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The artists, animators, authors and kings of the world who lightened our lives in this up-and-down roller-coaster ride of a year: meet your Canadian arts heroes of 2022

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Nathan Fielder in HBO's The Rehearsal.Allyson Riggs/HBO

Most Unethical Canadian Artist of the Year (In a Good Way): Nathan Fielder

The Rehearsal, Nathan Fielder’s latest reality series for HBO, at first seemed just a bigger-budget variation on the shtick this ultradeadpan Canadian master of cringe comedy had been peddling since his This Hour Has 22 Minutes days. Fielder was going to once again “help” real people, this time by having them rehearse for challenging conversations and experiences. His new ridiculous technique involved building elaborate sets to mirror actual apartments and bars, and hiring actors to secretly shadow his subjects’ friends and enemies in order to role-play them.

Gradually, however, The Rehearsal started to twist in stunningly unsettling directions – and in on itself, into Charlie Kaufman territory – as Fielder took on the task of helping a single woman rehearse raising a kid. This involved renting her a house and employing a small army of baby and child actors to play her imaginary son, “Adam,” 24 hours a day; the kids had to be rotated through as they reached the legally mandated maximum time allowed on set, leading to the jaw-dropping sight of babies being switched in and out of windows.

If that wasn’t ethically dubious enough, Fielder eventually ended up pretend parenting himself in this scenario – and one of the young actors, who did not have father at home, formed an attachment to him and continued to call him daddy after their “rehearsing” was done. Was The Rehearsal another disturbing example of the entertainment industry’s detrimental psychological effects on kid performers, or a careful edited commentary on that (as well as the terrifying un-rehearsability of parenthood in general)?

Or did Fielder simply manipulate his adult viewers into realizing maybe we haven’t outgrown childhood as much as we think – and few of us are actually all that able to tell play from reality? – J. KELLY NESTRUCK

Open this photo in gallery:Writer and director Sarah Polley photographed at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto ahead of the opening of her new film Women Talking.

Writer and director Sarah Polley at the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto ahead of the opening of her new film Women Talking.Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

Canadian Storyteller of the Year: Sarah Polley

I mean, come on. First Sarah Polley wrote a bestselling book of essays, Run Towards the Danger, which fearlessly calls to account Canadian institutions the Stratford Festival and the CBC for the pressure and anxiety she suffered as a child actor; provides crucial context for why women don’t always come forward after a sexual assault; and is just a beautifully written, thrillingly lucid memoir. Then she topped that, writing and directing Women Talking, a film that’s on almost every best-of list and is scooping up statuettes.

Let’s break it down: script first. Women Talking is about a group of Mennonite women who meet in a hayloft to discuss how to react to the serial sexual abuse they’ve endured from men inside their community. It’s based on a true story, and it’s a powerful thing, both fiercely angry and forgiving. And it’s a miracle of economic storytelling – not a single wasted syllable. As for the filmmaking, it’s assured, confident, grave, moving. Polley and her actors – including Jesse Buckley, Claire Foy and Rooney Mara – have been touring festivals and awards screenings, and it’s clear they’ve formed a tight unit.

But what happened on set sealed it: Polley listened, to her actors and her crew. She cut back the shooting hours. She paid attention to who blasted out her best work on the first few takes, and who needed time to warm up. If someone needed to take a few minutes, they took a few minutes. And something transformative happened: This film about women envisioning a new way of living was made by women who were enacting a new way of filmmaking.

Let’s not forget, this makes it a trifecta for Polley adapting the work of Canadian women literary giants: Miriam Toews for Women Talking; Alice Munro for Away from Her (2006); and Margaret Atwood for Alias Grace (2017). See you at the Oscars, Sarah. – JOHANNA SCHNELLER

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Artist Shuvinai Ashoona at a January exhibition opening at Feheley Fine Arts in Toronto.Feheley Fine Arts

Border-Breaking Canadian Artist of the Year: Shuvinai Ashoona

Inuk artist Shuvinai Ashoona was firmly established as a star in Canada when she made an international breakthrough in 2022. At the Venice Biennale, which opened in April, curator Cecelia Alemani picked Ashoona – along with 212 others – to represent the world’s most interesting art for the Biennale’s central group show. Ashoona contributed six coloured drawings in her inimitable style, mixing scenes of contemporary life in Kinngait, Nunavut, with images of fantastic beasts. The work fitted neatly within Alemani’s themes connecting the human body to nature and technology, and was selected for a special mention, making Ashoona one of a half dozen awarded prizes at the competitive event sometimes known as the Olympics of art.

The jury said of her work: “Acknowledging the violences of the colonial enterprise, Ashoona … proposes possibilities of escaping the cul-de-sac by listening in, listening back and listening forward to Indigenous knowledge.”

Yet the media-shy Ashoona – no interviews and increasingly a preference for speaking Inuktitut rather than English at public events – was not in Venice to collect the prize. She has been busy elsewhere, spending August and September in Vancouver at the New Leaf Editions print studio on Granville Island, a residency that produced a bold new direction in her work. Drawing on flat templates that could be folded into three-dimensional geometric forms such as hexagons and double pyramids, she added a sculptural element to her art. Vancouver dealer Robert Kardosh of the Marion Scott Gallery brought these new pieces to Art Toronto in October, hanging them as a single installation of dangling mobiles to create one of the fair’s notable hits.

Ashoona may have been a late bloomer – she did not begin drawing until her mid-30s – but at 61, she goes from strength to strength. – KATE TAYLOR

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Adam Brazier, artistic director of performing arts at PEI’s Confederation Centre of the Arts.CCOA

Pluckiest Canadian Artistic Director of the Year: Adam Brazier

There are many different definitions of pluck, but having the courage to say there’s a limit to how much of a certain red-haired orphan is needed on Prince Edward Island is certainly one.

In November, Adam Brazier, artistic director of performing arts at PEI’s Confederation Centre of the Arts, announced that Anne of Green Gables: the Musical will now appear every second season at the centre’s signature Charlottetown Festival instead of every single one like clockwork. The 1965 musical will next be back in 2024, the Lucy Maud Montgomery sesquicentennial. Cue a storm of local criticism – sample Facebook comment: “Are you fricking nuts?” – that Brazier has been weathering with a smile.

“We’re doing well here, we’re excited about the future – and we’re taking our lumps,” he says.

For too long, the fact that the Confederation Centre is in the Guinness Book of World Records for mounting the same show annually ad nauseam has been seen as a badge of honour, rather than as a sign of the artistic stagnation of a federally funded cultural institution that regularly birthed large-scale Canadian musicals until it hit financial problems in the 1990s.

Since taking over eight years ago, however, Brazier has been steering the centre back toward that mission – and not reflexively doing the 1960s-scale Anne every season will help free up even more resources and stage time to take risks on new shows, such as this year’s world premiere: Tell Tale Harbour. That musical adaptation of the film The Grand Seduction – which Brazier created with Bob Foster, Edward Riche and Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle – not only packed in both local and tourist audiences and has interested producers elsewhere, but released a cast album and went on a six-city tour of Newfoundland and Labrador. That’s a pretty plucky achievement, too, coming out of a pandemic. J.K.N.

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The Weeknd, a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye, performs at the at the Rogers Centre in Toronto as part of his After Hours Til Dawn Tour in September.Hyghly Alleyne/Handout

Canadian Touring Artist of the Year: the Weeknd

After postponing his arena tour twice because of the pandemic, the Weeknd scrapped it in favour of a stadium tour, After Hours til Dawn, named after his blockbuster albums from 2020 (After Hours) and 2022 (Dawn FM). The schedule was due to kick off in the pop superstar’s hometown of Toronto on July 8, but that show was called off at the last minute because of the nationwide Rogers network outage.

The tour finally commenced at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, and the high-tech conceptual spectacle went on to dazzle the critics while pleasing the bean counters. Nineteen shows attended by 904,744 people grossed more than US$130-million – good for 10th place on Billboard’s Top Tours list.

The tour made it back to Toronto’s Rogers Centre for two shows in September. Beats dropped relentlessly, senses were bombarded and bass lines threatened the building’s structural integrity. The concert visually presented an apocalyptic narrative, with visions of a burning cityscape. Fans enjoyed it as if it were their last day on Earth – going down with a smile, a cellphone and a familiar melody on their minds.

Offstage, the Weeknd, also known as Abel Tesfaye, is just as generous. In recognition of his longstanding commitment to charities, he received Canadian Music Week’s Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award. – BRAD WHEELER

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Actor Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers in Night Raiders, 2021.Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Canadian Stereotype Smasher of the Year: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

Here’s how busy Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers was in 2022: She almost didn’t have time to audition for her starring role as Detective Isabelle Lacoste (opposite Alfred Molina) in the Prime Video series, Three Pines, based on the blockbuster books by Louise Penny. She was otherwise occupied starring in Darlene Naponse’s romantic/cosmic drama Stellar, which premiered at TIFF and opened this year’s imagineNative Film Festival; story-editing Sophie Jarvis’s psychological drama Until Branches Bend, which also premiered at TIFF; and directing half of the coming Crave limited series Little Bird, about a woman searching for family shattered by the Sixties Scoop.

Luckily, Tailfeathers found the time. Penny didn’t write Isabelle Lacoste as Indigenous, but Three Pines’ British showrunner, Emilia di Girolamo, smartly made that change for the series. This allowed Tailfeathers – along with co-star Tantoo Cardinal and director Tracy Deer – to step up and make sure the representation was accurate. (Especially since Lacoste is a cop, “an interesting job for an Indigenous woman,” as Cardinal’s character puts it.) Three Pines’ plot lines include a former residential school and a missing Indigenous woman, but Tailfeathers helped steer it away from trauma drama to instead highlight hope, resilience, care and love in Indigenous communities.

Television’s history of depicting Indigenous people has been problematic, to say the least. But Indigenous actors and show runners including Chaske Spencer (The English), Mo Brings Plenty (Yellowstone), Grace Dove (Alaska Daily), Amber Midthunder (Prey), Sterlin Harjo (Reservation Dogs), Sierra Teller Ornelas (Rutherford Falls) and Tailfeathers are changing that, with characters of nuance, complexity and depth. – J.S.

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Director, animator and writer Domee Shi, the first woman to solo-direct a Pixar film with her her debut feature "Turning Red." Domee Shi, the talented Canadian animator who, with the release of her debut feature, became the first woman to solo-direct a Pixar filmDia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Animator/Toronto Booster of the Year: Domee Shi

This was not Disney’s best year. There were animated flops (Lightyear, Strange World), Marvel letdowns (Thor: Love and Thunder), and chief-executive-officer shenanigans (bye-bye, Bob Chapek; hello again, Bob Iger). But the Mouse House did deliver one near universally loved success story: Turning Red.

The film marked a number of “firsts” for the Disney-owned Pixar. It’s the first movie to take place in Toronto. The first to put Asian characters and culture front and centre. The first to tackle puberty – and possibly the first animated film ever to confront menstruation. But Turning Red’s biggest “first” flex might be the filmmaker behind it: Domee Shi, the talented Canadian animator who, with the release of her debut feature, became the first woman to solo-direct a Pixar film in the company’s storied 36-year history.

After already showcasing her hometown in the highly cute Oscar-winning 2018 short film Bao, Shi offered a new vision of Toronto to the world with Turning Red. Set in 2002, the film not only reminds you of how beautiful Canada’s largest city can be can be when seen through the eyes of a child, but it also served as a reminder how animated films can deliver layered, emotionally resonant stories with a powerful, punchy pop.

The Pixar brass obviously agreed: A month after Turning Red was released (sadly only on streamer Disney+, thanks to Omicron skittishness), the 33-year-old Shi was promoted to vice-president of creative at the animation powerhouse. Up next: a new feature film wrapped in secrecy. We hear Montreal is ready for its animated close-up, though. – BARRY HERTZ

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Singer and songwriter Joni Mitchell at the Grammy Awards on April 3 in Las Vegas.Jordan Strauss/The Associated Press

Comeback Canadian Artist of the Year: Joni Mitchell

Nobody saw this comeback coming. Not even Brandi Carlile and the others who would get together for star-studded “Joni Jams” at Joni Mitchell’s house in Los Angeles. But on July 24, wearing sunglasses, a blue beret and a goddess’s cheekbones, Mitchell took the stage at Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island for a celebration of herself. She was supported by Carlile and musicians including Canada’s Allison Russell on Both Sides Now, The Circle Game, the wistful Come in from the Cold and 10 other songs.

“I’ve never experienced anything like it before,” Russell told The Globe and Mail. “Joni’s joy was palpable. She was laughing after every song, and she was feeling a wave of love and appreciation of the 10,000 people gathered there and her 10,000 new best friends.”

Mitchell hasn’t toured since 2000; her brief but radiating performance at Toronto’s Luminato Festival in 2013 was rare and unexpected. The Newport set marked Mitchell’s first public musical display since she suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015.

“I wanted to be good,” Mitchell said after the July event. “I didn’t sound too bad tonight.”

The year of Joni unofficially commenced in April, when the iconic musician was honoured as the 2022 MusiCares Person of the Year by the Recording Academy, as part of the Grammy Awards. Mitchell accepted the award personally. She also won a Grammy for Best Historical Album, for Joni Mitchell Archives – Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963–1967).

Next year, the 79-year-old legend is scheduled to give a concert at the Gorge Amphitheatre, a venue in Washington state.

“I can’t believe it’s happening, but it’s happening,” Carlile said on The Daily Show, where she announced the concert. “And she is going to crush it.” – B.W.

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Author Emily St. John Mandel outside her office in Los Angeles.MORGAN LIEBERMAN/The Globe and Mail

Canadian Prophet of the Year: Emily St. John Mandel

That art would begin to imitate pandemic life was bound to happen, two years into the crisis. But in the case of Emily St. John Mandel, her creation was almost prescient: Station Eleven, published in 2014, centres on the survivors of a world-altering pandemic. The series of the same name, which wrapped in early 2022, aired while our own IRL pandemic continued.

If her 2022 book, Sea of Tranquility, proves as prescient, we likely won’t know for a while. The novel, St. John Mandel’s sixth, is a work of speculative fiction involving time travel and lunar colonies. Far-off, if not far-fetched. The book, which made a number of year-end lists – including The Globe 100 – has cemented her as the country’s top working novelist, with an imaginative, unexpected prose imagines humanity’s future through a distinct, and frank, non-escapist lens.

The question she asks, and routinely answers, has become the driving question of our times: if we’re stuck here – or, as is the case in Sea of Tranquility, elsewhere, be that another time or another planet – together, St. John Mandel asks, how do we make living worthwhile?

In her April interview with The Globe, St. John Mandel herself suggested the answer – as many learned during the early months of COVID-19 isolation – goes well beyond basics.

“You know, the line in Station Eleven is, ‘Survival is insufficient,’ ” she said. “Whatever exists beyond the basics of food, water, shelter and physical safety. It might be sports. Whatever it is that there might not be an obvious day-to-day survival reason for doing, but that brings some kind of a spark of grace or joy.” – REBECCA TUCKER

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Director James Cameron at the world premiere of Avatar: The Way of Water in London, England on Dec. 6.GARETH CATTERMOLE/Amazon Prime

Canadian King of the World of the Year: James Cameron

Listen, we’re just as surprised as you are that there is a new Avatar film in the world. Thirteen years after James Cameron made a very big, very blue splash with his first Pandora-set adventure, it seemed that any talk of a sequel was just that. Meanwhile, the director from Kapuskasing, Ont., seemed content to spend his time and vast fortune plunging the depths of the ocean and expand his environmentalism efforts. Yet here we are with Avatar: The Way of Water, a movie that is as improbable as it is astounding.

Will the epic save the film industry, which has spent the entirety of 2022 teetering on the edge of collapse? It is too early to say, but already Cameron is making his global mark known in typically Titanic-sized ways. Just look at China, where The Way of Water’s release is set to revive that country’s moribund theatrical market, and might just even force Beijing to ease its zero-COVID policy. In the meantime, audiences around the world can take comfort that modern Hollywood’s most innovative storyteller is back firmly in his comfort zone: delivering awe-inspiring tales that push the limits of technology.

Can we spend some time quibbling about whether Cameron is even “Canadian” enough to make this list? Certainly – he appears to be more at home in New Zealand these days, and his Canadian ties seemingly limited to an investment in an organic pea processing plant in Saskatchewan. But the filmmaker is certainly not shy about his roots, and if our country’s artistic community ever needed as loud, boundary-breaking and just plain aggressively ambitious a spokesperson, it might as well be the once and future King of the World. – B.H.

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Gary Slaight, president and CEO of the Slaight Family Foundation, a private organization that supports a wide variety of humanitarian and cultural causes.Handout

Canadian Arts Philanthropist of the Year: Gary Slaight

He can’t sing and he’s not known for soliloquies, but Gary Slaight’s performance in 2022 deserves some kind of ovation. He is president and chief executive officer of the Slaight Family Foundation, a private organization that supports a wide variety of humanitarian and cultural causes. On Sept. 22, the foundation donated $10-million to Canada’s music industry aid program, the Unison Fund. The money is to be dispersed over five years to the existing Unison Industry Assistance Program (for Canadian music workers) and to the newly announced Slaight Family Foundation Legacy Program, which offers financial support to retired individuals in the music community and to those who experience long-term medical challenges.

For those helped by the Unison Fund, it’s not just about the money: “It’s about caring,” Montreal-based singer-songwriter John Cody told The Globe and Mail. “If I’m in trouble, they help.”

One week after the Unison announcement, the Slaight Family Foundation revealed a $15-million gift to 22 Canadian theatre companies to support the industry as it continues to recover from pandemic-related closures.

“Without exaggeration, the foundation’s support will change what we imagine to be possible in the coming two years and set theatres up to emerge stronger and with more resilience once this awful chapter finally closes,” said Gideon Arthurs, executive director of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre.

This season, Soulpepper, which received $1.5-million, mounted its song cycle, The Golden Record, performed and co-developed by members of the Slaight Music Residents collective and Slaight Family music director Mike Ross. It tells the story of a phonograph record sent by NASA into space in 1977 to help explain humanity to extraterrestrials through music. Gary Slaight and his foundation sang a similar tune in 2022. – B.W.

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Singer, songwriter and activist Neil Young.D.H. Lovelife/Handout

Canadian Arts Activist of the Year: Neil Young

Although he hasn’t toured since the beginning of the pandemic, Neil Young had a loud and industrious 2022. We weren’t out of the year’s first month when the 77-year-old Toronto native got his record label to pull his songs from Spotify because of the streamer’s relationship with Joe Rogan. The controversial podcast had drawn criticism for his vaccine skepticism and support for unproven COVID-19 treatments.

Other music figures who quickly sided with Young and scrubbed their catalogues from Spotify included Joni Mitchell and Nils Lofgrin.

Young released one studio album and four archival live ones. The studio release, World Record, was inspired by the singer-songwriter’s love of Earth and, on one track, automobiles. One of his enduring commitments is to reconcile his passions for cars and the environment. Early this year, the After the Goldrush activist said he wouldn’t hit the road until he found an electric tour bus: “For me, there are no more trips with fossil fuels.”

More recently on the concept of sustainable touring, Young said he wouldn’t play concert venues that rely on factory farming. As such a decision could seriously jeopardize his ability to tour, Young floated the idea of retiring. That would be a shame – a free world needs his rockin’ presence. – B.W.

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Mattea Roach, contestant on the game show Jeopardy!Tyler Golden/Sony Pictures Television/The Associated Press

Canadian Quiz Kid of the Year: Mattea Roach

Jeopardy! has always been honorary CanCon thanks to late host Alex Trebek’s Sudbury heritage. But never before in the long-running quiz show’s tenure has the country rallied as fervently behind a contestant as we did last summer, during then-23-year-old Mattea Roach’s 23-game, US$560,983 winning streak.

Roach, a Halifax native and Toronto resident, captured attention not just for her wisdom and performance, but for her verve: The under-30 wunderkind was as quick with a quip as she was with a correct question. While her run on the show – the fifth longest in Jeopardy! history – would have cemented her fame, in true Gen Z form, Roach was also playing a clever, profile-raising social-media game on the side, tweeting behind-the-scenes info and play-by-play reactions as each episode featuring her as a contestant aired.

She also made headlines for her commentary on another uniquely Canadian concern: the housing crisis, specifically, the one in Toronto, saying midway through her run that her game-show winnings would likely be the only reason she’s able to enter the country’s red-hot real estate market.

“On some level, it’s a little bit grim that I had to go on a game show – and not just appear on a game show but be one of literally the top contestants to ever be on that show – to feel like I have now some chance at like having financial security in my 20s,” she said.

After a run that featured more edge-of-your-seat gameplay that is typical of Jeopardy!, including a nail-biting 17th-episode win for Roach of just a dollar, she was felled by a Final Jeopardy question asking which two mayors gave their names to a facility built on the site of an old racetrack owned by Coca-Cola magnate Asa Candler (she lost, somewhat ironically, by a dollar). Even here, Roach was characteristically irreverent – and characteristically Gen Z. The correct answer was William Hartsfield and Maynard Jackson. Roach’s response: “Who are Churchill and Downs? Idk.” – R.T.

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