Art and Honour of the Crown

After the dust, damage and self-congratulation around last week’s Conservative Budget has settled, we’ll each be left with our own take on that document, on what it does and what it fails to do for our various communities. The tone deaf closures of emergency facilities in North Winnipeg and the removal of the Misericordia Urgent Care are perhaps the most egregious flash points, but for me, as a former Winnipeg Art Gallery board member, there is another that is hugely disappointing.

Actions (and non-actions) can be a “tell”, revealing the character of individuals and organizations. The failure, after a full year in office, to commit to the WAG’s “Inuit Art and Learning Center” gives us a measure of Pallister and company. The WAG’s project planning for the Inuit Center has been underway for years now, with ongoing private sector fundraising, and architects selected, already in 2012. The previous Government committed $15 million to the project in November 2015 and the City of Winnipeg followed with a $5 million pledge in 2016. The Federal Government joined with its $15 million commitment later last year. Private sector funding commitments are approaching $20 million, but some are tied to expected Provincial funding and could now be at risk. If one were truly looking for “value for money”, one couldn’t expect much better leverage than this for public funding. The Federal contribution is also time-bound and at risk without the Provincial commitment.

So-called value for money and return on investment audits risk misunderstanding the nature of the project. The economic benefits have long been recognized: from the tourism enhancement of properly displaying what is now the preeminent Inuit Art collection in North America; a superb architectural addition to the iconic WAG building and Winnipeg’s downtown; the international educational opportunities for the gallery and the adjacent University of Winnipeg; the demonstration that innovation and the creative and cultural sectors are valued in this province; and, not least, the recognition of the cultural and economic linkages to Manitoba’s Arctic face and Nunavut.

Other than economic reasons however, there are deeper issues now at play, issues that cut to the heart of who we are and which may not have been as evident previously. Since the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s “Call to Action” report, one might say that the Honour of the Crown is at issue and that honouring the Provincial pledges would be a gesture of reconciliation with respect to Manitoba and Canada’s relationship with the Inuit. The Commission’s report sections on Education, Language and Culture, and Museums and Archives are pertinent here and ought to inform any ongoing “audits”.

To repudiate the Provincial pledge at this late date would be disrespectful of the significant donations of the George Swinton, Jerry Twomey, Faye and Bert Settler, and Richardson families, among others, which have enabled the WAG’s Inuit Art collection to achieve the status it has today. When the previous Government made its financial commitment it did so on behalf of all Manitobans, as did Mayor Bowman on behalf of all the people of Winnipeg, the Federal Government on behalf of all Canadians, and private donors on their own and their organization’s behalf. To disrespect these prior commitments by reneging on Manitoba’s participation would put other pledges and the Inuit Art Center at risk and would shame us all.

An edited version of this opinion piece by Sig Laser appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press on April 24th