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From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

Weathering the Storm

The Canada Council’s director for the past eight years looks back at troubled times for the arts

Robert Sirman

“I get the willies when I see closed doors.” This is the opening line of Joseph Heller’s 1974 novel, Something Happened, and it succinctly captures the work culture I encountered when I arrived in Ottawa in June 2006.  The significance of doors, both literal and metaphoric, surfaced on my first day. The office I inherited as director of the Canada Council for the Arts had no door whatsoever to the outside world. It could only be accessed through adjacent but private clerical and meeting rooms, with no signage linking them to the director. From a wayfaring perspective it was impossible to find the office on your own, and if you did not know better you would think the director was in hiding.

Built form says a lot about values. I saw the office in Ottawa as a personal affront. I needed to convert it from a private retreat to a collective meeting space, so I removed everything but the credenzas (which I used as a work station), tore out the private washroom, added the meeting room furniture from next door and inserted a full-length glass panel to provide unobstructed views both inside and out.

My focus on space did not go unnoticed. To compensate for the missing door, the Council’s Aboriginal Arts Office gave me a full-scale mockup of an entrance marked “Director’s Office.” Made of brown construction paper and elaborately decorated by staff, it was the result of a team-building exercise at an aboriginal arts staff retreat, and hung in the corridor outside my office.

When the Council moved its premises to 150 Elgin Street in December 2013 I was able to design my ideal office: a totally transparent glass box that contained nothing but the credenzas, chairs and meeting table assembled in 2006. The rest of the Council also benefited from the move. The new offices are head and shoulders above its previous digs in advancing an open and collaborative work environment, and its free exhibition space in the heart of Ottawa gives the Council a civic presence for the first time.

Oleg Portnoy

The last word came from a senior theatre professional who visited the space in my final year. “Look!” she said. “The director works in a corner!”

The closed door metaphor has different connotations depending on which side of the door you consider yourself. Those outside think insiders are plotting against them; those inside live in a constant state of siege. The longer you observe, the clearer it becomes that both groups are essentially the same; the main thing separating them is the door.

There was nothing inherently partisan about the signs of paranoia and siege mentality I encountered on my arrival in Ottawa. It was during another government altogether that the layout of the previous director’s office was conceived. But political partisanship was nevertheless the elephant in the room during my eight years at the Council. The most frequent question I was asked by outsiders was “What is it like to work for Stephen Harper?” followed by “How short is the arm?” (in reference to the Council’s arm’s-length status).

No politician or political staff member, including the Prime Minister’s Office, ever contacted me during my time at the Council to offer direction, or “advice,” or any other form of suasion. Nor did I receive any letter of mandate outlining “expectations” for either of my two four-year terms. Given that the director of the Canada Council is a Governor in Council appointee (that is, appointed by Cabinet), I found this both a surprise and a relief. Several people asked me on arrival if I had received my “letter,” and I heard stories throughout my tenure of other Crown corporation CEOs having difficult conversations with ministers “behind closed doors.” But this was never my ­experience.

The most negative thing I encountered was the secretive environment within the public service itself. I am not sure which side of the door the officials I interacted with thought they were on, but there was a clear sense within the civil service that leaks of any kind would trigger serious consequences. What those consequences were was never clear, but the assumption was they would not be good. The result was a lot of self-censorship. “I can’t tell you” was a consistent refrain that only intensified from one year to the next.

Government sector confidentiality makes sense in many circumstances, especially those surrounding Cabinet decisions. Even here, though, things can backfire. I am convinced this was the case with the simultaneous cancellation in 2008 of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s PromArt Program (which funded ­international arts touring) and the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Trade Routes Program (which promoted cultural industries internationally), both totally independent of the Canada Council. The two cancellations became public knowledge within weeks of each other, and in combination they created the impression that the government had reversed its policy on supporting cultural diplomacy abroad.

I did not get the sense that the government had reversed its policy at all. The cancellation of both programs grew out of a rotating strategic review process managed by the Treasury Board, a committee of Cabinet. Because of Cabinet confidentiality, departments were constrained from consulting with each other, and decisions were specific to individual submissions, not directives from above. In both cases the programs in question were assessed by their respective departments in a competitive context as performing less effectively than other programs.

Once the decisions on PromArt and Trade Routes became public, however, the government found itself drawn into more and more questionable justifications for its actions. It refused to back down on its announcement, and its intransigence became a rallying cry for the Quebec-based opposition that is believed to have cost the Conservatives their chance for a majority in the 2008 federal election. If true, this is a big price to pay for fiscally driven savings of less than $20 million a year.

Secrecy generates far greater costs than transparency, costs like loss of trust that are almost impossible to fully mitigate after the fact. There is an enormous advantage to getting things right the first time, and in my experience this is not achievable without sharing information in advance. During my time at the Council, I consciously shared all but the most compromising information as a matter of professional practice, and the results fully justified the risks. Staff would stop me in the corridor and thank me for treating them like adults. The community talked about a new era of openness. There were no leaks.

“Never believe your own press.”

This was advice from a journalist friend early in my career, and it is not a message with much currency in Ottawa. It is not a message with much currency in my home base of Toronto either, but somehow I found the incongruity with the public service ethic in Ottawa particularly galling. My time there overlapped with the rise of social media, and the most unlikely people became their own press agents.

Throughout my career I have chosen to work under the radar. Rather than pushing my agenda on others, I identify the conditions that need to be met to achieve a particular outcome and focus my energies on putting those conditions in place. Usually this means having many people working in common cause, so collaborating with others is a big priority.

Much of this comes from my experience as a teenager playing French horn in various musical ensembles. I know what it feels like to support a collective from within, to provide a foundation upon which others can soar, and at brief but critical moments to soar myself. I found this early experience deeply fulfilling, and much of my adult life has been spent seeking a personal and professional equivalent. One of the ways I did this was by adopting non-directive leadership.

In some respects Ottawa is not a very under-the-radar kind of town, but the approach worked well during my time there. In my second year the Council achieved a permanent increase of 20 percent in its parliamentary appropriation (from $150 to $180 million) by turning a one-time allocation into ongoing base funding, and in my last year the Council had $25 million of its appropriation, set to end in 2015, made permanent. In between, the Council survived without cuts to both the strategic review process of 2008 and the Deficit Reduction Action Plan exercise of 2011–12. A colleague summarized this period as making the Canada Council “everyone’s preferred second choice” (an allusion to political leadership campaigns).

It was no secret that during this time the government used the Council as a poster child. Whenever criticism was raised about the cultural sector’s treatment at the hands of the government, the official response was the same: the Canada Council is receiving more money today than ever before, and not a cent of the Council’s Parliamentary appropriation has been cut by this government. As presented, both statements were factually correct.

The story was not so rosy for many other cultural programs and Crown corporations at the federal level, including the PromArt and Trade Routes programs already mentioned, CBC/Radio Canada, Telefilm, the National Film Board and the National Arts Centre. The sector was particularly weakened by the demise of the Canadian Conference of the Arts, a critical voice for artists and cultural industries that predated by more than a decade the Canada Council itself. Many of the most significant recommendations of the 1951 Massey Report on which the Canada Council was founded came straight from the submission of the Canadian Conference of the Arts, called at the time the Canadian Arts Council, and its contribution to the development of Canadian cultural policy is inestimable. It closed its doors last year after its long-standing federal funding came to an end, and it is not clear what, if anything, will take its place.

The image I had of the Canada Council during this time was of a lighthouse on a small island, standing tall but feeling increasingly vulnerable as the raging sea swept away more and more of the coastline. Yes, we were still intact, but the sector we were there to protect was inexorably eroding.

Ironically, the biggest bombshell during my time in Ottawa was not a cut but an increase: the government’s announcement in the spring of 2009 that it was investing $25 million in a new initiative called the Canada Prizes. The Canada Prizes were described as the international arts equivalent to the Olympic Games in the fields of music, dance, visual arts and theatre arts, and were initially conceived as a partnership between Toronto’s Luminato Festival, then in its third year, and a yet-to-be-established not-for-profit organization. The four signatories of the proposal were David Pecaut, Tony Gagliano and Janice Price, all from Luminato, and Jeff Melanson, described as “producer and creator.” The proposal claimed an impressive list of national and international “partners,” which on further investigation proved to be unsubstantiated.

The story goes that the announcement of funding for the Canada Prizes came from personal lobbying of finance minister Jim Flaherty. Certainly the Canada Council was not consulted, and at the time senior officials at the Department of Canadian Heritage denied active involvement. Once announced, however, the government was on the hook, and the Canada Council was soon drawn in to give the prizes credibility: to launder the announcement, if not the money. A working group including the Council’s chair and vice-chair was established to advise Canadian heritage minister James Moore on how the prizes could be delivered and how the significant additional funds needed to keep it afloat could be raised from the private sector.

For the next two years the government hid behind the Canada Prizes whenever the subject of international cultural funding was raised, but not a cent of the $25 million was ever turned over to the Canada Council or anyone else. Despite assurances by the minister that an announcement was coming soon, the money quietly disappeared from the government’s accounts, and members of the arts community—most of whom had no involvement or interest in the initiative in the first place—bit their collective tongues.

“To learn and at due times to review what one has learned, isn’t that a pleasure?”

This is the beginning of The Analects of Confucius, a Chinese pedagogical text assembled roughly 2,400 years ago from the teachings of Confucius and very popular when I was a university student in the 1960s. It is a good summary of my current state of mind.

While the most commonly cited justification for spending public money is to contribute to the public good, this is rarely what drives political decision making itself. At the federal level the arts programs with the strongest political support are those that offer either many announcements of small grants to the broadest geographic constituency (a retread of bread and circuses) or a few announcements of large grants to constituencies closely aligned with power (shades of cronyism). Rarely does one encounter serious claims of long-term societal benefit.

This is not the case at the Canada Council, where there is a long history of serious reflection, evidence-based policy development and shared, peer-assessed decision making. Nonetheless, the Council’s work is significantly weakened by the absence of strong government-wide vision and political consensus. Just as a lot of what passes for leadership in Ottawa is bullying, a lot of what passes for policy is pandering. The Council’s budget is miniscule in the bigger scheme of things, and without complementary policy and regulatory support at a government-wide level its impact is steadily declining.

Over the past 25 years the Canada Council increased the number of arts organizations to which it provided recurring or operational funding by roughly 65 percent—from around 600 organizations to almost 1,000 a year. During the same period the purchasing power of the Council’s per capita parliamentary appropriation declined by more than 5 percent. The Council, and by extension the government, can boast of an ever-expanding list of funding recipients—a hugely desirable outcome during a period of significant growth and diversity in the sector—but the recipients themselves are fated to compete for an ever-shrinking funding pie.

Much of this pressure could be eased by greater policy coordination across government that reflected how the various pieces fit together and maximized the impact of the resources—budgets, policy instruments, intellectual capital—available. For example, we are used to hearing film described as a combination of art, entertainment and industry. People are perfectly accepting of this multidimensional approach, and different strategies to strengthen one dimension or another—often delivered by totally different arms of government—can live comfortably side by side without much tension.

Yet few opportunities exist to have high-level conversations on how to advance entire disciplines or sectors, film included. All high-level exercises to which I was invited during my time in Ottawa were driven by either financial constraint (“How can you spend less on what you are doing?”) or short-term political priorities (“How can you contribute to the build-up to Canada’s sesquicentennial without requiring additional funding?”).

There are many people within the system—­certainly within the Canada Council and unquestionably elsewhere—who have compelling ideas about how we could do better. Some ideas involve realigning money and responsibility to deliver greater benefits with existing resources, while others require only marginally more to achieve quantum improvements.

I am not aware of any formal processes currently available within the Government of Canada to convene such conversations. Perhaps this takes place at the political level, but if this is so, deeply informed and committed players such as the Canada Council are not invited to contribute.

The silver lining in all of this is that there is nothing that inherently prevents a more system-wide approach from developing in the future. There is a strong risk management bias within the federal machinery, particularly the Treasury Board Secretariat, that values rationality and avoids extremes. While this infrastructure is limited by the constraints imposed by its political masters, it is a highly competent and professional infrastructure nonetheless, and could easily be recruited to respond to changing political and public policy objectives. If one such objective were to be more holistic in advancing Canada’s cultural aspirations, the existing machinery has the capacity to address it.

The challenge is to imagine what conditions need to be met to bring such a state into being: political leadership committed to making cultural development a priority and an electorate willing to support it.

The arts are an extension of every human’s need to engage with the world through the senses, what former National Endowment for the Arts chair Bill Ivey calls “expressive life.” Over time, the arts have emerged as humanity’s most accessible realm for individual and collective reflection. We all know how to tell stories, to draw pictures, to sing in the shower and to dance at weddings. Artists use these same skills to energize our cities, deepen our faith and fire our imaginations.

Artists are specialists in the application of all forms of human intelligence, whether linguistic, mathematical, musical, spatial, kinesthetic or emotional. Their work inspires the reflection so needed to make sense of the complexity of our lives. Artists may not be the creators of the city or the faith or the imagination, but they are critical to their animation and vitality, and through their reflective capacity help each of us better understand who we are and what it means to be human.

I am convinced the arts serve an evolutionary purpose, and that there is nothing random about the global ascendance of artistic practice. The future of the human species, if not the planet, is increasingly at risk. Reflective capacity contributes to adaptive capacity, and adaptive capacity offers an evolutionary advantage critical to survival.

How to translate the contribution the arts make to this reflective capacity into the language of public good and government investment currently eludes us, in Canada as elsewhere. This is particularly frustrating to people who spend their lives in the field, because wherever one looks there are signs of impending crisis. Consensus is mounting that the survival of humanity is inextricably linked to an enhanced sense of collective responsibility that can only come about through a radical change in consciousness, the kind of change in consciousness that is the hallmark of all great art.

Given what is at stake it is hard to understand why it is taking so long to connect the dots.

Robert Sirman served as director and CEO of the Canada Council for the Arts from June 2006 to June 2014, following a distinguished career at Canada’s National Ballet School, the Ontario Arts Council and Ontario’s first Ministry of Culture. In January 2015 he will become a senior fellow in Arts Management at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

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