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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 9

Their Excellencies the Right Honourable MichaŽlle Jean & Jean-Daniel Lafond: Creating a Canadian Cultural and Artistic Identity

by Aline Apostolska / June 4, 2008

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In September 2005, MichaŽlle Jean, journalist, news anchor, and emcee of French-language information programs for CBC, became the twenty-seventh Governor General of Canada. Born in Haiti, it was in 1968, at the age of ten, that she arrived in Montreal with her family, which was fleeing the Duvalier dictatorship. She holds a Masterís degree in comparative literature from the University of Montreal and speaks five languages (French, English, Italian, Spanish, and Creole). She has long been involved with womenís shelters for victims of domestic violence, and has also worked to defend civil rights and freedom of expression, both as a journalist and also appearing in several documentaries made by her husband, writer and filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond. On a more personal level, MichaŽlle Jean is very close to music and especially to dance. She has long danced with a company, and never refuses the opportunity to do so. This sometimes happens with the natives during official visits, such as in Haiti, Africa, or with certain First Nations groups in Canadaís north. Her eight-year-old daughter, Marie-…den, is following this path herself, practising dance as an extracurricular activity in Ottawa Ė primarily hip-hop and contemporary dance.

Jean-Daniel Lafond is also a Canadian by choice. Originally a French citizen, he came to Montreal in 1974, where he was primarily a philosophy professor, but also a researcher in the field of education at the University of Montreal. He became a Canadian citizen in 1981. A filmmaker who also made documentaries, and a writer, he is the author of a number of films, cinema vťritť pieces which, like many of the films he has worked on, examine the role of culture, its place, and its transmission as well as a subject which has always preoccupied him: the freedom to exist and to act, the freedom of thought, expression, and creation, on a collective level as well as an individual one. He has placed his films in the tradition of liberal and boundary-pushing artists (Aimť Cťsaire Ė a documentary made with MichaŽlle Jean in 1991; Jacques Ferron or Marie de Líincarnation in Folle de Dieu, his next film, which comes out in autumn 2008), also examining countries in critical moments in their histories (such as Cuba, Haiti, Bosnia, and Iran Ė notably in his last film, American Fugitive: The Truth About Hassan (2006), selected at more than twenty film festivals throughout the world).

The Governor General and her husband notably give out the Governor Generalís Awards, the highest award for artistic achievement in the country Ė in literature, performing arts, and visual and media arts Ė since 1957. These awards are subject to the decision of a jury of peers under the administration of the Canada Council for the Arts, but the Governor Generals are almost always personally involved in their development and influence.

We have, by the way, a scoop: Mr. Jean-Daniel Lafond has proposed the creation of a fifth Governor Generalís Award: the award for dining, to recognize and celebrate the products, the cooking, and the wines of Canada, which will be given in 2009.

ďAt a time when, too often, we think more of ourselves than others, itís good to recall a primordial place at the table, as a cultural exchange, and to appreciate the differences,Ē he said in support of his proposal.

But thereís more; since their arrival in Rideau Hall in 2005, MichaŽlle Jean and Jean-Daniel Lafond have wished to bring a more active dimension to the awards, creating a space for reflection and dialogue to parallel the prizes on one hand, and to their numerous displacements within Canada and to the foreigner on the other hand. Titled Le point des Arts/Art Matters, the initiative consists of a series of debates (about thirty since December 2006) between artists of different disciplines, from provinces across Canada, regarding pointed and sometimes controversial themes, with the goal of fuelling discoveries, bringing artists together to see what they have in common aside from their differences, and, at best, encouraging collaborations to produce common creations. At these discussion forums, MichaŽlle Jean and Jean-Daniel Lafond are always participants, often along with elected locals and administrators. At the end of each debate, the conclusions are recorded and publicized.

Culture and art constitute, in a way, a ďnerve centreĒ of the lives of the Governor General and her husband. For them, art really does matter, as MichaŽlle Jean emphasizes. In the living room of Rideau Hall, opening onto the splendour of the gardens in spring, they have agreed to Ė second scoop! Ė their first interview on the subject.

La SCENA: What role did art play in your childhood and in your personal formation, both with your family and during your studies?

MichaŽlle Jean : To grow up in Haiti is to grow up at the heart of a culture where art is paramount. Itís incredible that such a small country, weighed down by such poverty and where 70% of the population is illiterate, has given the world so many artists, notably great writers. In Haiti, the oral and visual traditions are very strong and are perpetuated by their strong base; the necessity of culture to construct and to affirm itself, as well as to resist, was paramount, and this since the plantations already, where art was primitive because it was banned. They didnít have the right to sing or dance, and when they wanted to take possession of their dignity and integrity as men and women, they did it through song and dance. So art is founder and structure, always. In my own family, there was an uncle who was a writer and a poet, Renť Depestre, who was a very strong presence and affirmation, for my family and for the country, and who united his voice with those of other Haitian writers of scope . . .

Jean-Daniel Lafond : Itís necessary to point out that you werenít born on a plantation nor into slavery; your mother was a professor and your father, a college director, and so you grew up in a world of books, writing, and culture. As for me, I was born into poverty during the war, and for my parents, in the fifteen years that followed, the priority was to survive, then to revive. My father, who was in love with books, no longer had them. And so I started to read anything that fell into my hands, saving it all. My contact with culture was through its absence, a black hole which I believed would never end. And as I saw that it wasnít an emergency for my parents, I understood very quickly that culture was my business, and that was that! Luckily, there was a wider world, notably in school. I insist on the fact that culture is a struggle, a constant struggle against the elements, against anything that might prevent the achievement of culture. I had to fight to state loud and clear that culture was a priority for me, because you couldnít say that in 1944. And when I started doing theatre at the age of thirteen, it was an act of rebellion. Since then, culture means two things for me: social conscience, and critical thinking.

Do you think that Canadian schools play a fundamental role in forming oneís being and a world vision through culture and art?

MJ : Art is essential in constructing oneís being, and that begins quite early. It must start within the fold of the family, to give a child the capability to appreciate the richness of art. When we first arrived in Montreal, the first thing my mother bought, with her meagre immigrantís income, was a piano. For her, it was essential, not to make us prodigies but to have it in our lives.

But when that doesnít exist in the home, shouldnít school play a role?

MJ : Overall, school should play a role. I see it in the public school that my daughter attends here in Ottawa, in which music, dance, and theatre are integrated into the general program. Itís interesting to see how children learn to live together and share thanks to that support. That kind of education should start in preschool. Art cultivates, it teaches. Of course, we can be united by this element that we call beauty, but still, the appreciation of art boosts learning.

Jean-Daniel Lafond, you were a philosophy professor for a long time, yet there cannot be reflection on art or culture without a philosophical dimension . . .

JDL : We must distinguish between art and culture, because they are two different things. Art is by nature irrational, without reason, and itís also an extension of the body. To use the words of philosopher Michel Serres, ďEverything originates in the five senses,Ē and therefore art is also the celebration of the body, as an expression of sensation. These are the senses of the person who creates and those of the person who receives, and we can therefore develop a real artistic sensitivity without culture, that is, without having learned to understand art. I think that school is better suited to teach us culture and not as suited to exposing us to art. Art is always, in the strongest sense of the word, a revolution, with the capability to cast things into doubt. The role of the school remains to teach all fields of knowledge. I do not at all believe that you can base education of knowledge on a wild exaltation of creativity.

MJ : We mistakenly think that art always comes from inspiration Ė yes of course, but itís more than that. Iíve heard many artists say people donít realize this, and the fact that they donít realize it prevents them from recognizing that art is constant toil . . .

Itís a progression . . .

MJ : Itís a progression, itís a maturing, an investment of years. It must be understood, recognized, and protected, and I think itís important that at school we show a child that certain artistic movements are not the effect of chance but are the moves that one works at to acquire yet more mastery and efficiency. Itís a commitment. The Governor Generalís Awards have the role of recognizing the immense work and creation behind the art, and also of sensitizing the public to these creations.

We have a vision of Canada that is characterized by its diversity and its youth, an identity that is still finding itself, pinned between a North American identity and European skills, and finally we view it more with a bias toward nature rather than culture, and as a result, Canadian artistic identity is not well defined. Caught between different poles, this identity is still in question and still developing. In fact, the very thing that makes it strong also confounds it. What do you think of this?

JDL : Itís a very important question. Itís very difficult to define Canadian cultural identity right now, to try to put together a history of cultures and even more so the history of the arts. Itís necessary to understand that this history is founded first of all on an acknowledgement of nature, not just in a geographic sense but also in a human sense. And that which constitutes unity is doubtlessly that which eludes us. We would like to represent Canada through a sort of original native purity, which is absurd because that original unity doesnít exist. The First Nations themselves constitute an immense diversity. Canadian history draws also from its own colonial and post-colonial history, with immigration from a wealth of places. There is no homogenous Canadian culture. At best, Canadian culture is composed of a large number of influences that come from everywhere. As long as we lack the capacity to represent this natural unity, of Canada in its entirety, cultural unity cannot exist. We are in a moment of fusion, where it will be necessary to understand that Canada mimics the global nature of the world, that is to say, that we must live with our diversity.

MJ : At the same time, I love the disorder formed by this inherent diversity. The diversity and the crossbreeding were already there with the First Nations peoples. Hundreds of languages were spoken and the groups were spread out over the territory, very distinct from one another. Other variations were added to this, brought by the double colonization and then by immigration.

JDL : Yes, however, the difference is that colonization wipes out the culture in place and substitutes its own. This isnít the case with immigration today, which is necessarily faced with cultural diversity.

MJ : The good thing about some artists is that they identify this disarray, this impossibility, also this refusal, to define a unique layout. Through their various creations, they end up imparting a strong culture of diversity, where all that is expressed. You bring artists together from all corners of the country, as we do with the Art Matters forums, to see this richness, which comes mainly from having to redefine ourselves constantly. For an artist, Canada is still an incredible country where you can go from the known to the unknown, to infinity.

There still exists this prejudice that says that there are certain provinces which are more artistically developed than others. If we overcome this prejudice, how might it redefine Canadian art?

MJ : Weíve noticed, in the Art Matters forums and in the Youth forums, that the reflections on this subject arenít very different. The questions posed by Canadian artists from one end of Canada to the other are the same: how can the Canadian artist situate him- or herself in this space, what recognition can he or she have, how does he or she handle this cultural disarray properly? Itís a common question.

What is the most important thing for you, in your role of creating these spaces?

MJ : How essential it is to listen to the voices of artists. Itís letting these reflections express themselves, and also in encouraging exchange and possible future collaboration between artists who would might otherwise never meet.

JDL : In fact, thatís been expressed very well, notably during a recent Art Matters forum at the Banff Arts Centre, and also other places. But itís still necessary to distinguish between art and culture. Culture makes us aware of one another, because it doesnít have to do with homogenization or making an official culture. Making us aware of one another is the normal role of a culture, and it works well in Canada. But recognizing and assembling artistic creations still needs to be done. The problem is communication between different artistic viewpoints because itís very difficult to get people together, to get the artists together and especially to get the public together.

MJ : Itís not enough for artists to affirm that ďart mattersĒ, that art is important. The public must understand why it matters, in what ways itís essential, in what ways itís a resource to which we must give the necessary means and help to develop.

JDL : It takes a circulation of education. It comes down to education again. Now, when you have a country where we teach neither history nor the history of art the same way in Quebec as in Saskatchewan, well, somethingís missing! We should have a global vision of what is being produced today in art Ė visual art, theatre, dance, literature . . . in all of Canada. This means our newspapers should be capable of reporting on more than just whatís happening on our street corner! It takes a good cultural press to bring a global vision and good sense. Itís also why itís necessary that there be a cultural policy in this country. Yet, I think that a society is not mature, culturally speaking, until it is capable of uniting around a consistent cultural project. In Canada, each province establishes its own cultural policy, but on a national level the question of a genuine common cultural policy is still being asked.

MichaŽlle Jean, are you going to make any recommendations apart from the conclusions of the thirty or so Art Matters forums that have taken place up to now?

MJ : Of course, the minutes of these meetings will be in the public domain, thatís important. But we also invite decision-makers to our table. The Canada Council for the Arts is always represented at the Art Matters forums that go with the presentation of the awards, for example, and there have been ministers present at certain forums. We also take into account certain conclusions from these forums during our official speeches. Itís a way of encouraging people to take action. Itís still essential, however, to open up a space where artists themselves take the initiative to exchange and organize themselves with the goal of common reflection, to think together of a strategy they deem necessary. I have faith in the future, because even if decision-makers are not always ready, Canadian artists themselves are ready to work together.

JDL : It comes back to keeping in mind that the essence of a culture is primarily to shatter its solitudes. Itís fundamental. n

[Translation: Rebecca Anne Clark]

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