Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster named chair of Canada Council for the Arts

Jesse Wente becomes first Indigenous chair of council


Jesse Wente is the new chair of the Canada Council for the Arts. Photo courtesy of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Anishinaabe writer and broadcaster Jesse Wente has been named chair of the Canada Council for the Arts.

“I’m very honoured and thankful and appreciative of being given the appointment,” Wente said. “I look at it as a real obligation to serve artists and the culture of Canada but certainly, very specifically, the broader Indigenous community. I think it’s important that we take on roles like this and try to bring about the change we need for our communities.

“I consider that a huge obligation and I look forward to doing my best to fulfill it.”

The announcement was made Tuesday by Steven Guilbeault, minister of Canadian Heritage.

Wente, who is currently a board member at the council, is the first Indigenous person to be appointed as the chair since it was founded in 1957.

“I’m very conscious that when the council was founded Indigenous arts were not even considered a thing – they were designated crafts and primitive and they weren’t eligible for funding. That is just part of a long history in Canada of First Nations, Metis and Inuit people being marginalized and really excluded from participating in the broader culture and governance of this place.

“We’re in 2020 so I would say it’s long past due to see this sort of change.”

The federally funded agency supports artists across the country with a $308 million dollar budget.

“The role of the Council is to foster and promote the study and enjoyment of the arts and the production of artistic works. To fulfill this mandate, the Council offers a broad range of grants and services to professional Canadian artists and arts organizations in dance, integrated arts, media arts, music, theatre, visual arts, and writing and publishing. It also promotes public awareness of the arts through its communications, research and arts promotion activities,” according to the federal government’s website.

In 2018-19, the Canada Council distributed $242.7M in grants to artists, groups and arts organizations according to the council.

The council is currently working on its five year strategic plan called Reimagine the Arts and is inviting artists from all forms to take a survey.

“What I hope is that we continue the work the council has already started. You know just as I came on the board, the council had just started its Indigenous arts stream and I look forward to continuing that work and continuing to help us seek sovereignty within those structures and systems and with as much autonomy over the decision making that effects Indigenous Peoples,” he said.

“Being appointed the chair of a Crown corporation is somewhat of an uneasy position for me, but this is an organization that is doing real work in this area and really trying to come to a different place and serve its mission in a different way and truly for everyone.

“I’m proud to take this role and push it even further.”

Wente will be replacing Pierre Lessonde who is wrapping up his term as chair.

Wente said that Lassonde is “one of the country’s biggest advocates” for the arts.

“He saw the doubling of the budget at the council and that took a tremendous amount of work on the part of the team at the council and he was a great leader,” Wente said. “I thought I could do it different and bring a different perspective. I think we’re at a moment where we can inject some different world views and perspectives into  how we govern the country and the choices that we make.

“It’s really not about doing better, it’s about bringing a different perspective to that role.”

When asked what his first move would be as chair, Wente said it’s a little early for that decision.

“I don’t think in the middle of a pandemic, on day one of an appointment I want to put a flag anywhere because we are in a moment of remarkable change. I think one of the keys and one of the opportunities is trying to be flexible, trying to have long term thinking and trying to bring empathy and all of those things that I try to embody on a daily basis to the role  to make sure that all cultures that are present here on these lands can flourish for a long time.

“That is ultimately the goal because arts and culture is central to how we understand the world, how the rest of the world understands us and how we understand each other. That has only become more true in these moments.”

Hundreds of people took to social media to congratulate Wente on the appointment which starts immediately.