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The Visual Artist Laureate (Bill S-234)

The word ‘‘laureate,’’ which comes from Middle English, denotes a person honoured for distinction in a particular field. A visual artist laureate would be a creative posting for two years, gained through a competitive process. The position would serve both as an arts ambassador and as creator of work related to Parliament Hill and the issues parliamentarians are discussing.


This bill was brought forward by my former colleague Senator Willie Moore to create a visual artist laureate on Parliament Hill in the same spirit and with the same reasoning as our poet laureate. The artist laureate would serve the speakers of the two chambers for no more than two years and would be mandated to promote the arts in Canada through Parliament. He would produce or cause to be produced artistic creations. At the request of either Speaker, he would produce works for the use of Parliament or even for ceremonies of state. The artist laureate could also sponsor artistic events and give advice to the Parliamentary Librarian regarding the Library of Parliament’s collection and acquisitions to enrich cultural holdings. In addition, at the request of either Speaker, the incumbent could carry out related duties.


What would the benefits be to Canadians? The portrayal and communication to Canadians of the work of Parliament and our national issues. As Calgary’s poet laureate, Derek Beaulieu, has said, to be ‘‘a lever for cultural change.’’


I am also truly concerned about the lack of understanding our children and youth have about the role of democracy, the workings of Parliament, and the consequential low rates of youthful voters. The work of a visual artist laureate can help address that gap in the knowledge of civics.


While Parliament has never had a visual artist laureate, Canada is not without precedent in having visual artist laureates in various jurisdictions. Indigenous artist Christi Belcourt received the Ontario Arts Council’s Aboriginal Arts Award Laureate in 2014.


It has been stated many times that ‘‘the arts are the most powerful tool we have for social change.’’ In dealing with issues of poverty, race discrimination, crime prevention, health and more, we need these tools more than ever before.


I asked our former Poet Laureate, George Elliott Clarke, to put pen to paper to capture the Visual Artist Laureate.  Here is what he wrote:


On the Proposal for a Visual Artist Laureate:


The blank page—the blank canvas is—Undeniably delicious—

Like fog, which obscures, then reveals—What Hope imminently congeals—

A fantastic architecture—

Imagination born secure:

What Vision—the I of the eye—

Had dreamt, is What answering Why. . .. Rainbows erupt from paint or ink—And film sculptures light—in a blink;

A needle, weaving, is lyric,

And whatever is shaped is epic.

Art’s each I articulate,

Whose vision ordains a laureate.


I believe that a parliamentary artist laureate should be created to shine the proper light on Canada’s Parliament and our artists and their works, in the spirit of not only explaining the Canadian experience abroad but to ourselves as well. As Clarke said to me in his note, ‘‘All are capable of dreams.’’ Or as he, this inspirer of dream, wrote of that delicious blank canvas, ‘‘Art’s each I articulate whose vision ordains a laureate.’’

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