Americas Summit aims to put culture at the centre of the discussion about citizenship

Simon Brault. Photo: Martin Lipman

Being a citizen has many constituent parts. But one that is not often at the centre of the political discussion of nations is the idea of cultural citizenship.

That gap will be addressed in Ottawa this week at a unique cultural summit of the Americas being hosted by the Canada Council for the Arts. Attending are 160 officials and artists from across the Western Hemisphere (and beyond) in a three days of meetings, speeches and panels, starting with dinner Wednesday evening at the National Gallery. The sessions will examine the role culture plays in societies from the top of North America to the bottom of South America. In all 24 countries from the Western Hemisphere will attend including, for example, delegations from nations such as Cuba and Haiti. Another 10 countries, from Australia to France, are observing the discussion.

The speakers and panellists will offer a diversity of voices, says Simon Brault, the head of the Canada Council, in what he called “a protected and trusted space” at the National Arts Centre.

He said it was his goal to put the notion of cultural citizenship forward in a meeting of countries in this hemisphere that belong to the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture. Brault said in an interview that such a focussed dialogue has been happening elsewhere in the world and it was time for it to occur here.

“The idea was to invite, first and foremost, the people responsible for funding arts and culture.” In some countries, he noted, such funding is done through agencies such as the Canada Council and the National Endowment for the Arts in the U.S. Elsewhere money is distributed by ministries of  culture. At this meeting, he said, seven countries will represented by political ministers and 16 by heads of agencies.

“We think it’s very interesting to come with another international network that is working in the intersection of arts, civil society.”

Brault says the conference wants to look at culture from a different point of view. Often governments invest in culture because, for example, they see it as an economic investment or as a way to promote social inclusion.

“What we wanted to do was to look at things from the perspective of citizens: What is their right to a fulfilling life? What do they expect of a national cultural life? What are they expecting from the (many) ways in which they engage with content.”

Public funding of culture should not be measured by economic outcomes only, he says. Citizens, Brault says, should have a rightful access to health and security and culture.

“We don’t see citizens only as consumers or as passive receptors of cultural offerings. We see citizens as really involved in the cultural system, as participants, as people engaging with culture, co-creating. We are trying to get beyond the traditional view of arts and culture It’s a much more dynamic understanding than the supply and demand equation.”

In the act of making culture and consuming it, Brault says, citizens are actually living it too.

One of the areas in cultural policy that emerging in different stages across the Western Hemisphere is the relationship with Indigenous peoples.

“There are many conversations happening on issues such as health care, housing, water, but one of the areas in which way there is a pressing need for action is on the ability of Indigenous artists and peopleto express themselves on their own terms.”

Brault believes that “the arts could create an interesting space where people can talk and heal and go into areas where politicians would not dare to go. I think there are moments where culture is a powerful vector of social discussion and of critical thinking and discussion.”

In diplomacy, soft power is one of the tools used used to establish and maintain relationships between nations, why not within nations too, Brault suggests.

The handling of Indigenous issues is different from nation to nation, Brault says. But everywhere there is an incredible richness of tradition and artistic potential.

He says the nations were told that the meeting would take up issues of Indigeneity and cultural appropriation “and all that. Frankly, we did not get push back. They know it’s not a finger-pointing session. After all who are we in Canada to lecture anyone. It’s only recently that we have recognized and acknowledged we have been practicing cultural genocide.”

Brault will take part in one panel on Friday that will examine the purpose of arts funding by arm’s length agencies such as the Canada Council.

“For many years people thought that being arm’s length meant only that governments don’t interfere. But for me, it means also that the councils need to be adventurous and go where governments are not ready to go.”

As an example of that Brault pointed to when the Canada Council stepped forward by creating a program informed by self-determination, Indigenous world views and an all-Indigenous staff before the report of the Truth and Reconciliation commission was released.

“Arm’s length is not only a privilege, it is also a responsibility,” he said.

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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.