surprising moment, just as video tributes from Brent Carver and Ryan Reynolds ended, the American rocker and friend Joan Jett invited Fox up on stage where he picked up a guitar and jammed with the band, channeling Marty McFly, perhaps, his character in the Back to the Future movies.

The final tribute of the evening was delivered by former prime minister Brian Mulroney to Bublé. Mulroney recalled the time that he hired Bublé to sing at his daughter’s wedding and connect the young singer from British Columbia with the music producer David Foster. As Mulroney described it, the encounter was the kind of meeting that made musical history.

The gala closed with a bravura rendition of Oscar Peterson’s Hymn to Freedom sung by Dione Taylor and the Academy Choir, with Gregory Charles at the piano, and the NAC Orchestra conducted by Alexander Shelley.

Karen Kain, the former ballerina who now leads the National Ballet of Canada, was also on hand Thursday evening as as the mentor in a program that connects past laureates with up-and-coming artists. Rain will mentor a choreographic colleague at the National Ballet of Canada, Robert Binet, who is developing his first dance for the National called Orpheus.

As it does every year, the 2017 gala featured short films prepared by the National Film Board profiling each winner. They can be viewed at

The gala show can be seen Friday night on CBC-TV and ICI Radio-Canada Télé at 9 p.m.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.