Canada’s Indigenous and immigrant populations are growing at rates not seen in generations, as was revealed by the release of the 2016 census numbers by Statistics Canada in end of October. As Canada grows and matures as a country, museums can play a key role in making peace with our past and plotting a brighter path into the future.
Indeed, ensuring the preservation of our diverse cultural heritage, encouraging new research on our history and putting the spotlight on our artists of all backgrounds will be at the core of achieving reconciliation and reinforcing multiculturalism.
Presenting the ‘real thing’ is the forte of museums and one that is now more important than ever in this new world of ‘fake or alternative news.’ Numerous polls and studies say that museums are the most trusted institutions in contemporary society. This societal responsibility comes from a balancing act of caution and fearlessness.
But as popular tourist attractions, many museums understandably might feel pressured to focus on the strengths and successes of Canada.
Unlike the growing number of atomized, ideological websites which drive people deeper into their convictions, museums by their nature and structure are in a unique position to present multiple views on different issues. These institutions have and must continue to bring to light darker sides of both our past and present. This includes gender violence and injustice, issues of murdered and missing women, our failing prison system, climate change and the persistence of communities with living conditions far below the national norm, lacking basic things from running water to affordable food. The list goes on and on.
With ever more newcomers arriving in Canada, some from war-torn parts of the world, now more than ever we must commit to building up these public spaces which define who we are.
But the international dimensions to our museum and arts community go beyond those coming to Canada — they’re also key to how we define our country and its culture abroad.
The Group of Seven exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London put Canadian art on the map in what was once its “mother country.” The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria engages in partnerships with institutions in Japan, China, Korea and Vietnam to further cultural understanding there. And the Royal British Columbia Museum is starting a similar agreement with institutions in Egypt next year.
But the federal government has a role in this too.
Firstly, it should make culture once more a strong aspect of Canada’s foreign policy by reinstating cultural attaches in all Canadian embassies, giving greater presentation of Canadian art and historical artifacts in our embassies and ensuring that Canadian artists and arts organizations are again part of our international trade missions.
This couldn’t be more crucial as Canada plows through free trade negotiations in Europe and now with the United States and Mexico. Cultural funding, intellectual property and copyright rules are critical in each of these trade negotiations. Those affected by these decisions should be present. Museums would be an affective aggregator of these cultural groups.
On the domestic front, the government should also elevate Canada to its rightful place among the leading cultural hubs by establishing a national portrait gallery, as numerous senators have suggested.
Museums are a people-to-people business — connecting people of today to people of the past; people from other parts of Canada to people from other parts of the world; people who agree with us and people who don't; and people who speak our languages to people who don't.
Democracies thrive when supported by solid foundations, notably institutions like our museums. They crumble with the decay of these institutions. Canadians should continue to stand up for our museums.
Patricia E. Bovey is senator representing Manitoba. She is deputy chair of the Senate Committee on Transport and Communications, and a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, as well as the Special Senate Committee on the Arctic. Before joining the Senate, Bovey was a Winnipeg-based gallery director and curator, art historian, and consultant. She is the sponsor for Bill S-234, which would create a parliamentary artist laureate.
This article appeared in the November 10, 2017 edition of The Hill Times.