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A New Regime in Culture – Sunday column, February 20, 2011

Posted on Feb 21, 2011

Nova Scotia is a very small province. Several Canadian cities have populations larger than ours. How can a population so small include so many huge talents?

Celtic musicians by the score, including some of the world’s greatest. A fine symphony orchestra. Canada’s first repertory theatre, and innumerable little theatres and dance troupes. A children’s theatre that routinely tours the world. Internationally-celebrated painters like Alex Colville, authors like Alistair MacLeod, ceramicists like Walter Ostrom, actors like Ellen Page. Brilliant little presses. Oscar-winning film companies. The nation’s funniest, most scathing TV satire.

Nova Scotian culture punches far above its weight. But it never got no respect. Until now.

Back up a step. Artists don’t aim to make money, but to make magic. They don’t expect to wallow in luxury. Nevertheless, they have to live, and they need work-spaces and showplaces. Like other small enterprises, they often need R&D money and seed capital. The amounts are small, but the paybacks can be huge. The usual source is an arts council dedicated to excellence and operating semi-independently from government, like the Canada Council or the peer-review process in science.

Nova Scotia once had an arts council, which the cultural community took decades to create. In 2002, Tory culture minister Rodney MacDonald summarily replaced it with a cozy in-house body called the Nova Scotia Arts and Culture Partnership Council. And culture remained what it had always been, a scruffy Cinderella in a department dedicated to some other industry, like tourism or education or even recreation.

No more. In its recent reorganization, the Dexter government got the structure right, creating a Department of Communities, Culture, and Heritage, with responsibility for culture, heritage, and the provincial archives and records. The new department also oversees the provincial libraries, and the offices of Acadian, Gaelic and African Nova Scotian Affairs.

In short, a logically-constructed stand-alone department of culture with its own minister, David Wilson. The change, says cultural consultant Andrew Terris, represented “a seismic shift in the way that the Nova Scotia government views culture.”

Last week, Premier Dexter and Minister Wilson followed up by restoring the arts council under the name Arts Nova Scotia. The Nova Scotia Arts and Culture Partnership Council morphs into a Creative Nova Scotia Leadership Council, providing a voice for the arts in government and leading the evolution of a long-term cultural strategy.

In addition, the government proposes to enact Status of the Artist legislation, a huge step that recognizes artists as full participants in the province’s economic life, and  sets out their rights in such matters as collective bargaining and taxation. Nova Scotia will be only the third province to do this, following Quebec and Saskatchewan. The government also promises a new strategy to promote Nova Scotia’s artists, and a co-ordinating committee within government to harmonize provincial actions affecting cultural development.

Astonishing. We suddenly have a cultural infrastructure that any province would be proud of.

Two larger points. First, this is a new world, and a new economy. Culture is worth more to Nova Scotia than forestry or mining or fishing, and infinitely more than coal and steel. Culture is a knowledge-economy industry – clean, green and growing – and one in which our track record gives us a striking competitive edge. We don’t have many such industries, and the Dexter government is the first ever to recognize the value of culture, and to give it significant support.

The second larger point is that these changes embody what the government heard during prolonged and serious consultations with the cultural community. Usually, consultations are mere window-dressing Governments often “consult,” but rarely listen. But here, says Terris, audibly astonished, “I can honestly say that the government’s response rings true to what I know of the needs and desires of this province’s culture sector.”

We saw the same surprised reaction to the forestry policy announced by John MacDonell, and I suspect we’ll see the same response to the budget that emerges from Graham Steele’s consultations.

There’s a pattern here. If this proves to be a government that listens respectfully to the people it governs, that will be a change far more important than any shift in policy. It will represent a revolution in our political culture, a pivotal change indeed.

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