Cultural Equity

I had the great good fortune to have been part of a remarkable civic experiment in Toronto in the early nineties when I was the Executive Director of the Toronto Arts Council.

For years, Toronto artists from specific cultural and ethnic communities felt excluded from our programs and funding opportunities, from participating fully in the mainstream of arts and culture organizations, in feeling a part of our civic society.

In response, I embarked on a journey of discovery, sitting down with artists from these communities to find out from them what were the barriers to inclusion.

The 1992 report that came from this outreach, Cultural Equity, transformed how we did business at the Toronto Arts Council.  It also helped to transform our city by harnessing the extraordinary talent of many artists who had previously been unable to get funding or a showcase for their work.

What we discovered back then was that if we are going to engage all our citizens in feeling that they, their ancestors and their children are legitimate and honoured characters in the complex, evolving story we call our culture then we have to ensure that they have the tools to vigorously and loudly tell their own stories.   

In Canada, our story is about migration, starting with Indigenous peoples, the colonial settlers, the waves of immigrants and refugees – my own family among them – from every corner of the world.

In Toronto, a city of over 150 different ethnicities, our civic story is the story of diversity. 

The creation of a civic society seems deceptively simple. 

It is a society where everyone is a citizen.  Where everyone takes ownership of the freedoms and the responsibilities.  That is what being granted ‘the freedom of the city’ means, at its core.

Cultural equity is about creating access to power within cultural institutions, creating communities where everyone feels like an honoured participant with the opportunity to tell their own story in their own voice.

Today in Canada it is a given that principles of equity and inclusion should guide all decision-making for cultural funders. 

That was not always the case.

Twenty-five years ago, the Toronto Arts Council stood on the cutting edge of an experiment to understand the potential of cultural equity. 

Today we see how inclusion has turned cultural potential into success by helping Toronto transform into one of the most interesting cities in the world.   Our cultural diversity is a top selling point in our competition in the global economic and tourist marketplace.

And, we’re beaming out our experiment out to a world hungry for models of civil society, showing how a city can really work.

Creativity Driver


Our cultural and creative community has been blessed with that old Chinese curse – it is living through some very interesting times.  And when I say we are blessed, I’m serious.

A massive wave of change is remaking the creative landscape, often fundamentally altering previous relationships that existed between creators and audiences and the distributors who traditionally were the intermediaries that brought them together. 

These changes are impacting media and the arts all over the world. 

This is an extraordinarily exciting time as we move to an economy that is fuelled by imagination, ideas, information and innovation.   Allen J. Scott of the University of California published a fascinating study of creative cities a few years ago in the Journal of Urban Affairs

He notes that they are “organized around production systems marked by shifting interfirm networks and flexible labour markets … providing an essential framework for high levels of information interchange and for frequent experimentation in regard to processes and products … that unleash diverse innovative energies.” 

That sounds like an indie group to me!  

These production systems are typically not burdened with rigid and hierarchical employment structures or huge capital investments in physical plant.  Most of the value in these firms walks out the front door at the end of the day – if there is even a front door, or an end of the day!   

As audiences are creatively curating their own entertainment, playlists, movie, television and reading consumption, innovative cultural producers and artists have seized on these changes to find new ways to reach and connect with audiences. 

Creativity is a huge blessing in this landscape.  It is basically an unconventional way to process information and often thrives on the very sort of complex and paradoxical change we are experiencing.   As our creative and cultural community navigates through these interesting times, it’s very creativity will bring transformative solutions and new approaches that may be unimaginable now but whose positive impacts we will benefit from artistically, socially and economically.