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2016 was a remarkable year for Canadian culture, from film to even arts financing. To celebrate, Globe Arts writers and editors offer their arguments in favour of the figures who mattered most.


Leonard Cohen

With his final album, Leonard Cohen dropped baritone understanding on us one last time. You Want It Darker (released this fall, less than two weeks before the poet, novelist and ladies man died at 82) may or may not be the year's best Canadian LP. I would argue for Art Bergmann's The Apostate, but, then, maybe even Bergmann himself would tell me I'm wrong. The roughed-up punk-laureate told The Globe and Mail that Cohen on his last album "still stunned with his brutal wisdom." Specifically he referred to a line from the creeping-blues title song: "A million candles burning for the help that never came / you want it darker, we kill the flame." Many thought Cohen deserved the Nobel prize for literature given to Bob Dylan this year. But if Dylan won the prize, Cohen took the cake – tipping his fedora and exiting artfully while still minding the songwriters' flame. Dylan sings that it isn't dark yet and Bergmann confesses "I've been here before, at the hallowed door." Cohen just smiled and told them to keep the light on when they leave. – Brad Wheeler

Siamak Hariri

Architecture is tough. It's an art, but it's also often a service and a business, mediated by the work of many hands and the macho chaos of construction. Accordingly, few buildings manage to be both fine and innovative. But Toronto's Siamak Hariri has pulled off such a feat, 9,000 kilometres from home. The new Baha'i Temple of South America that Hariri Pontarini Architects completed this year in Chile under his direction aims to express the highest aims of the faith, and Hariri's billowing, translucent dome does so with grace and style. It employs sophisticated tools of production and fabrication with millimetric exactitude. It pursues the interest in craftsmanship and materials that binds many of Canada's top architects while escaping from the elegant boxes that usually bind their work. And, amazingly, it reflects the design architect's ambitious original vision; it is real, it is surprising and it is beautiful. That's possible. – Alex Bozikovic

Matt Johnson

If you follow the Canadian film industry with even a modicum of interest, you're likely sick of hearing the name Matt Johnson. But that's partly the point – the 31-year-old director wants to be be associated with annoyance and agitation, to be greeted with some sort of visceral reaction. That way, at least, people will pay attention to what he has to say when it comes to the state of the industry, which is, it should come as no surprise, regularly in shambles. So, Johnson can issue a few choice, unfiltered sound bites slamming the movie business – namely Telefilm and the elder-statesman filmmakers who, in his opinion, "just need to die of old age for the system to change" – and at least it will spark a conversation. The strategy is paying off, bit by bit. Earlier this year, TIFF kicked off a series of industry discussions to address some of the concerns Johnson's been flogging – and made the director one of its first speakers. But Johnson is more than a quotable instigator – he's also a legitimately sharp artist, skilled at crafting both genre-busting features (this past fall's wild mockumentary, Operation Avalanche) and television programs (next year's hilarious Viceland series, nirvanna the band the show). When Johnson speaks, it might not be pretty – but you'd damn well better pay attention. – Barry Hertz

Mélanie Joly

Sure, this honour is premature: What, after all, has Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly actually achieved? Still, in initiating a wholesale review this year of the federal policies that oversee the country's $48-billion broadcasting, media and culture sector, the rookie MP is in the promising first moments of what could be a historic performance of political plate-spinning. "Everything is on the table," she declared in April, simultaneously enthralling and alarming the industry, aspiring creators making videos in their basements, and regular people who think it's important to be able to watch and read and listen to Canadian stories but also want the government to keep its grubby hands off their Netflix. In a world of peak TV and shrivelling news coverage, does Joly side with those who believe the CRTC, the Broadcasting Act, the CBC, Telefilm, the NFB and other legacy instruments of government cultural policy have outlived their usefulness? Or with those who believe regulations and agencies need to be strengthened to help preserve a space for Canada amid a global flood of content? Stay tuned; it's going to be a hell of a show. Simon Houpt

Tatiana Maslany

Lauded for her mind-bending performance as assorted clones on the sci-fi series Orphan Black, Tatiana Maslany performed another kind of multipronged feat in 2016. With a best-actress win at the Emmys, Maslany got serious validation from Hollywood – all the while setting herself up as Exhibit A in the case for Canadian-content regulations. Maslany's win made her the first Canadian performer to ever win an Emmy for a lead role in a Canadian show, just as the CRTC scaled back the number of domestic creatives needed for a production to qualify for some kinds of public funding. Orphan Black creator Graeme Manson speculated that under the new rules, Maslany might never have been cast. Meanwhile, the actress also drew praise for her role in Kim Nguyen's Arctic drama Two Lovers and a Bear, a film shot in Iqaluit where, as the dauntless Maslany explained to The Hollywood Reporter, the frigid temperatures were really no big deal. – Kate Taylor

Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Yannick Nézet-Séguin had already made a bigger splash in the classical music world than any other Canadian conductor when he was named the new music director of New York's Metropolitan Opera in June. The job doesn't begin formally till 2020, but the 41-year-old Montrealer will surely be engaged in planning behind the scenes, for a legendary theatre where casts and productions are often discussed five years in advance. The podium at the Met is one of the most powerful and influential in the world, to which Nézet-Séguin can add his continuing role as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Rotterdam Philharmonic. He's also an honoured guest artist at prestigious events such as the Salzburg Festival, where he led a luminous performance of Haydn's Creation that was broadcast on CBC Radio's In Concert last week. And he still shows up in Montreal periodically to direct his very first ensemble, l'Orchestre Métropolitain. – Robert Everett-Green

Crystal Pite

Vancouver's Crystal Pite cemented her status as one of the great choreographic geniuses of our time in 2016. Betroffenheit, her devastating dance-theatre masterpiece about trauma created with actor and writer Jonathon Young, toured the country and to Europe, demolishing audiences and critics along the way. A performance at Sadler's Wells in London topped the best-of-the-year lists at both The Observer and The Guardian. If this weren't triumph enough, Pite premiered two other notable pieces in 2016: The Statement, a dance-theatre short set in a boardroom also created with Young, for the Nederlands Dans Theater, "a prescient reflection of our political moment that shifts from satirical to more gravely chilling" according The New York Times; and The Seasons' Canon, a jaw-dropper that transformed over 50 dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet into a single alien organism. It had the audience leaping to its feet at the end – a true feat in France. And the Canadian clincher for Pite's incredible year? Her company Kidd Pivot featured in part of a subplot in Hag-Seed – the latest novel by Margaret Atwood. – J. Kelly Nestruck

Madeleine Thien

It was only a matter of time. Even before she'd published her first book of short stories, Simple Recipes, in 2001, when she was still in her 20s, greatness had been expected of Madeleine Thien. Yet, although she followed that first collection with two critically acclaimed novels, Thien remained a writer perpetually on the verge. No longer. In 2016, Thien didn't just break out – she soared. Her novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a sweeping historical narrative about China in the 20th century, refracted through the lingering effects of Mao's Cultural Revolution, became the first novel since 2001 to win both the Governor-General's Literary Award and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. While it's sold 75,000 copies in Canada, success was not limited to this country; the novel received rave reviews around the world and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in the U.K. Presented with the biggest platform of her career, Thien used it to advocate for the group known as UBC Accountable, which seeks "fairness and clarity" in the University of British Columbia's handling of the case of Steven Galloway, who was dismissed as chair of the university's renowned creative writing program. I don't agree with the group's position but I respect Thien's stand; many artists in her position would be loath to wade into this sort of controversy. Thien is only 42 years old – still young when it comes to writing. As she told me earlier this year, "I actually feel that the strongest work is still to come." – Mark Medley