Natalie Pendergast: Canada’s Cultural Famine


Bryan Lee O’Malley‘s cover for Shojo Beat

Is it any coincidence that the terms “starving artist” and “poor student” have become stereotypes in this country?  As one of the latter I can tell you that although these terms may stick around for a long time, what they refer to—their “signified”–certainly will not. No, I’m afraid that if one continues to get poorer and poorer, hungrier and hungrier, he/she will eventually waste away. If left to starve, if left homeless for long enough, the artist and the student will die.

Right now, this type of negligence is occurring at the University of Toronto. The Centre for Comparative Literature is in a battle for its life. By extension, this battle is only one example of the perpetual struggle for artists and humanities scholars who promote and study culture in Canada. We are in the midst of a bona fide arts and culture famine.

Margaret Atwood, in an article published in the Globe and Mail, on Wed., Sept. 24th, 2008 and updated on Tues. Mar. 31, 2009, wrote the following:

[Prime Minister Stephen Harper] told us that some group called “ordinary people” didn’t care about something called “the arts.” His idea of “the arts” is a bunch of rich people gathering at galas whining about their grants. Well, I can count the number of moderately rich writers who live in Canada on the fingers of one hand: I’m one of them, and I’m no Warren Buffett. I don’t whine about my grants because I don’t get any grants. I whine about other grants – grants for young people, that may help them to turn into me, and thus pay to the federal and provincial governments the kinds of taxes I pay, and cover off the salaries of such as Mr. Harper. In fact, less than 10 per cent of writers actually make a living by their writing, however modest that living may be. They have other jobs. But people write, and want to write, and pack into creative writing classes, because they love this activity – not because they think they’ll be millionaires.” She prefaced these concerns by citing that the Conference Board estimates Canada’s cultural sector to have generated $46 billion, or 3.8 % of Canada’s GDP in 2007. She threw in another quote from the Canada Council that the sector consists of 600,000 jobs, which is the same as agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining oil and gas and utilities combined.

Her frustration is directed toward the lack of funding given to Canadian artists, but there is another—perhaps more painful—reality that lends to the anxious tone of her words: the lack of support and appreciation from Stephen Harper. It seems that “ordinary people” have trouble seeing the value in arts and culture, and this simple point is at the very core of the current Canadian divide between humanities scholars, writers, researchers, teachers, students, enthusiasts, and others. What will it take to prove that arts and culture are important?

In light of the recent World Cup Football Championship, I find myself wondering why it is that sports like soccer and hockey seem to have such a huge cultural following. When Canada won the Winter Olympics hockey final, I knew everything about that game,even though I am not a hockey fan. I could not avoid it—it filled up every space of my life: the people in the streets prevented me from going home, every channel on TV was broadcasting highlights, the neighbours’ celebratory cheers were ringing in my ears. The difference is that, when it comes to hockey, we Canadians feel a personal attachment. We “own” it.

By contrast, the arts are less a part of our culture as Canadians, and more a cultish obscurity. When, for example, I discovered that the Scott Pilgrim manga artist, Torontonian Bryan Lee O’Malley was coming to The Beguiling comic book store this summer, I nearly screamed with excitement. And what is more astounding, the famous artist/author, whose manga series is now being adapted into a major motion picture starring Canadian Michael Cera, is charging nothing for his book release party that includes a concert with four bands. In Toronto, I am sure that most people could not recognize the name Bryan Lee O’Malley despite his fame in the comic reading (under)-world and even in the entire high school and university student world!

O’Malley’s work has now gained “popular culture” status, especially in the USA; but here in Canada we seem to ignore our local talent until after the Americans have approved of it (and financed the marketing of it). In other words, it’s not “art” in Canada until the U.S. says it is. What this also suggests is that, since Canada’s distribution of arts funding is so underwhelming, the government and the country at large seem to have relied on the private production, music and publishing companies in the US to both judge what is worthy of recognition and to fund our artists. After all that, when the Celine Dions and Jim Carreys have “made it” south of the border, we then want to reclaim them so we can exploit their fame and call it our “arts and culture.”

I believe in Canada’s arts and culture. I think we have a wealth of talent and creativity here. But there seems to be an endless cycle of disrespect for the arts and humanities in the community at large. It seems that “ordinary people” do not see the value that I and other humanities scholars know and cherish, with the unfortunate result that local arts artists are stranded by their cult status. Because their appeal is cultish, they are viewed as insignificant, and so the cycle is perpetuated.

The humanities are not solely about studying art, literature, languages and culture. They also teach about people and about thinking critically. The way we think is shaped by the humanities, which may account for the difficulty we are currently having in explaining their value to others: we are speaking different languages. All we can do is keep hoping and keep up the dialogue we are trying to create. I am a student in Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto.

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One thought on “Natalie Pendergast: Canada’s Cultural Famine

  1. Michael Happy

    This may be cold comfort, Natalie, but I think some of what you’re describing is a generational problem which will resolve itself in time — that is, the in many ways detestable baby boom generation will soon enough have to give way to your generation, which seems in every way more sophisticated, more tolerant, more socially concerned, and more capable to realize those concerns. (See this extraordinary and comprehensive Pew Research study, which nicely represents the thread upon which I hang my cautious hope for the future: Once those who grasp at the power they abuse so readily have passed from the scene, your “cult” culture will likely become, well, the culture. I know, cold comfort, but still.

    Stephen Harper, whom you cite with devastating effect, represents the decadence of the old school of authority whose most salient characteristic is hysterical resentment for everything that is not “ordinary.” In an earlier post (, I cite Harper’s reference to “real Canadian values” — by which he means the barely one-third of Canadians his government represents. It is fear that drives people like him, and that fear is no match for the kind of determination and decency you manifest here.


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