Peter C. Newman recently proposed in a Maclean’s editorial that one of the world’s unacknowledged legislators, a poet, be retained to gussy up our new constitution with a rhetorical frill or two. He wants us fitted out, constitution-wise, with stately and measured prose to equal that of the Americans. Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton et al., however, didn’t hire a hack. They were men of broad culture, versed in philosophy, literature, theatre, music, painting and science. When it came to writing (and thinking), they mostly did their own.
How will our stepfathers of Confederation fare? Has the new illiteracy crept into high places? Is there, collectively and with ghost writers, enough savoir faire, sensitivity and IQ to carry it off? In truth, those who have learned to tell their Plato from Plasticine are not a reassuring majority. Little wonder if the bewildered citizen views their rituals with the look of a parrot being offered half a banana by someone in whose bona fides it does not have absolute confidence.
What is in short supply at the table is culture, that set of shared assumptions and experiences that finds expression in humor, song and story, in places, events and customs. The spiritual thumbprint of any nation is that unique identity left in the mind when all material things have been taken away. Our stepfathers, sorry to report, have cultural malnutrition because they fairly represent a country that has persistently deprived itself of the means of understanding itself, a sort of anorexia artística.
Identity is created by those who write, paint, act, sing or otherwise hold up a mirror in which, often painfully, we see who we are. But we are also seen by others through, say, Arthur Erickson’s architecture, Murray Schafer’s music or the National Film Board’s films. After hearing the National Arts Centre’s orchestra, a German industrialist was convinced that Canada must do other complex things just as superbly. But Canada’s artists are, in my opinion and in theirs, a primary and renewable resource, still untapped.
What is astonishing is that the government keeps emphasizing the need to affirm the Canadian identity without equating the objective with the means. Identity doesn’t come out of a vacuum or from slogans pasted up at election time. It comes from the slowly maturing lifetime achievements of a Margaret Laurence or a Charles Gagnon. It’s time we saw our cultural development as an urgent priority, not as a leisurely afterthought.
Do you think that if unemployment and inflation were at one per cent (no one’s perfect), the Parti Québécois was satisfied, the government had more western members and the national debt was, instead, a burgeoning national heritage
fund we would be a happy confederation? Absolutely not. Even though we’re richer and better governed than 98 per cent of the world? Still no, because we have a massive misunderstanding of each other. We don’t get into each other’s skins, nor allow ourselves to see with each other’s eyes. What we have is a cultural problem that precedes and causes our political and economic problems.
It would make a lot more sense, of course, if we turned the constitution upside down and gave the federal power jurisdiction for all matters touching mind and spirit, such as educational, social and cultural services. This, at least, would provide a genuine equality of opportunity to all Canadians, wherever they lived, and attack regional disparities more effectively in the long run than the programs now in place. Obviously that won’t happen. The renewed constitution will be a re-invented steam engine right down to the last piece of boiler-plate prose. The only hope is that some insight or luck will keep cultural services as a shared or concurrent responsibility, rather than tossing them into the shake-the-bag division of powers. Neither the artistic community, nor its large public, wants a g transfer or an exclusive right established in this field. Indeed, the g unique partnership of support of S cultural expression among gov§ ernments, corporations and pri|vate citizens is one that works ■* and also guarantees artistic freedom. It now needs financial reinforcement more than any restructuring.
To lurking culture-bashers, our $30-per-capita expenditure at the federal level (including the CBC) may seem excessive, but no other country has more wealth yet invests less of it in its sense of self than Canada. Even after cuts, the United Kingdom spends a great deal more on the unilingual BBC than Canada does on the CBC. Germany’s public museums recently mustered $10 million to buy art at a single auction, and Germany’s cultural support is 10 times the Canada Council’s $2 per capita. A minimum of three per cent of the federal budget and two per cent of provincial budgets wouldn’t seem like a lot to ask when our very future is at stake.
To Matthew Arnold, men of culture were the true apostles of equality. We, alas, are ruled by politicians and journalists, the only two professions for which no training or qualification is needed. To them, I recommend a reading of Herschel Hardin’s brilliant book A Nation Unaware, which describes our distinctive Canadian cultural patterns with shrewd and perceptive accuracy. And at this time of constitutional reform, I ask that they keep their inner eye on the true purposes of government—which are addressed to the minds, hearts and spirits of a people.
David P. Silcox is a writer and the director of cultural affairs for Metropolitan Toronto.
*We have a cultural problem that precedes and causes our political and economic problems’
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.