Canada occupies a unique place in the world of arts and entertain- ment. A government-funded arts infrastructure and a near-total monopoly of American culture in our media landscape have come to define this Canadian life.
Part government mandate, part American invasion, this state of affairs has fueled a fragmented Canadian identity that copies more than it innovates and values American culture and history over our own. It’s left us, in the words of the landmark 1951 Massey Report, in a state of “anemia,” a description that’s more true today than ever. Canada is still low on iron. How is that possible when we have some of the richest iron ore deposits in the world? It’s probably because we give it away. Like everything else.
We have a hard time celebrating and nourishing the beautiful minds that create in our midst, that weave our culture and identity into the rich tapestry of stories that express who we are as a nation. I can attest to the fascinating and complex history of Canada because I spent my undergraduate and graduate years in its embrace. I experienced first hand how academics cover our history brilliantly. The problem is this history is not reflected in our popular culture. How did we get here? Well, let’s start with our arts infrastructure. After World War II, Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent set up a Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, known as the Massey Commission. One of its major recommendations was the creation of the Canada Council for the Arts. The most comprehensive diagnosis of cultural life ever undertaken in Canada, the Massey Report (1951) described a bleak cultural landscape, concluding:
“No novelist, poet, short story writer, historian, biographer, or other writer of non-technical books can make even a modestly comfortable living by selling his work in Canada. No composer of music can live at all on what Canada pays him for his compositions. Apart from radio drama, no playwright, and only a few actors and producers, can live by working in the theatre in Canada.” Furthermore, gifted Canadians “must be content with a precarious and unrewarding life in Canada, or go abroad where their talents are in demand.” And this is the story of the stand-up comedian in Canada 68 years later.