by carl wilson

Wajdi Mouawad to Stephen Harper:
'Do Not Ignore That Reflection on the Opposite Shore'


So there's a Canadian election going on, too (to my personal irritation). The following "open letter" has appeared many places in French and a few in English, but among anglos it might be mainly theatre people who've read it. It is an unusually powerful evocation of the intimacy of art and politics, in a broader spirit than merely that of "protest," though of course it is that too and for good reason. Playwright-director Wajdi Mouawad is one of the more distinct voices in contemporary Canadian writing.

An open letter to Prime Minister Harper

Monsieur le premier ministre,

We are neighbours. We work across the street from one another. You are Prime Minister of the Parliament of Canada and I, across the way, am a writer, theatre director and Artistic Director of the French Theatre at the National Arts Centre (NAC). So, like you, I am an employee of the state, working for the Federal Government; in other words, we are colleagues.

Let me take advantage of this unique position, as one functionary to another, to chat with you about the elimination of some federal grants in the field of culture, something that your government recently undertook. [... continues ...]

The Symbolism
it seems that you might benefit by surrounding yourself with counsellors who will be attentive to the symbolic aspects of your Government's actions. I am sure you know this but there is no harm in reminding ourselves that every public action denotes not only what it is but what it symbolises.

For example, a Prime Minister who chooses not attend the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, claiming his schedule does not permit it, in no way reduces the symbolism which says that his absence might signify something else. This might signify that he wishes to denote that Canada supports the claims of Tibet. Or it might serve as a sign of protest over the way in which Beijing deals with human rights. If the Prime Minister insists that his absence is really just a matter of timing, whether he likes it or not, this will take on symbolic meaning that commits the entire country. The symbolism of a public gesture will always outweigh the technical explanations.

Declaration of War
Last week,
your government reaffirmed its manner of governing unilaterally, this time on a domestic issue, in bringing about reductions in granting programs destined for the cultural sector. A mere matter of budgeting, you say, but one which sends shock waves throughout the cultural milieu - rightly or wrongly, as we shall see - for being seen as an expression of your contempt for that sector. The confusion with which your Ministers tried to justify those reductions and their refusal to make public the reports on the eliminated programs, only served to confirm the symbolic significance of that contempt. You have just declared war on the artists.

Now, as one functionary to another, this is the second thing that I wanted to tell you: no government, in showing contempt for artists, has ever been able to survive. Not one. One can, of course, ignore them, corrupt them, seduce them, buy them, censor them, kill them, send them to camps, spy on them, but hold them in contempt, no. That is akin to rupturing the strange pact, made millennia ago, between art and politics.

Art and politics
both hate and envy one another; since time immemorial, they detest each other and they are mutually attracted, and it's through this dynamic that many a political idea has been born; it is in this dynamic that sometimes, great works of art see the light of day. Your cultural politics, it must be said, provoke only a profound consternation. Neither hate nor detestation, not envy nor attraction, nothing but numbness before the oppressive vacuum that drives your policies.

This vacuum which lies between you and the artists of Canada, from a symbolic point of view, signifies that your government, for however long it lasts, will not witness either the birth of a political idea or a masterwork, so firm is your apparent belief in the unworthiness of that for which you show contempt. Contempt is a subterranean sentiment, being a mix of unassimilated jealousy and fear towards that which we despise. Such governments have existed, but not lasted because even the most detestable of governments cannot endure if it hasn't the courage to affirm what it actually is.

Why is this?
What are
the reasons behind these reductions, which are cut from the same cloth as those made last year on the majority of Canadian embassies, who saw their cultural programming reduced, if not eliminated? The economies that you have made are ridiculously small and the votes you might win with them have already been won. For what reason, then, are you so bent on hurting the artists by denying them some of their tools? What are you seeking to extinguish and to gain?

Your silence and your actions make one fear the worst for, in the end, we are quite struck by the belief that this contempt, made eloquent by your budget cuts, is very real and that you feel nothing but disgust for these people, these artists, who spend their time by wasting it and in spending the good taxpayers money, he who, rather than doing uplifting work, can only toil.

And yet, I still cannot fathom your reasoning. Plenty of politicians, for the past fifty years, have done all they could to depoliticise art, to strip it of its symbolic import. They try the impossible, to untie that knot which binds art to politics. And they almost succeed! Whereas you, in the space of one week, have undone this work of chloroforming, by awakening the cultural milieu, Francophone and Anglophone, and from coast to coast. Even if politically speaking they are marginal and negligible, one must never underestimate intellectuals, never underestimate artists; don't underestimate their ability to do you harm.

A grain of sand is all-powerful
I believe,
my dear colleague, that you yourself have just planted the grain of sand that could derail the entire machine of your electoral campaign. Culture is, in fact, nothing but a grain of sand, but therein lays its power, in its silent front. It operates in the dark. That is its legitimate strength.

It is full of people who are incomprehensible but very adept with words. They have voices. They know how to write, to paint, to dance, to sculpt, to sing, and they won't let up on you. Democratically speaking, they seek to annihilate your policies. They will not give up. How could they?

You must understand them: they have not had a clear and common purpose for a very long time, for such a long time that they have no common cause to defend. In one week, by not controlling the symbolic importance of your actions, you have just given them passion, anger, rage.

In the dark
The resistance
that will begin today, and to which my letter is added, is but a first manifestation of a movement that you yourself have set in motion: an incalculable number of texts, speeches, acts, assemblies, marches, will now be making themselves heard. They will not be exhausted.

Some of these will, perhaps, following my letter, be weakened but within each word, there will be a spark of rage, re-lit, and it is precisely the addition of these tiny instances of fire that will shape the grain of sand that you will never be able to shake. This will not settle down, the pressure will not be diminished.

Monsieur le premier ministre, we are neighbours. We work across the street from one another. There is nothing but the Cenotaph between our offices, and this is as it should be because politics and art have always mirrored one another, each on its own shore, each seeing itself in the other, separated by that river where life and death are weighed at every moment.

We have many things in common, but an artist, contrary to a politician, has nothing to lose, because he or she does not make laws; and if it is prime ministers who change the world, it's the artist who will show this to the world. So do not attempt, through your policies, to blind us, Monsieur le premier ministre; do not ignore that reflection on the opposite shore, do not plunge us further into the dark. Do not diminish us.

Wajdi Mouawad
(translation by John van Burek).

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, September 10 at 4:34 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)



Well, Garnet, I'd kind of describe the Quebec City anniversary as a *political* event first (a nationalist or regionalist event) and a cultural event second. Which I think is a fairly consistent aspect of the Conservative way of looking at culture: The idea that it's about artists is very uncomfortable to them, as I think Mouawad addresses.

It is important that the arts community not go kneejerk here though, and you're right to be fact-checking. This decade has been a huge one for the development of cultural infrastructure - which is evident in Toronto more than anywhere, with the ROM and AGO renovations, the Opera House, etc. - and the Conservative gov't has been at least as generous as the Liberals in its support of those multilateral, large initiatives. It understands the value to tourism and local development of having those big cultural institutions.

But the elimination of the international outreach support programs is profoundly indicative of where their sophistication ends: What they don't appreciate is the value of cultural life in itself, culture as soft power, as a vector and lifeline that connects Canada to the world and in fact creates Canada within and for the world, as well as to each other. Add to that their predilection to play censorship games with arms-length institutions like Telefilm, and what you see is the potential for a Conservative majority to pull apart the more subtle lattice of supports that help the more intriguing, less glitz-glam-thank-you-ma'am elements of Canadian culture survive.

It's not that the Liberals have been *good* on these issues, btw - the Trudeau gang were but the Chretien and Martin era ones, not so much, and I'm just not sure about Dion (typically enough). But the Harper posse is much worse.

Posted by zoilus on September 11, 2008 2:52 PM



It turns out the answer to the funding question's a bit murky, at least if the Ottawa Citizen's account is to be trusted:

Relevant grafs:

"Earlier this year, Parliament approved total spending on cultural programs, such as the CBC and the Canada Arts Council, of more than $4 billion. That's about 19 per cent more than the Liberals spent in their last year in office in 2005-2006.

Critics of the Conservatives, though, say a large proportion of that spending is for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the celebration of Quebec City's 400th anniversary."

The Quebec City anniversary I would take to be a primarily cultural event, so no obvious scandal there. The Olympics, as usual, are another story.

Posted by Garnet on September 11, 2008 12:20 PM



Statscan figures (from the end of 2004), tell us that cultural employment growth for five years had outpaced the overall economy.

The big three were the real moneymakers. Written media. Broadcasting. The film industry. As the note to readers suggested, "Total culture and Canadian GDP are calculated at current prices."

Even by such a commercial measurement, culture was a thriving enterprise. Of course, that doesn't measure the ancillary benefit of arts attraction for the tourist industry and the general benefit for those who find comfort or invigoration in reaction to what they see and hear in the work.

This interest cannot be overstated. Instead the government chooses to measure culture as a commodity, then decide that we are "over-producing". There aren't enough portals for all this "content", so clearly the sector needs cooling.

If the sector cooled any more it would be in total stasis. Nothing new of real merit can be produced under conditions where art-making must be a business first.

As for Harper's cuts to funding, you are mistaken. Oh, it's true that Harper threw a few pathetic bones back into his spending announcements for the community. You will also notice how cynically political those announcements are and how small the actual dollar values are.

Nice try Garnet.

Posted by Half on September 11, 2008 8:48 AM



Garnet: "By all accounts, the Tories haven't actually cut arts funding at all, just gassed a few programs while adding money to others."

I'm not sure what you mean here, Garnet. From what I understand, the funding was cut from arts and redistributed to non-arts related programs. I even remember someone on the TV screen telling me that a chunck on the funding was going to the 2010 olympics for some reason. Am I not correct? This is an honest question, as you raise a point that I haven't once heard.

Posted by songles on September 11, 2008 7:50 AM




The Tories have absolutely cut arts funding; but perhaps, in their eyes, they haven't cut "cultural" funding.

I believe you're referring to the fact that the Department of Canadian Heritage has "re-allocated" the money previously spent on the Trade Routes program (among others) to a fund earmarked for the opening ceremony at the upcoming 2010 Olympics. In the Tories' eyes, it's all "culture", right? Sports are certainly a lot easier to manage and exploit as a promotional tool for a political party than a bunch of opinionated artists.

you can find an article on that here:

As for the likelihood of anyone with half a brain who actually cares about Canadian culture voting Conservative, you're probably right; the arts community had been given very little reason to trust or support the Tories prior to this slew of cuts. But Wajid's absolutely right when he says that these cuts may well serve as a rallying cry for artists and arts patrons, to mobilize against the blatant mistreatment of our sector by the current ruling party.

Had these cuts not occurred, we probably could have expected a few (mostly ignored) press releases by arts organizations asking Canadians to consider voting for a party with a clear grasp of the importance of the arts to our nation, and a general feeling of malaise (and low voter turn-out) by artists for the federal election.

But by showing their contempt for Canadian artists so clearly, the Tories have riled up and united a usually splintered and fractured community, giving them a common cause.

Artists and arts patrons in Canada are definitely a minority, and a special interest group. But, while we may not be as large or as well funded as, say, the automotive sector, we do have a statistically deep pool of intelligent and eloquent people to draw on in our time of need. The Tories have unwisely provided a clear motivation for such people to become politically active.

For an example of this resistance of which Wajid speaks, and what they intend to do, look here:

Posted by Gracing the Stage on September 11, 2008 3:59 AM



By all accounts, the Tories haven't actually cut arts funding at all, just gassed a few programs while adding money to others. So we can interpret this sort of commentary two ways:

1. Artists care more about the symbolism of politics than the reality, or

2. Canada's arts community, in the main, will never support the Tories, no matter what they do or don't do.

In either light, why the current government doesn't kowtow to artists becomes easy to understand.

Posted by Garnet on September 11, 2008 2:22 AM



Very eloquently said, I just hope there's truth in his notion that artists can have an impact in this election!

Posted by malstain on September 10, 2008 9:03 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson