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Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Sunday Feature, February 26, 2011

Although they share the same waters, Magdalene Islanders swear
their lobster is better than PEI-ers'!

Quebec’s English-language regions want a taste of our anglo Montreal theatre. So how do we get there, and how do we get them here? 
by David King

Ten years ago, an Interim Executive Director at the Quebec Drama Federation, I had the amazing opportunity to represent QDF and our English-language theatre at the Quebec Community Groups Network. At the time, Sheila Copps was Heritage Minister; Dyane Adam was newly-appointed Commissioner of Official Languages; the Quebec Farmer's Association's Hugh Maynard was QCGN President, and Alliance Quebec was doing an internal shuffle to re-establish its voice and place within the newer, QCGN network.

My travels while representing our English-language arts community led me to Hull and Parliament Hill; to rapid-fire meetings in Montreal and Québec City; and to an important Annual General Meeting in Les Iles-de-la-Madeleine. Connecting with representatives of Quebec English-language communities in and outside of Montreal, I was amazed to see a side of Quebec I had only witnessed in franco-Canadian regions: pockets of official-language minority communities (in this case English-language minorities) fully integrated into Quebec society yet starving for at least an occasional cultural reflection of themselves in their first language. "Theatre would be great!" I heard time and again, "but how can we help bring it here when our school has no budget for it and our auditorium only has two lights?" My taste of anglo arts and culture outside of Montreal was more than just limited. The Community Association for Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean (CASL) was selling cookbooks at the time, featuring recipes by members of its community (it's a cookbook I still use today for Tortière, Banana Nut Loaf and a chocolate chip cookie recipe stolen from Neiman-Marcus.) In the Maggies, or Magdalene Islands, I checked out the intricate sandglass designs of locals on one developed side of the island, before heading over to the "anglo" side, where I stayed with a lobster fisherman renting out rooms in his off-season (it appears a fisherman's struggle to make ends meet is not dissimilar to our own, except that their Employment Insurance system is a little better set up in the off-season). 

...[there is] a long way to go in helping to promote quality English-language arts to venues and festivals outside Montreal..

While notable literary, visual and media artists thrive within Quebec's "carré anglo hoods", so to speak, importing and disseminating performing arts or solidifying drama programs in schools remain some of Quebec's biggest obstacles to us, regardless of region or language. The expense and accommodation requirements for English-language theatre outside of Montreal is monstrous in touring English-language theatre within Quebec, and venues range from the ill-equipped to non-existent. To date, youth theatre Geordie Productions has managed to make itself most known within other regions of Quebec, due to its history, important lobbying efforts, quality programming and school touring system. It has been no easy feat for Geordie, who undoubtedly has seen countless cuts to both drama programs and school production budgets along the way.  

Our umbrella arts associations like the Quebec Drama Federation (QDF), Quebec Writers Federation (QWF) and the English-Language Arts Network (ELAN) all have a long way to go in helping to promote quality English-language arts to venues and festivals outside Montreal, in the same way franco-Canadian arts associations promote their members in equally limited Canuck regions.  Fortunately, QDF, ELAN and the QCGN have recently joined forces to do just that, with two groundbreaking reports that demonstrate our touring needs on the homefront. After years of compiling presenter and venue listings in its Resource Centre, QDF published the Survey of Arts Presenters and Facilities Serving the English Speaking Community in the Regions of Quebec last July. As QDF Executive Director Jane Needles stresses, the report stemmed from the needs of the regions outside Montreal, and tapping into a roster of Quebec presenters and venues willing to work with QDF on finding ways to tour English-language theatre, we now have statistics from multiple surveys that range from venue and equipment tech specs to a description of each presenter and venue's overall programming. 

"The one thing that QDF has done," says Needles, "is that we've gone very extensively into researching more than just the eleven organizations of QCGN, and already, over one hundred and fifty organizations have signed on to become potential presenters or venues.” 

As Needles recalls, QDF’s new report was a project grant she submitted years ago to examine what all of us already knew: that our regions are ready for us to tour but need the infrastructural and financial support to make it happen. Now with the ability to fold her project into QDF's ongoing program funding, Needles mentions that the survey, compiled by QDF Touring Project Co-ordinator Liz Truchanowicz and assisted by Simone Nichol, will now allow QDF to turn this initiative into a future service for our community. By all appearances, adds Needles, the funding bodies are waking up and listening to our call.

"In simple terms, the idea of the fund is culture as a priority for developing minority language communities."

"The overall impact of the report is quite stunning," says Needles, "and it has really given Canadian Heritage a very good argument for supporting touring in the regions, with the proper numbers to support it."

"Three or four years ago," Rodgers explains, "ELAN started working with QCGN on a policy framework, and we put together one based on community priorities. It was in view the new Cultural Development Fund, which is part of the official languages envelope that’s funding all kinds of things. In simple terms, the idea of the fund is culture as a priority for developing minority language communities. The two major priorities that came from this were visibility for artists and access – access to spaces and venues in Montreal, but also around the province."

Working alongside QDF and QCGN, ELAN participated in a second, Phase One survey to benefit the entire arts community in nine English-language regions of Quebec. Entitled Assessing the English-speaking Community's Capacity to Access Arts, Culture and Heritage in Nine Regions of Quebec, the glossy, QCGN report largely revolves around the needs of the QCGN membership, drawing many of the same conclusions as QDF's Phase One report in the context of visibility and access. Albeit less thorough than the QDF report in terms of the scope of presenters and venues contacted, QCGN's report makes a nice brief companion to QDF's own in affirming the value of our minority language community needs, stressing the important role that arts and culture plays in our society across disciplines.

"To get the government to invest," Rodgers comments, "you have to investigate the need. There have been any number of reports already, on this subject and others culturally, and just like we know arts and culture is a good place to invest, our supply of artists certainly can't be in question. We must look at the capital investment in Quebec over the last 30 or 40 years, which has been almost non-existent in the English-speaking community outside of Montreal. Now we have precedent, and it's a question of persistently demonstrating there is a need. If we can start this touring circuit, and demonstrate the facilities are inadequate, then there is a case to be made. And over the next 5 to 10 years, we're going to see significant investment in capacity, in infrastructure and in arts and culture." 

"As a mere example, a Shakespeare expert like Paul Hopkins could then give a workshop to a class in the Lower North Shore."

As Rodgers continues working towards connecting artists across the province, the next two phases of QDF's Touring Project, says Needles, will focus on Montreal's presenters and venues, along with a central "hub" organization that can act on everyone's behalf to manage and operate dissemination opportunities. That hub, she stresses, may be through QDF, a member, or via a new organization devoted to English-language arts dissemination. Both Needles and Rodgers, meanwhile, speak of the need to develop video conferencing, and while ELAN focuses on clips of artists and the fascinating history of English-language arts in Quebec, QDF has plans to affiliate its project with other presenter organizations like RIDEAU and the Community Learning Centre (CLC), the latter directly connected with the English-language schools in the regions.

"We hope a video network tapped into closed-circuit intranet broadband can play a part of Phase 3", says Needles. "As a mere example, a Shakespeare expert like Paul Hopkins could then give a workshop to a class in the Lower North Shore." Another part of Phase 3, adds Needles, will be a QDF toolkit to identify processes and procedures for us all to follow for tourism fundraising. 

Clearly, two very important surveys now accompany the moral commitment of everyone in our English-language regions to connect our English-language artists, broaden our visibility, improve facilities and provide us with what we need to get our “show on the road”. Although a decade has passed (and another decade awaits) to get us on this stage, the writing's clearly on the wall, and it’s up to all of us to make sure it doesn’t get erased.
For more info at QDF, or to request a more extensive PDF copy of QDF's Survey of Arts Presenters and Facilities Serving the English Speaking Community in the Regions of Quebec, contact Liz Truchanowicz

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