In Celebration of Canada's 150th anniversary, WE asked 50 remarkable Canadians the question: What are you doing to make our country a more caring and compassionate place?
The arts can be intimidating, its scene exclusive – but art itself is rarely either.
Guillaume Côté is on the side of art. A principal dancer and choreographic associate with the National Ballet of Canada, Guillaume has no time for cultural snobbery. "Ballet is often seen as an elitist art form, but I think it's important to make it more available," he says. "I'm passionate about broadening the experiences of those less fortunate and making the arts more accessible."
Guillaume's sense of purpose stems from personal history. A long time ago, before the Lac-Saint-Jean-native was awarded the Medal of the National Assembly of Quebec for his contribution to the arts, previous to the premiere of his first full-length ballet, Le Petit Prince, and far in advance of becoming artistic director of the Festival des Arts de Saint-Sauveur (one of Canada's premiere dance festivals), Guillaume was a young boy in need of opportunity. Enter Canada's National Ballet School with a scholarship and cue the dream transformed into a decorated career.
"This act of kindness broke down the restrictions that being born in Northern Quebec would have had," he says. "It gave me hope."
Today – at the top of his profession – the artist is paying it forward. "We've all experienced hardship. We all know what it's like to need the help of others and to have benefited from it in return."
As a champion of efforts to increase accessibility to the arts, Guillaume stands proudly behind the National Ballet's Share the Magic program. "It's something that's close to my heart." Through the program – established more than three decades ago – 88,000 plus tickets have been donated to families battling illness and to those living with socioeconomic challenges. "The arts connects individuals and provides a way of expression," he says of cultural experiences such as ballet.
The artist's expressive works of choreography – such as in Being and Nothingness (adapted from Jean-Paul Sartre's masterpiece) – inspire a feeling of connectedness by making the distant, foreign and abstract immediately relatable. But this feeling of connectedness is hardly dependent on stage lighting and costumes or storytelling; it is possible to uncover in our everyday lives. As Guillaume suggests, it lies with us to see others through the strength and beauty of inclusivity. "I believe Canada would be a better country if there were less divisions and more intermingling of communities."
Read on to learn why Guillaume believes the arts – and simply art – can bring Canadians closer together and a jeté (ballet leap) further in forming a more empathetic country.
Why is "we" stronger than "me"?
There's a special kind of energy that comes from a collection of people. As a dancer, the unique part of the art form is that ballet would not be what it is without the collective. It's physically impossible to do what we do with only one person. Everything is a team effort. Ballet is the perfect example of the importance of collective strength. Something special happens when communities join together. Each individual has something inspiring to bring to the table and that kind of energy forms a chain reaction that becomes a driving force for positive change.
What is the kindest action you've been on the receiving end of, and what about the gesture touched you personally?
When I was 10 years old, I was given a scholarship for Canada's National Ballet School. My parents never would have been able to afford to send me to NBS and as a young person, this generosity sparked my development into who I am today. For that I am forever grateful.
Fill in the blank: Moving forward into the next 150 years, our country needs [blank] in order to build a more caring and compassionate Canada.
Art. Art is present in everything – more than people think. It beautifies, fosters connection and opens up the imagination. It's a form of commentary that engages in a conversation with the world and allows us to understand our own identity and the identity of others.
Describe the core values of your ideal Canada.
Supportive. It's important that we help those in need; often our experiences are not so unlike theirs. It's our responsibility to provide support to the people and communities around us.
Empathy and tolerance. It's important to have flexibility and openness when enacting change and to see things from different perspectives. There are many ways of thinking and living in the world – there isn't one way that's correct. Canada is a multifaceted and multicultural country, and it's vital that we act in a way that protects and values that.
Collaboration. When we work together, we inspire others. When we get the opinions and viewpoints of others before taking action, it solidifies the end result. A group of minds is better than a single mind on its own.
What small action have you taken in present day to help secure a brighter future for our country tomorrow?
I try to be thoughtful in my everyday life. Everyone in the world is connected, and I think it's more important now [than ever] that we support each other. Everybody is someone's child, and as a father, I'm so grateful when people are kind and nice to my daughter and to her grandma. Family is important, and I believe that my family extends beyond biological relatives.
As we work to make Canada a better country, what is one action you would like people to take?
Dance. It's celebratory, it liberates the spirit and brings joy to life. We need that kind of balance. Dance has the power to take you out of your everyday life and make [things] a little bit more fun and light-hearted. It brings people together and makes for a better community. Dance is something which connects all generations and is a universal language that has no barriers.
This story is part of Living WE, a toolkit of ideas and inspiration for Canadians. It was created by WE, a movement that brings people together to create positive social change both locally and globally.