Playing the Indian Card

Thursday, August 30, 2007

50 Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong

Part of my vacation this summer was spent in France.

France cares far more about her own culture than Canada does. That much is obvious to even a casual tourist. Streets and metro stations are named for writers, artists, and philosophers, not to mention engineers and scientists. In Canada, I cannot imagine a “Kurelek” street or a metro station named “McLuhan.” We don’t even feature artists and thinkers on the banknotes—we’re the only country in the British Commonwealth that limits that honour to politicians. We certainly don’t bury our culture heroes in a “pantheon.” Indeed, the phrase “Canadian culture hero” sounds to me like an oxymoron.

But isn’t this a big mistake? Keith Spicer once observed in a formal government report, in reaction to a near-vote by Quebec to separate, that Canada badly needs poets extolling its sense of a nation. Where are they? Well, the government does precious little to help this happen, and it does seem to be something useful a government could do. There’s nothing obviously wrong with trying to keep the country together.

A sense of national unity, a sense of nation, comes, by definition, from a sense of shared culture. Most other countries know this, and actively promote their own culture. Britain has the British Council, Germany the Goethe Institute, France the Alliance Francais and Academie Francais. Where is Canada’s equivalent?

It’s not a question of money, surely. I’m not a big fan of government spending, and am not calling for a large outlay of money here. We currently, indeed, spend pots and armoured cars of money on “multiculturalism”—which is to say, on everyone else’s culture but our own. Let’s stop doing that, in the first place—it is obviously counterproductive.

Thanks to the Internet, and satellite TV, we could also be promoting Canadian culture overseas quite cheaply. Where is our equivalent of Korea’s Arirang TV, or the BBC’s magnificent web presence?

And it costs almost nothing to do such things as create an established list of “cultural treasures,” like Korea or Japan--costs nothing, and boosts tourism.

And even beyond tourism, and beyond national unity, the establishment and fostering of a Canadian “brand” is of benefit for all our exports. “Made in France” or “Made in Japan” or “Made in the USA” evoke clear and (generally) positive images. This is largely due to a fondness for French, Japanese, and American culture. So does “Made in Canada,” already. But advertising rarely hurts sales. And we are the world’s number one exporting country. We live or die on export sales.

So, on the whole, promoting culture would make, not cost, money.

There is surely no harm that it also has tremendous benefits that are not economic. The promotion of culture is a huge real boost to the quality of life of every Canadian. It makes Canada a more pleasant place to live; the arts consecrate the ground on which they virtually walk. There is a reason why Paris is a more desired address than, say, Indianopolis. And it is not for the service.

We do not celebrate our culture, I suspect, largely because most Canadians more or less openly feel Canadian culture is not worthy of such attention.

This is the sad residue of colonialism—when I was a child, we still all believed that anything from England must be better than the Canadian equivalent. Important things always happened elsewhere. Instead of growing out of this inferiority complex, Canada, with multiculturalism, has simply extended it to more mother countries.

Bad move.

In fact, Canadian culture is already huge, in world terms. People around the world are mad to listen to Celine Dion. They all know Shania Twain comes from Northern Ontario. They all want to pay big money to see Cirque du Soleil and IMAX. They all read Margaret Atwood, and laugh at Mike Myers. Canadian culture always looks more impressive from other countries; I have bobbed in a Philippine ferry to the tune of Gordon Lightfoot’s “Pussywillows, Cattails,” and heard Joni Mitchell’s “Carrie” on the Muzak system in France.

We seem to be the only ones who don’t appreciate it.

Another objection is that, being of two languages, our culture is necessarily not unified. But this is true, if at all, only of our literature. And even in literature, the matter seems marginal. There is, after all, such a thing as translation. We all know and love Carrier’s “The Hockey Sweater,” Anglophones as much as Francophones.

I’d like to see, as a start, a new order of merit, like the Order of Canada, established strictly for artistic, literary, perhaps scientific and philosophical figures--for those who can justly be called active contributors to Canadian culture. No politicians, no philanthropists, no bureaucrats, just artists and thinkers. This could cost effectively nothing—nothing but the price of the badge and the ceremony.

And this body could be a working shop. It would, at regular intervals—perhaps one a year?--induct some dead figure into an official Canadian pantheon. This would involve a bit more expense: the cost of a bust or a painting, and a permanent physical location in Ottawa to display them all. Heck, the sky’s the limit—let’s include rotating exhibitions on members as well. This would not require a large permanent collection—items could be borrowed for the duration. It would do schoolchildren little harm to learn more about Stephen Leacock.

I’d like the same group to be given the job of creating a list of Canadian cultural treasures, on the model of such countries as Japan or Korea. This could be a guide for educators, and a guide for tourists.

They could also choose figures and images for Canadian coins, stamps, and banknotes—avoiding the present over reliance on politicians.

And they could choose from among their ranks the Governor-General, elevating this figure once and for all beyond politics and making him or her a genuine representative, as she should be, of the Canadian nation.

Of course, the creation of such an institution could lead to an “academic” or establishment style of art. Fine; I’m ready to take that chance. If it does, given the nature of art, it will still inspire more and better art. The good artists will organize and produce more in reaction to what they object to in the academy.

Who would choose the members? That’s a bit of a trick. Politicians would, I fear, be too inclined to select on political grounds—quotas for region, skin color, race, religion, and so forth. Self-selection by existing members would be too cliqueish, and does not work well at present in academics. I’d propose a vote by members of recognized cultural organizations—publishers and editors are in the business, for example, of evaluating authors. Gallery owners and museum curators are in the business of evaluating artists. Put such groups to work nominating and electing this body.

In the meantime, being an active contributor to the culture is an alienating and impoverishing thing at the best of times. Artists create the culture for the sake of all of us, and get precious little for themselves in return. The least we can do is give them a little formal recognition in return. Besides encouraging Canadians to take more interest in the arts, it might encourage more talented Canadians to strive to make a contribution—the feeling that what they were doing mattered to the rest of us, and that we were listening.

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