Art for Activists

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The time has never been better to rebuild a culture of activism in Canada. Picture TV footage of a demonstration in front of government buildings in some Canadian city: marchers cover the lawn, chant "Hey-hey, ho-ho, [insert politician's name] has got to go!" and then listen to a band play on a portable stage. Then compare it to a demo in South Africa: marchers dance their way into a packed stadium. They're singing in unison, in harmony.

Which demonstration would you rather join?

In the 1930s there was a strong, working-class culture in Canada. Unions and progressive organizations sponsored music and drama clubs, writing groups and artists' associations. Recently, a new generation of activists has been injecting a fresh creative spark into demonstrations. What happened to left-wing culture in between?

Maybe McCarthyism and the Cold War dimmed too many spirits. Maybe television and consumer society took away peoples' desire to participate. Or too many leaders grew complacent. Whatever the reasons, today's Left (with some notable exceptions) can analyze and prescribe, but is either too embarrassed to sing, or has forgotten the words.

Where can you find a vibrant activist culture in Canada in 2001? In First Nations communities, organizing a cultural renaissance fused with political action, like the En'owkin Centre. At retreats that tap into liberation theology and explore an integrated experience of community, such as the United Church's Naramata Centre. Among some direct-action affinity groups, or Raging Grannies chapters. And once in a while, with strikers who create their own art, music and plays. But the best Canada's traditional Left can muster is entertainment rather than raw, participatory peoples' culture.

That's the idea behind The Bridget Moran School of Art. Named after a late author and activist, and operated by Island Mountain Arts, its goal is to share cultural tools with labour and social activists. With new songs, images and ideas of their own creation, participants will be able to spice up their movements, attract more people and be more effective.

The school is inviting unions and other organizations to sponsor members to attend four-day courses in October in the sub-alpine setting of Wells, in B.C.'s Cariboo. The pilot line-up includes "Singing for Justice," "Stitching for Social Change," "Bold and Beautiful Banners," and "Screen Printing in Action." If successful, the programming may expand. And Canada's left will have more resources to create its own culture.

Bill Horne is the Past B.C. President of Canadian Artists Representation (CARFAC). He lives in Wells and will be teaching "Screen Printing in Action" this fall.

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