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The report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, 1949-1951.
The report of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, 1949-1951.

J.D.M. Stewart

Are young people getting a full serving of Canada? Add to ...

"There are important things in the life of a nation which cannot be weighed or measured."

-Massey commission, 1951

One of the beauties of history is the ability to revisit subjects that were integral to a country's development and to use them to re-evaluate a situation or examine a current state in light of the past.

Sixty years ago today, the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences published its seminal report. Better known as the Massey commission because it was chaired by eminent Canadian Vincent Massey (a man himself worthy of a profound reminder to Canadians), its report made hundreds of recommendations to the government of Louis St. Laurent about the future of Canadian culture and ideas.

When it came out, The Globe editorialized that it was "a milestone in Canadian social history … Simply as a standard for future generations, the report will remain invaluable."

One of the great concerns expressed by the commission in 1951 was the challenge Canada faced in developing its own culture next door to the United States, a large and culturally dynamic country with which many Canadians share the same language. "American influences on Canadian life to say the least are impressive," the commissioners wrote.

The response was not to shut out American culture but to strengthen and promote Canadian culture from within, leading to what Mr. Massey called "a deepening of confidence in what we can do for ourselves."

The most significant result was the creation of the Canada Council in 1957. Since that time, it has been the bedrock of Canada's cultural development, supporting countless cultural staples from the Stratford Festival to the National Theatre School and thousands of individuals.

And while it is certainly true that the Massey commission and its recommendations have contributed to a strengthening and flowering of Canadian culture, current attention should address those "future generations" mentioned by this newspaper 60 years ago.

When I teach the Massey commission to students, I like to ask them to name a Canadian novel they know. When few can (and let's not even get into film), it neatly illustrates not only why the work of the Massey commission was so important to the country in the key years of national development after the Second World War, but also how it remains relevant today. What's past is prologue.

While Canada has done well to build the institutions that promote and support our culture, there is a growing gap between what those institutions represent and what is actually filtering down to younger generations. We see this anecdotally and in polling data all the time.

Interestingly, the commissioners wrote that they believed "the appetite grows by eating." By this they meant that the more Canadian culture we develop, the more we will want. Are our young people getting a full serving of this or are we shrinking their appetite by not feeding them at all?

It's time to take another look at how diffuse Canadian culture is. It is now easier than ever to access whatever culture you want. That has benefits in a country that promotes and values diversity and global citizenship.

But that easy access also makes it as important as ever to take the opportunity to teach our history and put our Canadian authors, artists, playwrights, and musicians - our culture - at centre stage. Should a student graduate without reading Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood or Leonard Cohen?

"It is desirable that the Canadian people should know as much as possible about their country, its history and traditions; and about their national life and common achievements," the Massey commission said. Sixty years later, we're still trying to fulfill that mandate.

J.D.M. Stewart teaches history at the Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.

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