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An Alternative Vision of Existence

Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage presentation
Co-written Ravi Jain, Artistic and General Director, and Owais Lightwala, Managing Director at Why Not Theatre
Delivered by Ravi Jain on Thursday, June 6th via teleconference from Miami, FL.

When I returned to Toronto in 2007 after living and training abroad for many years, no institution would hire me- even though I had a stellar international resume. Institutions were busy doing their own work- often led by a single artistic director and their casting did not have the vision or imagination to include me.  So I, like many others before me, was forced to form my own company if I wanted to work.  I founded Why Not Theatre in 2007- we are a company with an outstanding international reputation for creating award-winning innovative and accessible theatre.  By 2017, 10 years in, we had worked on over 80 projects, touring to 30 different cities on 5 continents, and grew slowly to an annual operating budget of $500k.  We were a team of 3 people doing the work of 6, and we struggled to not only make our own work, but also support the work of many artists who did not have the resources which we managed to grow.  Even at that time we were defying the odds.

At that time it was impossible to grow a company with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Funding was static with the majority of funds going to the fewest and oldest institutions which were born out of the Massey Commission.

As I’m sure many of you know, the 1951 Massey Commission was a landmark report, and is generally seen as the first major step by the Canadian government to nurture, preserve and promote Canadian culture. The commission was successful in establishing foundational institutions for the arts, but those institutions were mostly rooted in Euro-centric and colonial values. The text of the Massey commission actually includes a quote that says, and I quote:

The impact of the white man with his more advanced civilization and his infinitely superior techniques resulted in the gradual destruction of the Indian way of life. Since the death of true Indian arts is inevitable, Indians should not be encouraged to prolong the existence of arts which at best must be artificial and at worst are degenerate. The Indian arts thus survive only as ghosts or shadows of a dead society.”

At the heart of this report, that would shape Canada’s cultural voices for decades to come, is a narrative which did not imagine a world where indigenous culture existed. That narrative has also excluded racialized people and other minority groups.  Vincent Massey never would have imagined me as an artistic leader of an institution that is defining Canadian culture- which let’s be clear- I am.

This history of funding has caused stasis in the system where the majority of funds go to the a small number of the oldest organizations. Another way to look at this is that there is only 1 opera,  1 symphony, 1 ballet, 1 regional theatre in each city – with few exceptions it is next to impossible to build a new institution of the size and scale of the oldest companies born out of the Massey commission.

So for me as an artistic leader, my only option for growth was to apply for very few jobs at institutions which have perpetuated decades of exclusionary practices. I’d have to expend energy changing the vision of that institution, rather than being given the support and opportunity to build a new institution with a broader vision of what Canadian identity could be.

In 2017 we were awarded one of Canada Council’s 200 New Chapter grants for a dream project of producing a new adaptation of the ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata. It is one of the most important stories in South Asian culture.  The $375K investment allowed us to create a 3 part, international multi-media production that will play at the largest stage at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-lake. For the first time, we now have the resources to build a show at a scale equal to what only major institutions get to do. In our partnership with Shaw Festival we come to the tables as equals. And this is historic because this institution has served a single audience for over 50 years, and this partnership will create unprecedented access for a whole new audience, many of whom have never participated in “Canadian” performing arts.

In 2018, we became clients at Canada Council in operating funding. In our first application to the operating contest, we were awarded $175K. For some perspective – we were getting about $25K from the Ontario Arts Council, and $30K from Toronto Arts Council. The Canada Council’s investment was a meaningful investment that propelled us into the position of leadership we were meant to be in. Because of the investment, we were able to increase other fundraising, attracting new corporate and philanthropic donors who were just 2 years ago were out of reach.

We are now on an exponential growth trajectory, with a $2 Million operating budget, and full time staff of 9 in 2020, and we’re projecting to hit $3 million in 2021 and even more in years to come. Most importantly, we are serving hundreds of artists whose voices haven’t been heard, bringing their work to the millions of Canadians who have never seen themselves represented. Finally, our vision of what Canada can look and sound like is starting to be given the same weight as the Euro-centric institutions that came from the Massey Commission. And if we got  more support, imagine what impact we could have on what arts and culture means to ALL Canadians.

Canada Council has made one major move to address historical inequities by prioritizing equity and funding new voices with substantial investments. We need to see this change through. We need to continue to change where the support is going.  Redistribute the wealth we have to offer more dynamic and innovative companies like Why Not to grow and become new institutions- not to replace- but rather to support. To work alongside. To be equal partners in shaping our national identity.  Right now Why Not’s growth is an outlier, 2 years from now it MUST be the norm.

It’s important to note that this change and re-balancing of the scales would never have happened without the much needed increases to the Canada Council’s budget, and we can only continue to seed this change with continued investment and growth. We can only make room for more, if there is more to go around.

I hope that Canada Council goes further with this move, I hope they are bolder, it would not only change who tells the story, it would change who comes to see the story. And I hope their actions inspires Canadian Heritage to do the same as many of the Heritage programs are outdated and primarily serve the older Euro-centric institutions.

Canadian Heritage is a strange idea to wrap one’s head around. Is it about preserving the past, a Massey inheritance that did not consider my existence?  Or is it about shaping the a future, one in which my existence is essential for the country to define our mission and voice? To me it is clear, we have finally made one step in the right direction, now let’s take 5 more.

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