I was initially sceptical and opposed to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games taking place in Vancouver, British Columbia when I learned that the Liberal Government of British Columbia was pouring billions of dollars into these two week games while making atrocious cuts (more than a staggering 90%) to BC’s arts funding by 2011. According to the website Stop BC Arts Cuts, which I encourage you all to check out if you don’t already frequent it, even prior to these cuts, the BC arts and culture sector received the least arts funding of any Canadian province, only 1/20 of 1% of the provincial budget. $47 million dollars will be reduced to $3 million in two years, and then down to about $2.65 million by 2012. This is almost a 92% cut and it will undoubtedly cripple, and in many cases, completely obliterate not only the theatre but all arts and culture ventures in British Columbia. It was difficult for me to justify lending my support to an event, primarily centered around sports and the athletes of the world, which had such an impact on desecrating one of our provinces’ theatre and artistic communities.
Then something magical happened in Vancouver that made me change my mind. I am not exactly certain where it began; perhaps it was as we all jumped to defend ourselves against the British press’ premature, disparaging and condescending premonitions for our inevitable doom and failure. Perhaps as the medals kept rolling excitingly and somewhat unexpectedly toward us the hyperbole we had been hearing (and dismissing) for months, “we were made for this,” “own the podium,” “I believe-” all suddenly clicked. Regardless, this is when I realized that not supporting my country’s athletes was not going to increase the support for my country’s artists. I realized that we are not working in opposition with one another, it is not a choice between “the athletes or the artists” of Canada, but integral that we both exist side by side.
In listening to the interviews with the Olympians of our country I was struck by the fact that the artists and the athletes share such similar goals and visions for Canada. According to The Conference Board of Canada’s resource Strengthening Canada: The Socio-economic Benefits of Sports Participation in Canada by Michael Bloom, Michael Grant and Douglas Watt, the general benefits of participating in sports include: 1. the change it instigates in individuals, including their health and well-being, their social networks and sense of social connection and their skills. 2. the affect it has on communities, including the social cohesion and social capital of communities. 3. the impact it has on the economy in creating jobs and providing work for thousands and 4. the help it gives to shaping our national and cultural identities. The exact same arguments have been made for the benefits of participating in the Arts. John Furlong expressed his hope in his speech at the Closing Ceremonies of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, “that every Canadian child – be they from Chicoutimi, Moncton, Grand Prairie, Squamish or Niagara Falls – will have the chance to grow up to experience the pleasure of sport … no one left out. And that we of the global Olympic family will not rest until the right of every child to play across this planet is secured.” Canadian Bobsledder Shelley-Ann Brown, the first black Canadian woman to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics, reflected this dream by saying, “I’m so proud to be Canadian, so proud to be black, so proud to be of Jamaican heritage, so proud to be female. I hope little girls in Canada see this, see what I accomplished and realized it doesn’t matter your background. You can do anything in sports if you work hard enough, no matter where you come from.” Yet, Brown’s words transcend even sports in their poignancy because whether we are Olympic athletes or celebrated artists, we share the same passion for our various crafts; we demonstrate the same determination to achieve our goals, to overcome obstacles and to share the outcomes of our skills and our talents with others.
For me, my enlightened “Eureka!” moment came from the utterly inspiring, extraordinarily talented Clara Hughes, Canada’s six-time Olympic medalist. When asked in an interview if we can consider her Canada’s “greatest Olympic Athlete” she said, “Canada is full of great people in arts, music and education. I just consider myself a Canadian.” A Canadian. It seems so simple, and yet if we all consider ourselves to be Canadians and belonging to a country that includes and values its athletes, its artists, its educators, its community leaders and its health care practitioners, than we are not dividing our population as though back in High School between the popular jock, drama dork, assertive debater and geeky nerd, but instead we support the inclusion of everyone. Our government may at times pit us against one another as we all struggle for our voices to be heard and our interests to be encouraged and championed within our federal and provincial budgets; yet, this country is made up of unique individuals, people like Clara Hughes, and if we continue to support the ventures of one another, especially in the face of obstruction from our own governments, Canada will grow to be a stronger, more vibrant, dynamic and thriving place to be.
Throughout the Olympics I watched something extraordinary happen. I watched my humble, self-deprecating, insecure little Canada slowly swell with tentative pride. It wasn’t the sort of pride that sought to deflate or weaken others, but it was a beautiful glow, maybe even a golden one, shining from the heart, sparking in the eyes, that spilled out into the streets and turned a hockey game into the spreading of the sort of good cheer and goodwill that you don’t even see at Christmas. We stood united and glorious in our red jerseys, our red mittens and, if only for a moment, our national inferiority complex shattered into a million pieces. John Furlong expressed this incredible experience thus, “we Canadians tonight are stronger, more united, more in love with our country and more connected with each other than ever before. These Olympic Games have lifted us up.” Yes. We have been lifted up and we have collectively realized and quietly, sheepishly, but proudly, acknowledged the greatness innate to Canada. The world was watching us and, regardless what the British media said initially, the outpouring of support that we saw and we felt has been just as incredible. American journalist Bill Plaschke wrote this beautiful article about his experience in Vancouver for the Los Angeles Times in which he writes, “Forget the medal counts and podium ceremonies, there was only one true winner here, the beauty and breadth of its land equalled only by the daily kindness of its people. Canada, you were gold. For two weeks, you lived your anthem, your hearts glowing like that moon that hung nightly over the Burrard Inlet, a light on the front porch of a house that felt like a home.” As a nation, we have so much more than sports to be proud of.
In the months to come, I urge you to not let your Canadian pride fizzle. Do not forget the feelings that accompanied watching the incredible exhibition of skill, the defiance of odds, the inspiring integrity and grace and talent that was showcased so ardently in Vancouver 2010. There is such potential here for an extraordinary surge in the support for a wide array of Canadian ventures, including much-needed support for our artists and our theatre communities. Before the Olympics I knew that we had strong hockey and curling teams, I knew that we excelled in figure skating and that I could trust Sidney Crosby to save the day, but I had no idea of the scope of our nation’s athletes and their ability and their skill. I was pleasantly surprised by the revelation that of all the countries competing, many with populations that far exceed our own, we could achieve third place and break the record for most gold medals won by a host country. In the exact same way, I know there are millions of Canadians who would be similarly surprised, but I think also pleased, to know that Canadian playwrights are creating theatrical works right now that rival the plays coming out of New York and London and our indigenous plays are being produced frequently around the world. Our theatre artists create exciting and unique productions that continually push the boundaries and redefine what theatre is and what it is capable of expressing, communicating and being. Ultimately, I think that it is an incredibly exciting time to be Canadian, to live in this country and for us all to strive toward accomplishing our goals and realizing our dreams. Whether we are athletes or artists, butcher, bakers or candlestick makers, it is time for us to come together and to stand as Canadians with a unified vision of a country that values each of our own unique talents and contributions. We cannot exist at odds with one another, nor at the expense of one another, we must strengthen our connections and work together to truly realize and seize this opportunity for Canada to invest and really take pride in its myriad of accomplishments. The Olympics helped me to believe in this possibility, but as we all return to our own lives and regularly scheduled programming, now is the time for us all to show our true colors and to really live the dream.