Why Canada needs a national policy for Black arts, culture and heritage
by Anthony N. Morgan. Originally published on Policy Options
February 14, 2020
Like the ones before it, this Black History Month is blessed with a cascade of creative programming that will uncover and convey Black Canada’s complex and compelling stories through an array of artistic mediums. This includes varied and powerful artistic performances of theatre, music and dance; photography and other visual arts exhibitions; book talks; community tours; film screenings, and so much more.
However, the troubling truth is that, outside of February, consistent and prominent displays of Black creative talent and artistic direction are exceedingly rare in Canada. Beyond Black History Month, Canada’s Black creatives and creative industry professionals experience what one of Canada’s leading Black professors, Katherine McKittrick, might refer to as an “absented presence.” This absenting of Canada’s Black creatives is especially revealed in the leadership and programming of Canada’s dominant cultural institutions, including major galleries, museums, art, film and performance spaces. This is why Canada needs a national policy on Black arts, culture and heritage.
Towards a national arts policy for Black Canadians
A national arts policy for Black Canadians would enable Canadian governments to fulfill the legislated promise of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. This Act recognizes multiculturalism as a “fundamental characteristic of Canadian society.” A proposed Black national arts policy, then, would leverage the diverse and dynamic profiles of Canada’s Black communities to support our country’s commitment to “a policy of multiculturalism designed to preserve and enhance the multicultural heritage of Canadians while working to achieve the equality of all Canadians in the economic, social, cultural and political life of Canada.”
A Black Canadian national arts policy would also substantially enhance the principle of multiculturalism as a human rights instrument enshrined in Canada’s Constitution in section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Given the typical absence and erasure of Black arts, culture and heritage in Canada, protecting the “preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians” of African descent, through a national Black arts, culture and heritage policy is prudent policy intervention with significant value that transcends party lines.
Because of the aforementioned legal and constitutional provisions, Canadians and parties of all political stripes have a vested national interest in ensuring due respect and presence is afforded to Canada’s Black communities through arts, culture and heritage place-making. More specifically, the current government also has an interest in adopting a national Black arts policy because it would markedly enhance Canada’s commitment to implement the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent.
Black Canada’s got tremendous talent
For decades, and particularly in the last year couple of years, the artistic excellence of Canada’s Black creative talents has abundantly demonstrated that now is the time for Canada’s adoption of a national policy for Black arts, culture and heritage.
Consider, for instance, some of the most recent Black Canadian successes in the literary arts alone:
- The 2019 winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama: “Other Side of the Game” by Amanda Parris;
- The 2019 winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize for debut novel, Reproduction by Ian Williams;
- A 2019 winner of the Windham–Campbell Literature Prize in Fiction, Brother, by David Chariandy
This is to say nothing of Canada’s longtime literary treasures Dionne Brand, Andre Alexis, Esi Edugyan, Lawrence Hill, Dany Laferrière, M. NourbeSe Phillip, George Elliott Clarke, the late Austin Clarke, and many more. There’s also a coming tide of gifted breakout writers who are poised to soon follow in these writers’ footsteps, including Eternity Martis, Zalika Reid-Benta, Kagiso Lesego Molope, Chelene Knight, Desmond Cole, Téa Mutonji, Rebecca Fisseha, Nadia Hohn, Evan Winter, Whitney French, Djamila Ibrahim and Canisia Lubrin.
In music, Black Canada’s creative genius is also gaining increasing traction beyond the superstars Drake (including his OVO Sound mega artists and producers) and The Weeknd. For instance, in 2019, the Polaris Music Prize went to rapper Haviah Mighty for her album 13th Floor. Karena Evans is also making her mark as one of the hottest new award-winning video directors. There’s also the increasing embrace by the global hip-hop community of Juno award-winning artist Shad as a trusted and true hip-hop historian thanks to the ballooning success of the Canadian music documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution on Netflix.
In Hollywood, actor Stephan James and his brother, Shamier Anderson, are doing bigger and bigger things in front of the camera while breakout film director and screenwriter Stella Meghie’s filmmaking career has taken off in the US and Canada; her highly anticipated film The Photograph arrives in theatres this month. Also, actress Vinessa Antoine recently came to national attention as the lead character in Diggstown, the first Canadian drama series to feature a Black Canadian woman as its lead, also produced by fellow Black Canadian Floyd Kane. Finally, there is the growing fame of Winnie Harlow, who continues to change the game as a global fashion model and a public spokesperson with lived experience having the skin condition vitiligo.
These are some of the most prominent Black Canadian creatives recently achieving great successes. They’re doing so in a way that is defining and refining what it means to be not just be Black, but Black and Canadian.
Valuing Black arts is valuing Black people
Without a national policy or infrastructure and a strategy to support, sustain and/or nurture the creative and professional growth of the hundreds of thousands of young Black Canadians inspired by the above-mentioned successes, they are left without much needed support to pursue their own creative dreams. This policy gap contributes to the erasure of Black people from Canada’s collective consciousness.
This experience of Black Canadian erasure is captured by Black Canadian historian Cecil Foster, who has said: “In Canada, the norm has always been to either place blackness on the periphery of society by strategically and selectively celebrating Blacks only as a sign of how tolerant and non-racist white Canadians are (as is seen in the recurrence of the Underground Railroad as a positive achievement in a Canadian mythology of racial tolerance) or to erase blackness as an enduring way of life from the national imaginary.”
Canadian policymakers must realize that how Canada treats its Black creatives is an extension of how Canada’s Black communities are treated by Canadian society writ large. This connection is captured by a poignant comment made by Toronto hip-hop intellectual Ian Kamau, who has said, “Black music and Black art, like Black people, are undervalued in Canada”
This undervaluing of Black Canadian voices brings a sense of perpetual social and civic disposability to the Black experience in Canada that can feel suffocating. This undervaluing tends to make being Black in Canada feel like Blackness is only something to be put on display for temporary and specific purposes. It’s important that Canada boldly demonstrate that our country finds worth, value and meaning in Black Canadian life well beyond the short and cold days of February. We need to build on the good that comes out of Black History Month.
Black arts, well-being and belonging
Without a long-term, robustly resourced, multi-sectoral and intergovernmental national policy for Black arts, culture and heritage, Canada risks turning celebration into exploitation of Canada’s Black creative class (and by extension, of Canada’s Black communities). Not having a national framework for birthing, incubating and nurturing Canada’s Black talents is a lost opportunity for all Canadians. This is because such a policy would only advance the currency of Canada’s global cultural capital.
Finally, while many Black communities love Black History Month, it is also true that for many Black Canadians, it perpetuates a sense of Black disposability. It is a stark contrast to the almost complete loss of positive time and attention that Canada’s Black communities are given by governments and mainstream institutions the rest of the year.
A national Black arts, culture and heritage policy would help Black History Month to enhance its commemoration of Canada’s Black histories while also serving as a vehicle for an annual launch and exhibition of a year-long display of Black Canada’s diverse established and emerging talents. This would go a long way to not only fostering a deeper sense of belonging for Black Canadians (new and old) but also materially advancing the economic well-being of the Black creatives and administrators who too often struggle to support themselves and their art the rest of the year.
The Swahili word for creativity is kuumba, which has become a principle of Kwanzaa, the African diaspora’s cultural celebration. It’s time for an African Canadian Arts Council, and we could call it Kuumba Canada. Because our #BlackArtsMatter.
Photo: Canadian broadcaster and writer Amanda Parris in Toronto at the 2018 Canadian Screen Awards. Last year, she won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama. Shutterstock by by Shawn Goldberg.
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