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public policy

The National Theatre School’s Simon Brault.Ivanoh Demers

If you're hoping to chat with Simon Brault about the future of the Canada's cultural sector, take a number.

The head of the National Theatre School and vice-chair of the Canada Council for the Arts has stirred quite a few top cultural minds, both in Canada and abroad, to re-think the direction of cultural policy with his recent book, Le facteur C: L'avenir passe par la culture .

The book, in French but slated for English translation, has earned him a stack of invites to discuss his ideas. In the past month he has met with top civil servants at the federal Department of Canadian Heritage and Quebec's Ministry of Culture, and he delivered a speech at the Trudeau Foundation's conference on Rethinking the Urban Commons. He then left for France to speak at the 20th-anniversary colloquium of the Observatoire des Politiques Culturelles, and alongside deputy mayor of Paris Christophe Girard at a conference hosted by Quebec's delegate-general in Paris.

Brault's main thesis is this: If we don't take drastic action to encourage broad-based, grass-roots cultural engagement, state support for the arts will face a crisis of legitimacy because everyday participation in the arts is declining.

His conviction isn't derived from the usual sources of inspiration - great painters or authors or even Gabrielle Roy's celebrated words about the arts that are quoted on Canada's $20 bill. Rather, it comes from Article 27 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads: "Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits."

Brault's pragmatic streak comes from past training as a lawyer and accountant. He says that nearly 70 years of post-Second World War cultural policy in the developed world has assumed that if governments supported a robust cultural offering, demand would follow. But that isn't enough any more, he says.

Canadian Heritage deputy minister Judith LaRocque invited Brault to give two separate talks: one an intimate affair with LaRocque, associate deputy minister Stephen Wallace and the different branch directors; and the other with about 100 economists and policy makers, "people who are really the specialists of crafting programs and trying to see what the impacts are," Brault said. He spent a combined three hours answering questions from the "very open and appreciative" audiences.

Their million-dollar question to Brault was: If you were us, what would you do?

"I said, 'If I were you, I would try to imagine something like the first incarnation of Participaction,'" referring to the not-for-profit organization founded in 1971 to inspire Canadians to be physically active. Its government funding waned in the 1990s. "It was really the idea of finding very innovative and imaginative ways to promote physical activity," Brault said.

Brault sees the seeds of such an approach in the increased attention paid to Venezuela's "El Sistema" music-education model and the drive to institute Culture Days across Canada, modelled after the Journées de la culture he instituted in Quebec.

With his home province's Ministry of Culture, the conversation was framed more around culture's intersection with education. Brault attacked Quebec's intense preoccupation with Audience Development - "kind of a buzzword now" - as something that focuses too narrowly on selling tickets.

"Cultural participation includes support to all the amateur practices - people being involved in choirs and community theatres and all that. This is the more profound way to engage with the arts," he said.

This is exactly what Brault had hoped to spark by writing his book, but with each new invitation, he seems mildly astonished at how quickly he's kindled the conversation.

"I realized how important it is to have these types of discussions and how rarely it happens," he said.