Thank you, Madam Chair, and thank you, everybody, for inviting me here today.
I'd like to begin by saying it is tremendously important to me to be able to speak to the industry that has shaped my life. I want to acknowledge what a complex task it is to determine how funding is allocated across such a vast country and I appreciate the efforts of many of the employees of the Canada Council who do their jobs with integrity.
Before I express my own views on the historic 2016 increase in funding to the Canada Council and how I think it has impacted Alberta, I'd like to give you some context as to who I am to be able to speak with an informed voice.
I am an Alberta-born artist, born in Grande Prairie, Alberta, a small town of 11,000 at the time. I have earned my living subsequently as a performer, artist and administrator for nearly 40 years and I've had the privilege of performing all over the world, including an invitation to sing for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Currently I am the Executive Director of Ballet Edmonton, an Alberta-based contemporary ballet organization, and I also sit as a governor and senator at the University of Alberta, so I am familiar with large billion-dollar budgets and the scope of competing needs.
I spent the first 12 years of my professional career living in Toronto and having an eastern career and travelling around the world from there. I went back to Alberta in 1991, and I feel I have a comparative Canadian experience from which to draw my conclusions.
I appreciate this committee's understanding of how important support for the arts sector across this country is, not just for the artists but also for Canadians. It's clear that we share a belief that art is a powerful tool for wellness, quality of life, community building and reconciliation. It is also an economic driver in every province.
I hope you also, therefore, share my belief that it's vital we address the very real issue of the historically inequitable funding that continues to exist at the Canada Council.
At the heart of my discontent is the realization that Alberta artists for many decades have been impacted by loss of artistic opportunity, the opportunity to engage with our public, to take artistic risks, to create new work, to develop artistic relationships with our colleagues from across Canada, to tour and to be recognized nationally. This inequity has impacted our provincial artistic growth and inhibited our ability to contribute to the overall cultural identity of Canada.
The people of Alberta make up 11.6% of the population of Canada, yet for the past 20 years our province has endured a systematic cap on funding. In 2001, we received 6.7% of Canada Council funding. In 2018, two years after the doubling of the budget, we are at 5.4%. That is a decrease of a percentage point, this despite historic funding.
The refusal to democratize funding across Canada has diminished our voice and put into question Alberta's value to the Canadian arts ecosystem. We are a robust and passionate community with a history of producing amazing artists with careers that resonate around the world, yet we seem to be nothing more than a footnote to the Canada Council.
Bearing in mind the geographic challenges and access to resources of some of our remote provinces and territories, I am here to suggest that funding be mandated to be proportionate to populations, with a few exceptions for those remote communities. This would allow all Canadians to reap the benefits of being nourished by a healthy arts community.
While it's true that Alberta did see the council raise the per capita percentage variance of Alberta's artists from $1.97 in 2014 to $2.71 in 2018, it's also true that at the same time, the province with the highest per capita spending went from $5.77 to $8.53. It is outrageous to suggest that excellence was at the heart of those funding decisions when it's clear that systemic bias is at the heart of those funding decisions.
Despite the influx of all those new dollars, the council's new funding model has not corrected the imbalance. The incremental increases to Alberta are a testament to that. In fact, Edmonton Opera receives less operating money than it did in 2004. Until this year, the Art Gallery of Alberta saw no funding increases for 10 years, and this year saw $25,000. One of the most well-attended, beloved regional theatres in Edmonton, the Varscona Theatre, gets no council support despite housing four resident theatre companies.
What formula allows for this kind of imbalance to happen for decades, and why is that formula not discarded, as it clearly allows inequities to keep occurring? I am left to conclude that there are deeply held provincial biases and a wilful blindness to allow them to remain unchallenged. The council for far too long has used the words “merit” or “excellence” to disguise the resistance to change that would see the redistribution of art across this country.
Funding inequity does not impact just Alberta artists; it impacts Albertans. It impacts our public, our patrons, who have been denied programming, denied the outreach that we so longingly want to implement, denied seeing more of their own stories on stage and denied the opportunity for the shared experience that art facilitates in communities. Funding inequity has seen Alberta artists' careers stunted; artists who have refused to leave the province and for whom remaining there meant a much diminished capacity for expression. Those lost years cannot be recaptured.
How would a jury, regardless of its arts experience, have a genuine sense of regional artistic practices when there is not an individual from each province or territory on a jury pool? How would the council understand the transformative change that any given artist or arts group has on a community when they use a measurement model that reflects their own community and therefore their own artistic preferences? It's worth noting that on any given jury pool at the Canada Council there is an average of 63% central Canadian and between 0% and 5% Albertan jurists.
To suggest that excellence across Canada looks and sounds the same everywhere is a deeply flawed assumption and in many cases leads to art that is designed to secure national funding, not to create authentic, inspired, honest art.
To justify static funding levels by claiming Alberta lacks significant output is to assume funding has no impact on output. Of course communities that are richly funded create more art; well-funded artists have more capacity, more energy, more resources, and, of course, more confidence to bring their art to life.
Alberta alerted the executive of the Canada Council that our inequitable funding for as long as I can recall must stop, and yet we were simply told that regional funding is not possible because funding depends on merit and excellence, so that the message we hear is that our art is inferior.
Art is supposed to act as a bridge. It unites communities across this vast geography. Art is supposed to help us teach and inform each other about each other, and the council has a responsibility to use its own internal creativity to develop a transparent funding strategy to ensure that can occur everywhere in Canada.
If federal arts funding continues to be politicized, it fundamentally is a broken system, and it defeats the entire purpose of a national arm's-length agency.
Our strength as a nation, as artists and as people, is in our regional diversity. Our art should reflect that diversity. Homogenous art is a failure.
I urge you to see that steps are taken to realign or reinforce the mandate of the council to allow for an accurate reflection of Canadian artists' identity to finally emerge. Our civic and provincial funders can assist the council in determining the best needs of the communities they represent. They are the boots on the ground. This is possible only if the council will allow a meaningful, transparent dialogue, followed by an action plan that is also transparent, to be developed in consultation with leaders across the arts sector.
My comments today are provoked into existence by my four decades of lived experience and my deep and profound respect for the artists I have worked with, I have known and I have witnessed in my province. I am so proud to be a Canadian artist, and I am proud to be an Alberta artist. I look to this committee to ensure that the council honours that.