OTTAWA — Jesse Wente, a prominent advocate for an increased presence of Indigenous voices in Canada’s cultural landscape, has been appointed chairperson of the Canada Council for the Arts.
Wente, an Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster and speaker, takes the role after years of involvement with the council, and at a tumultuous time for artists grappling with the fallout from efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.
In an interview Tuesday, Wente said he was thrilled and honoured by the appointment.
“It’s a very big obligation both for Canada, the broad Canadian public, but also I’m a First Nations guy and whenever we take on these leadership positions, there is an obligation back to the community,” he said.
The issues thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic go beyond the demise of festivals large and small, the end of major concert hall performances or galleries devoid of visitors.
As bookstores reopen, for example, publishers are bracing for the return of thousands of unsold copies, creating additional financial pressures for an industry that already saw sales plummet during the spring.
While the federal government has provided $500 million in emergency support funding for cultural, heritage and sport organizations, additional requests for funds keep pouring in.
Wente said he sees the pandemic as providing a pivotal moment, noting that artists always find a way forward.
“In these moments of trauma, as it has been for so many, there is an opportunity to reprioritize, reorient and really understand what is important,” he said.
In announcing Wente’s appointment Tuesday, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said Wente is the first Indigenous chairperson of an organization within his federal portfolio.
Wente is a member of the Serpent River First Nation, and his years in the arts sector have included extensive work promoting and developing Indigenous culture, including being hired two years ago as the first executive director of the industry-led Indigenous Screen Office.
The pandemic, and also the ongoing national debate around eliminating systemic racism in all facets of Canadian life, open up an opportunity for the council — and Canadians — to reflect, he said.
“It is a moment where a lot of people’s privileges are exemplified and also being stripped away,” he said.
As a self-professed “film nerd,” Wente said he has spent a career advocating for equity and inclusion for Indigenous voices.
His appointment, Wente said, is an example of the Canada Council for the Arts doing what other arts organizations must: elevate Indigenous voices.
Arts and culture are meant to help shape national identity and the national discourse he said, and can play a role in achieving more inclusion and equity throughout the country.
“All my work comes down to how to achieve those things,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2020.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press