The arts has the power to solve social issues, former Canadian governor general Michaëlle Jean told a capacity crowd at St. Thomas University at a lecture on Sunday.
The talk was part of the Big Ideas series of the 2011 Congress hosted by STU and UNB.
“The arts are the weapons of mass construction,” said Jean. “It is a powerful means of assembling citizens, deepening our sense of belonging and building a better world.”
Jean’s talk was an extension of her work as former governor general. She plans to continue trying to solve Canada’s social issues, despite completing her term in office.
“Talking with Canadians and working with them on a grassroots level I learned that each community has problems best solved by that community. The arts are the tools that they use to accomplish that, something government refuses to acknowledge as a solution.”
Recounting her trip across Canada, Jean said she in order to identify the Canada’s social problems, she is taking a hands-on approach by visiting hundreds of communities across the country. She is gathering information directly from Canadian citizens, particularly from youth.
“What I found is that when people are not heard, they vent their frustration. That comes out as art inside that environment. From rap, to poetry, to graffiti murals, it is all expression. That work crystallized for me people not being heard.”
Jean said the first step was acknowledging these arts matter.
“That art defines a community. It becomes a sense of togetherness and belonging that must be understood in order to communicate with institutions like government.”
Jean decided that any solution to a community problem was better coming from the people themselves than any government.
“Grassroots in communities works better then the broad stroke of bureaucracy,” said Jean. “Taking those voices, you can then build them up and give them a stake.”
She said young people are the most in touch with what is going on in the world around them. She said they also have the most creative answers. Jean praised youth for using arts as an expression to communicate to authority figures, adding how government tend not to listen in return. She hopes this will change.
“Democracy is about giving a voice to citizens. These voices are building understanding and common ground among those citizens.
“That empowers communities.”
Jean’s talk was followed by a brief film about Point Douglas, Winnipeg. The town was under siege from cocaine dealers and addicts alike before the community listened to the advice of their youth and those outspoken artisans. Taking their specific advice, the community cleaned up their act and lowered crime rates by 70 per cent in under a year.
Jean hailed it as a victory and said that there was no reason the method could not be applied in any other environment.
Jean’s husband and filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond closed the lecture.
Lafond focused briefly on the importance of culture and the transaction of culture as a currency that Canadians can use to communicate with each other.
“Culture is the antidote to the ails of civilizations,” said Lafond. “Without it we are downsized to individuals, fragmentation sets in, and we then lack any responsibility for our community.”
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