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The Presumption of Culture: Structure, Strategy, and Survival in the Canadian Cultural Landscape

by Tom Henighan

When Sheila Finestone, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism, suggested a couple of years ago that “Canada has no national culture,” her intention may have been to affirm Canada’s wide diversity of cultures and lack of one essential cultural style; but her words touched a sore spot for many Canadian arts observers. Do we, in fact, have anything recognizable as a core national culture? And even if we do, does it stand any chance of surviving? Would the average Canadian miss it if it disappeared?

Ottawa-based novelist and cultural critic Tom Henighan’s book, The Presumption of Culture, persuasively argues that Canada does have a culture worth preserving, and he lays out a sensible, if ambitious, strategy for maintaining and cultivating it into the next century. Henighan’s plan, with its emphasis on government funding of esthetic or “high” culture, may strike some as elitist, but his confidence in the ability of serious Canadian artists to act as national representatives on the world scene is inspiring all the same.

Henighan contends that government funding of the arts will have to continue. Indeed, he argues that a flourishing arts culture would not even have existed here without the creation of the Canada Council in 1957. (Henighan does propose several reforms to the Council, however, among them the possibly controversial one of ending grants to small literary presses and individual authors.) Esthetic culture is always in danger of being overwhelmed by entertainment culture, and Canadian work is similarly threatened by material from the U.S. A bulwark is probably necessary, but Henighan feels the one we have is not up to the job.

He therefore proposes the creation of a separate, well-funded Canadian Ministry of Culture. This new arrangement, he suggests, would simplify the arts bureaucracy by bringing the Canada Council, Heritage Canada, multiculturalism, et al., under one governmental roof. He also suggests the creation of a Ministry of Mass Communications that would oversee the NFB, CBC, Telefilm Canada, and the CRTC, and promote the output of the culture ministry. Henighan also offers some general suggestions as to how schools might create a new generation of informed, enthusiastic, and unprejudiced audiences of the arts.

Henighan is excited about the culture he hopes to preserve. The Presumption of Culture is a passionate endorsement of the importance of the arts to society. “If we stop supporting our cultural institutions,” he writes, “many of them will die, and that would be a national tragedy, not because all Canadians would miss them, but because Canada itself could not survive.”