The purpose of this report is to provide a bird’s eye informational view of existing venues and spaces dedicated to the production and presentation of Indigenous arts in Canada. Initially, it was intended to focus on Indigenous not-for-profit arts organizations with a venue. However, it was quickly apparent that there are far too few of such spaces in Canada to give a representational sample and analysis. Therefore, the definition was expanded to include Indigenous cultural organizations that may not have a professional artistic mandate, but have the space/venue to support the creation or presentation of Indigenous arts programming.
Methods & Approach:
Information for the chart (i.e. space specifications, annual budgets and mandates) was gathered through online research including organizational websites’, Canada Revenue Agency charities listings, and arts councils grant recipient listings. On a few occasions, follow-up emails or phone calls were made directly to the organization or a funder to clarify online information.
Background reports reviewed included: Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Calls to Action, 2015; Figuring-the-Plural, by Mina Para Matlon, Ingrid Van Maastricht, Kailyn Wittig Menguc, 2014; Socio-Economic Impacts of Aboriginal Cultural Industries by KTA INC 2008; Understanding Aboriginal Arts in Canada Today by France Trépanier and Chris Creighton-Kelly, 2011.
Identification of organizations and observations were made through online research as well as my own knowledge, experience and positions, which include artist, arts administrator and Indigenous person (Anishinaabe/European ancestry, Killarney- Shebahonaning ON) in Canada.
Indigenous organizations for the purpose of this report are defined by organizations that are governed and directed by a majority number of Indigenous board members and/or staff. For the scope of this report it was not possible to verify the ancestry of these positions and so the organizations presented are those that are known or considered to be Indigenous lead, by the Indigenous community.
It is important to note that, despite repeated recommendations by Indigenous consultants to Canadian Heritage and other funders over the years, there is still no existing national informational ‘clearinghouse’ or registry dedicated to Indigenous arts and cultural industries in Canada. Although there has been some strong qualitative reporting, the lack of information makes it a challenge for funders or programming to be as effective. Statistical information that is collected through mainstream such as INAC, DCH or CADAC use metrics that do not reflect Indigenous worldviews, nor within the context of the history of Indigenous cultural genocide in Canada (as now defined as such by the Truth and Reconciliation commission).
Such information would enable more responsive and responsible decisions and programming for both the organizations and funders. On a very practical and immediate level, a more in depth survey of existing Indigenous run spaces and venues would be very useful for Indigenous artists who often have a desire to tour First Nations and out of their own territories.
The research for this report does not include information on organizations in Québec, as this will be reported separately. Neither does it include Native Friendship Centres in Ontario or powwow venues in Canada, which would require a much more extensive scope and capacity. Finally it does not include Indigenous venues or sites used for healing and ceremonial practices or rituals, although it is implied that many of such practices are integrated into artistic and cultural spaces.
Note on Worldviews:
For clarity this report and the attached chart uses categorizations and language that originates from a dominant taxonomy and worldview of the arts, such as ‘professional arts ’ and ‘arts training’. I have expanded some of the more ubiquitous funding categorizations very slightly to be more inclusive of Indigenous worldviews and realities (i.e. including cultural resurgence as a mandate). Section 13 of the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action states that “We call on the federal government to acknowledge that Aboriginal rights include Aboriginal language rights”, therefore I have also included language arts as an artistic discipline.
Analysis & Observations:
The most remarkable impression from the information gathering process for this report is the overall lack of Indigenous governed arts and cultural spaces compared to non- Indigenous spaces in Canada. The arts and culture of the original peoples of this land, unique to, and OF this land. And yet it is remarkable that this is not celebrated or presented as such. Rather, non-Indigenous arts and cultural spaces and national sites such as museum and galleries are often contributors to the theft and incarceration of Indigenous material culture, while also perpetuating a false narrative of the peoples of this land.
In an attempt to shift the tone from a place of deficiency, which is often the case when discussing Indigenous realities, to a place of empowerment and agency, it is important to acknowledge and observe that equally as remarkable to this lack of national presence, is the incredible cultural resiliency of Indigenous peoples; the existence of cultural space in this country, literal or metaphorical, is phenomenal given the now recognized cultural genocide acknowledged and proven by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many people fought for these spaces at the risk of great personal harm and punishment by the state. It was only in 1950 that the federal government repealed laws that made it illegal for Indigenous peoples to gather in groups, or practice certain forms of artistic expressions such as song and dance.
With this preface one of the most glaring observations is a stark lack of Indigenous arts and cultural spaces in the Maritime provinces. Aside from Membertou Heritage Park (which is mandated as a cultural organization) there are no professional Indigenous not-for profit artist organizations in the region. Membertou is also the only organization on the chart that does not report any federal funding. This lack of arts infrastructure and physical spaces in the eastern provinces is perhaps reflective of a region with the longest history of colonial presence and oppression in the country.
Cultural Centres represent the highest percentage of organizations with venues, and have an overall higher annual operating budget and a more diversified revenue. The exception to this would be the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation and Woodland Cultural Centre whose revenues are both more reflective of the professional Indigenous arts organizations. Most of the Cultural Centres are located on-reserve and are mandated as spaces for cultural preservation (museum, historical artefacts and archives). Future analysis of these spaces should use the Truth and Reconciliation recommendation on museums to frame funders’ responsibilities to these Calls to Action and ensure that these Cultural Centres are properly resourced to ensure self-determination of these heritage materials and narratives.
Of the sample, arts-mandated organizations have the highest percentage of public to private funding. Although this is changing with the TRC and new philanthropy agencies such as The Circle, there are still very few charitable donations in Canada that find their way to Indigenous organizations. However, lesser known is that this can then be a barrier to accessing public funding which often stipulates a certain ratio of public to private funding determined by the council. Cultural Centres that had rental facilities especially in high traffic tourist areas are generating significant other income in their revenue.
Urban Shaman is the only not-for profit gallery dedicated to contemporary Indigenous arts that was identified in the information scan. Although many of the Cultural Centres have gallery exhibition spaces, aside from Haida Gwaii Museum, websites did not indicate which ones have trained in-house curators for these spaces. Given the current national Indigenous curatorial landscape, and the need for more Indigenous curators, it could be presumed that most do not.
Although most of the organizations offer opportunities for cultural or community learning and workshops, only five organizations in the sample have a primary mandate of professional arts training. Given the history of residential schools and continued fraught relationships, distrust and damaging experience of Indigenous peoples within mainstream education, the significance and importance of designated spaces for Indigenous arts training cannot be overstated. Cultural safety is a major factor in Indigenous people accessing education, training and services. With the advent of the TRC recommendations this transformation and understanding of culturally safe spaces has already started to happen in academic settings such as universities and health, however there seems to be a lag in this understanding in arts infrastructure, programming, planning and funding. Indigenous cultural safety and protocols need to be considered in all artistic and cultural spaces and programming - not just as an add-on when supplementary or designated funding arise.
Only three of the organizations profiled identified artist residencies in their mandates. Residencies are an important source for artistic development and growth for any artist yet similar to Indigenous training spaces, these need to be culturally safe and reflect Indigenous values in space if Indigenous peoples are to access them. In addition to conventional interpretations of arts residency spaces, many urban Indigenous artists who are dislocated from traditional homelands and spaces are engaging in residencies in their ancestral communities, but it is not seen as such by funding models and programs.
Of course these pages do not reflect the abundance of Indigenous arts creation and engagement of Indigenous peoples in communities. Community and family settings were traditionally the sites of transmission of knowledge, culture, language and arts. Many artists are working to restore these spaces that were targeted and nearly destroyed by residential schools. There are also a number of very innovative Indigenous collectives in the country that are working in between these spaces and the institutions. These may be known to funders through project funding but are not eligible for operational funding. For now, they choose to govern themselves in their own self-determined ways - and are not going to be constrained by state imposed governance structures and eligibility requirements. Some recent examples of such collectives include: The O’Kaadenigan Weengusk Collective (O’demin Geezis Festival), Onaman Collective, 007 Collective, TRIBE collective and The Bush Gallery.
Sara Roque is a writer, filmmaker and activist who has worked on a number of arts initiatives and projects in Canada and abroad. She is the former Indigenous Arts Officer at the Ontario Arts Council where she worked for ten years mentoring artists and building innovative programs and resources with Indigenous artists and communities. She is a mixed blood Anishinabekwe from Shebahonaning (colonially known as Killarney Ontario) and resides in Toronto.
Banner image: provided by Sara Roque