Making the case for the Power of the Arts

By Jean-Daniel Lafond and John Osborne

The recent tragic murders of members of the Canadian Forces in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and in Ottawa serve as sad reminders that our society is not entirely “whole,” in the sense of being entirely healthy. There are many disadvantaged and disaffected groups, some of whom seek to redress their lack of “wholeness” through acts of violence. Such acts can never be condoned … but can they perhaps be prevented? Are there alternative paths which we can offer those who do not regard themselves as “winners” in Canada of the 21st century?

There is an ancient Chinese proverb, adopted as the visual symbol of Amnesty International, which maintains that it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. History teaches us that the first glimmers of our humanity, the first light illuminating the path away from barbarism, are works of art, from the farthest reaches of our past: stony mountainsides, cave walls or the middle of an African desert.

After everything else disappears in a civilization, what remains? It is culture. A society that neglects its culture is a society that risks ruin. To this day, the arts remain a powerful tool for sharing values, bringing cultures and civilizations together, and transforming disaffected lives.

Perhaps that is why a great many caring Canadians from coast to coast to coast are indeed lighting candles of hope, using the power of the arts … music, theatre, dance, painting, photography, and even the circus … to help better the lives of individuals who are individually or collectively disadvantaged or disaffected.

For example, a chance encounter with an arts program transformed Freddy King—a former inmate turned poet and youth advocate. The arts taught him how to replace his anger with poetic words of inspiration. They also inspired him to turn his frustrations into a crime prevention outreach strategy, which is now touching many young lives in his hometown Toronto. As is the case for hundreds of youth across Canada, the arts saved King’s life.

That is why there is strength and value in having all sectors of society work together to use the arts in order to offer tangible and meaningful alternatives to the distress, crime and destruction plaguing certain segments of our society.

In 2013, Carleton University partnered with the Michaëlle Jean Foundation to host the first Power of the Arts National Forum, an opportunity for both academics and those whose proverbial boots were on the ground in the fight to make our country a better place for all to come together, in order to celebrate their achievements, to share best practices, and to explore ways in which, collectively, they might construct a whole which was greater than the sum of their individual parts. In the spring of that year we sent out a “call for papers,” daring to hope that we might get enough proposals to fill the 18 workshop spaces available in the draft program. But neither of us could have predicted the incredible response to our call: more than 150 submissions were received! We were truly overwhelmed … and so very grateful.

Others have made the case for the value of the arts in economic terms, or for making our urban spaces more livable, and those arguments need not be rehashed here. But fewer Canadians may appreciate their importance in terms of helping people feel better about themselves, of getting them on the track of self-exploration and self-discovery that can lead to healing, and making them “whole.” And in this cause we are encouraged by the enthusiastic support of organizations as varied as Elections Canada and the College of Family Physicians of Canada, who understand that importance of “wholeness” not only for individual health but for the collective health, including the political and social health of our nation.

Over the weekend of November 7-9, we shall convene the second annual Power of the Arts National Forum in Ottawa, with the aim of building on the work initiated last year and solidifying a national network of those who use the arts as peaceful weapons of mass construction in their daily quest to improve the lives of those whom they serve. Our hope is that all Canadians will come to understand and support the power of the arts as a force for healing, and consequently for making our country a better place.

Jean-Daniel Lafond is the co-founder and the co-president of the Michaëlle Jean Foundation.

John Osborne is the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Carleton University.


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