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Choosing change and reconciliation in the arts

Simon Brault is director and chief executive of the Canada Council for the Arts. Steven Loft is director of Creating, Knowing and Sharing: The Arts and Cultures of First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples.

Canada is at an important turning point in its history as all sectors of Canadian society are re-examining the position and impact of treaties and the ancestral rights of Indigenous peoples – and the arts sector is no exception. Against this backdrop, the question of the appropriation of Indigenous cultural knowledge and heritage has become a contentious issue with some in the arts community. As Anishinaabe artist Aylan Couchie has so powerfully articulated, "The appropriation of Indigenous stories, ways of being and artworks is simply an extension of colonialism and settlers' assertion of rights over the property of Indigenous people. The history of colonizing Indigenous identity through images, film and narratives has played its part in placing Indigenous perspectives at a subordinate level."

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report highlighted repeated attempts at cultural genocide vis-à-vis this country's Indigenous peoples. In doing so, it posed a historic challenge to every institution in Canada, including the Canada Council.

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As Canada's public-arts funder, we are now aware – in a way we weren't when the organization was created 60 years ago – of the deliberate attempts throughout Canada's history to eradicate the cultures and languages of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples. We are also aware of the role cultural appropriation played in the oppression and violence against Indigenous peoples. With this awareness comes an obligation and a duty to act. We are all agents of either the status quo or change – and the Canada Council is taking responsibility and choosing change.

The Canada Council recognizes that both the traditional and contemporary cultural and artistic practices of Indigenous peoples are their property, as spelled out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Articles 11(1) and 31).

The Canada Council defends – and will always defend – the free expression and artistic independence of the creators and producers of culture. At the same time, we are also formally committed to respect the histories, traditions, languages and contemporary practices of Indigenous peoples. These two commitments are not mutually exclusive. They are complementary in a society that stands for social justice and the redress of past wrongs.

This means that when artists and organizations seek Canada Council grants for projects that address, deal with, incorporate, comment on, interpret or depict distinctive aspects of First Nations, Inuit or Métis culture, they must demonstrate genuine respect and regard for Indigenous art and culture in their artistic process.

We won't dictate a specific or prescribed way of demonstrating this, but we will expect some indication that authentic and respectful efforts have been made to engage with the artists or other members of the Indigenous communities whose culture or protocols are incorporated in any project for which Canada Council funding is being requested.

As Ojibwe cultural critic Jesse Wente rightly tweeted: "Our stories have been stolen and silenced for years, while our bodies and land have been abused and broken. One allows the other."

We believe that the artists of our country do not want to perpetuate darkness. We are convinced that the arts can bring enlightenment for our future together, and are committed to making a significant difference by supporting the artistic expression of Canada's artists – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – for the benefit of all who share this wonderful land.

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