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Arts, Nationalism and Government Support

Fathers of Confederation, Pacific landscape, Telefilm Canada, media theories, National Ballet of Canada

After Canada became a nation in 1867, a new nationalist sentiment appeared in public art. The country’s history and institutions became the subject of monumental and heroic artworks. Prominent examples include the architecture of the Parliament buildings built in 1867 and the National Gallery of Canada constructed in 1880; sculptures on historical monuments and war memorials; and paintings such as The Fathers of Confederation, painted by Robert Harris in 1883. The Confederation Poets of the late 19th century tried to show that Canadian topics, such as the plight of the indigenous peoples, could be the subject of poetry. However, most artistic expression in Canada was still dominated by European models. Quebec artists in particular, such as poet Louis Honore Frechette, strove to maintain and promote French culture in the face of English dominance. Painting, as well as French-language literature and music, tended to celebrate the rural and religious values of the Quebec people. The culture of other regions also often expressed a strong sense of place. Such small-town attitudes were the subject of humorous works by essayist Stephen Leacock.

A real break from tradition and regionalism came in the 1920s, when the Group of Seven introduced revolutionary new techniques and concepts to painting, as well as a strong commitment to a national perspective. The group rebelled against the conservative art then being produced in Canada and shifted emphasis away from slavish imitation of nature toward bold, colorful expressiveness. Also at this time Emily Carr in British Columbia was painting nature in a new personal style that expressed the themes of the Pacific landscape and was strongly influenced by the Northwest coast style of indigenous art.

In the postwar period from the 1940s through the 1960s, Canadian culture truly began to expand and respond to new influences, such as the media theories of the University of Toronto’s Marshall McLuhan and the liberation manifesto of Les Automatistes, a group of painters in Quebec. McLuhan stimulated interest in the use of multiple media, which engage all the senses to create what he called “mosaic patterns” of meaning. Renewed nationalism was also a factor as Canadians began to channel government funds to invest in their own culture. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, founded in 1936, provided a forum for artists across the country. The Canada Council was established in 1957 to fund artistic endeavors and became a crucial agent in supporting creativity. Support for Canadian culture has also come from such prizes as the Governor General’s Literary Awards, instituted in 1936. The film industry was nurtured by the National Film Board of Canada, an advisory board that became a producer of highly acclaimed short films, and by Telefilm Canada, a producer of feature-length films. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) regulates the broadcast media and has fostered Canadian popular music by requiring that it receive a certain minimum amount of airtime. Programs to support the Canadian publishing industry were also implemented in the postwar period.

The result of these initiatives was an explosion of artistic opportunities. New ballet and modern dance companies emerged, including the National Ballet of Canada in 1951; theatrical festivals were established, particularly the Stratford and the Shaw; and new orchestras and music festivals were created. Support for the arts continued through the 1980s but began to decline in the 1990s. In total, state funding for culture in Canada was C$5.9 billion in 1991, but was reduced to C$5.8 billion in 1993 and 1994 and continues to decline.

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