This past Culture Days weekend (Sept. 27th-29th), I had the great pleasure and privilege of attending the Power of the Arts National Forum in Ottawa, co-hosted by the Michaëlle Jean Foundation and Carleton University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. Culture Days and the Forum could hardly have been a better fit, since both are dedicated to recognizing and increasing the important contribution of the arts to quality of life at local and national levels. As a Culture Days intern, I was there on a mission to bring back to my organization as much knowledge and insight as I could scrawl into one small notebook (like a good little student, I took notes). As a student, I was also hoping for an inspiring learning experience in a field that I'm passionate about, and I wasn't disappointed. The Forum created a conversation about the arts that brought together a wide range of voices, and I had the opportunity to hear and participate in it.
The diversity of voices present was crucial to the Forum's project, especially because such diversity was itself one of the main topics covered there: the power of the arts to give voice, and a space in which voices can be heard, to a variety of individuals and communities. Of particular interest to me was the discussion of youth as a demographic whose voice too often goes unheard. I've written about youth voices and the arts before (check out Let's Go Viral: A Call to Youth, and the rest of my youth/arts blog series), but as the Forum proved, there is still much more to be said and done to support youth voices – and some of it, at least, can be said and done through the arts.
Jessica Canard, Assistant Coordinator for the Start Program at Graffiti Gallery, shared her story and a great example as she talked about her early artistic development, describing how the support of the Michaëlle Jean Foundation helped her launch her career and find her voice as a young artist. She recounted the inspiring experience of having the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean personally buy her artwork as a teenager. "I have self-confidence in my ability to create, in myself," Canard said. Mme Jean herself would later reconfirm the importance of showing youth that their voices as artists and people are heard and valued, stating in her closing remarks to the Forum, "Youth are leaders today, not just for the future."
The opportunity to make one's voice heard is especially significant for marginalized groups with important stories to tell. At the Forum we had Jaime Koebel, Indigenous Arts Educator at the National Gallery of Canada, and Marie Wilson, Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, speaking out for Canada's First Nations. "Through the arts I learned about my identity," Koebel said, and she has gone on to inform others about First Nations identities through her artistic programming at the National Gallery, much of which is geared towards reconnecting First Nations youth with their heritage and making sure they see themselves reflected in the institution of the gallery. Marie Wilson asked, "What is art but talking?" and made a poignant argument for art's healing and "truth-telling" power: for 15 years her husband was unable to speak to her about his experiences as a residential school survivor, but he was finally able to express his feelings through a song, the lyrics of which Wilson read aloud to a rapt audience at the Forum. It was a painful, beautiful and inexpressibly powerful moment – the emotions are rising up inside me again even as I write about it a month after the fact.
On Saturday afternoon Forum participants had to make the difficult decision of which two workshops to attend out of the several intriguing options available. My first choice was a workshop on "Voice and Identity," where Carleton University's Professor Carol Payne gave a presentation on Views from the North, a photography-based oral history project that hires Inuit students to research photos of their home communities found in the Library and Archives Canada, and present them to Inuit elders. These photos then spark valuable intergenerational conversations about Inuit history and culture, conversations that additionally sometimes lead to the identification of people and places in the photographs, as elders often recognize relatives or even themselves in the images. Payne calls it "memory work": using the memories contained in and jogged by the photos to affirm Inuit identity, reframe historical narratives, and "break the ice" between generations to connect the voices of Inuit youth and elders.
Perhaps one of art's most important qualities, however – even before its ability to connect our voices to those of others – is its use as a means of helping us truly connect with ourselves. Jungian psychoanalyst, author, and public speaker Guy Corneau reminded Forum attendees of the need to express our own voices before we can reach out to make a difference outside ourselves. He declared art a guide in this endeavour, an "answer to existential angst" – artistic expression as a tool to help us understand ourselves, to help us discover what's inside us that gives us the desire to live even in the face of fear and self-doubt, to help us make the world make sense.
So did the Power of the Arts National Forum suddenly make the world make sense to me? Well, not quite, but it's a start. A forum is by its very definition an assembly of voices, a place for conversation – and this particular conversation has opened up space for many more discussions about the arts and our lives that can only take us further in our efforts to innovate in both (keep an eye out for next year's Power of the Arts Forum!). It's only through finding, expressing and sharing our voices that we give ourselves the power to change things, after all – and the power of the arts can definitely help with that.
- Share This