Culture of indifference?

In the next 18 months Canadians will hear of many projects which our Prime Minister wants to fund, for the purposes of leaving his legacy on our country. One of the latest suggestions floated our way is to transform the 1912 Union Station in Ottawa (the Beaux Arts style former train station across from the Chateau Laurier) into a Canadian Museum of History.

(If you recall, plans were afoot to create a Sports Hall of Fame there. That proposal has been shelved.)

The proposed museum would focus completely on telling the human history of Canada. According to The Ottawa Citizen of 23 September, our tax dollars to the possible tune of $102.4 million would be appropriated to the project, which might house rooms dedicated to the Prime Ministers of Canada, a Symbols of Canada room, Order of Canada Room, Train Journey through Canada and others.

Do we need this museum in Ottawa? (I’ll defer my response for a moment.)

Recently in The Equity, Dale Shutt (one of the seven founding members of the Pontiac Artists’ Studio Tour) wrote a strongly worded letter to the editor, in which she vigorously complained about the editor’s lack of support for a Cultural Centre for the Pontiac.

The Equity’s editorial also prompted Île-du-Grand-Calumet resident Anna Babinska-Holroyd, to write a strong letter of complaint (4 September). Supporting Ms. Shutt, she articulately wrote, “Furthermore, governments recognize that arts and heritage are an important factor in economic development. Why do tourists flock to cities such as Paris, Rome, London, and Ottawa? Because they are centres for art and heritage…”

Do we need this Cultural Centre in Pontiac?

Meanwhile, last Saturday I attended an all-day workshop at Ben Franklin Place in the former Nepean (which is now part of the new, amalgamated City of Ottawa). The meeting was attended by perhaps a hundred dedicated heritage activists, archivists, professors, authors and city employees, all who came to hear about Ottawa’s 20/20 Arts and Heritage Plan for the capital. It’s an important document, which sets out the city’s plans for local museums through to what are called rural “cultural landscapes” that require protection from demolition and development.

Among the recommendations, the Ottawa 20/20 preliminary report floats the notion of a new museum that’s tentatively called the Centre for Ottawa History. In it, “people can learn about, and become involved in the history of Ottawa, a space where archival material and artifacts from both the City’s collections and by community-based organizations will be exhibited.”

Now, amalgamation of small communities into big cities (like Gatineau and Ottawa) means that those communities can be forgotten. Residents from the former communities of Nepean and Aylmer might just share some thoughts on this.

Do we need a Centre for Ottawa History in the capital?

Let’s not be fooled: all these projects demand our support… and money. In fact, rather a large whack of public funds, if the truth be told.

So, again, do we need such repositories of our past?

I believe we do. Strongly.

Let’s just look at the proposed Pontiac Cultural Centre.

Pontiac is a microcosm of Canada, possessing a strongly diverse cultural base. We have residents from many different races and cultures among us: First Nations, French, Irish, English, Scots, Polish, German, and Lithuanian. What binds us all is that we have chosen to make Pontiac our home.

As long as a Pontiac Cultural Centre would reflect all our peoples, I stand in favour of it. I am decidedly not in favour of a simplistically rendered centre that would simply promote the “French Fact” in Quebec -- or the “Anglophone Fact” of Quebec, for that matter.

What I do believe we need, here in Pontiac, is a contemporary centre that promotes a healthy understanding of our cross-cultural roots. It mustn’t just comprise yet another reiteration of the glory days of the logging industry. I believe we require a centre that depicts our evolution into what we’ve now become: still a primary-resource based region that just happens to have world-class ecotourism potential. Not to mention artists and craftspeople of some renown. Not to mention a desirable home for an increasingly technologically connected network of telecommuters.

Pontiac is perhaps the best place to live in Canada. Wake up and know it.

So, do we need a theatre where we can view plays and dance? Do we need an exhibit hall so that our artists can display their award-winning works?

Do we need a proper archives, where there is room for our collective “Pontiac memory” to be properly catalogued and preserved?

Most strenuously, I believe we do.

Okay. So how do we pay for a centre here in Pontiac, or the two in Ottawa? Yes, through yours and my hard-earned cash, that’s how. Through government funds, in other words.

Let’s be frank. It’s you and me who subsidize the arts and heritage in Canada, just as we do health care and education. Yes, it’s awfully nice when a philanthropist promises to underwrite a project, but we cannot count on them to step forward, can we?

You know, I don’t have children of my own, unfortunately. However, my very hard-earned tax dollars go to support our schools and our children here in the Pontiac and throughout Canada. Do I resent this? Absolutely not. Your children, who I support willingly, are the future of our nation. I am subsidizing your kids, just as is everyone else in Canada. As a citizen this is something I not only expect -- but want to do.

And that’s how it should be for the arts and heritage across Canada. As citizens, we need to understand that we need to safeguard our culture. And we do that by preserving it. Remembering it. Being proud of it.

Here in Pontiac, we should not only support but also demand to have a cultural centre that reflects our Pontiac’s unique place in our province and country. We need a centre that depicts us for who we truly are: a creative, extremely tenacious and culturally diverse microcosm of Canada residing in an enviably resource-rich (not to mention spectacularly beautiful) region.

And of course public funds must pay for it. Otherwise, you know what? Our collective memory will fade. We’ll wonder who we were, what we were… and exactly why we are who we have become.

Let’s not be guilty of encouraging a culture of indifference.


Want to explore the culture of the Pontiac this weekend? Attend the Pontiac Artists’ Studio Tour Art in the Park annual show, held this year Sunday, September 29, 1 pm - 5 pm at Nelson MacLellan Peace Park (Wharf Park - Corner of Wharf & Cuthbertson) in Norway Bay. See you there.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer and author who is passionate about recording our collective past. She is currently working on three books to be published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside spring 2003.