Canada Council for the Arts | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Canada Council for the Arts

The Canada Council for the Arts, located in Ottawa, is the federal government's principal instrument for supporting the arts. The Council's mandate from the Parliament of Canada is "to foster and promote the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts.
The 1869 Jean Baptiste Vuillaume violin with Vuillaume model bow. This violin of Del Gesù model was made in Paris, France by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume at the zenith of his career. The violin bears the master's signature on the inside upper back, as well as his number and brand stamp. A 2009 loan from Greg Cook of Stouffville, Ontario, it is in near mint condition with an estimated value of 0 000. It is accompanied by a Vuillaume model bow, also in near mint condition, valued at 000 (courtesy Canada Council).
Canada Council
First meeting of the officers of the Canada Council, 30 April 1957 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-144595).

The Canada Council for the Arts, located in Ottawa, is the federal government's principal instrument for supporting the arts. The Council's mandate from the Parliament of Canada is "to foster and promote the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts." It carries out this work chiefly by providing grants and services to professional Canadian artists and arts organizations in dance, interdisciplinary art, media arts, music, opera, theatre, writing, publishing and the visual arts.


The creation of the Council in 1957 fulfilled a major recommendation of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, popularly known as the Massey Commission after its chair, Vincent Massey.

The most comprehensive diagnosis of cultural life ever undertaken in Canada, the Massey Report (1951) described a bleak cultural landscape. Professional theatre was "moribund"; musical life was largely confined to church basements and school gymnasia; professional artistic ventures were few in number and almost non-existent outside the largest cities. In an entire year, English Canada produced only 14 works of fiction.

Despite abundant talent and a hunger among Canadians for their own creative and intellectual products, "No novelist, poet, short story writer, historian, biographer, or other writer of non-technical books can make even a modestly comfortable living by selling his work in Canada. No composer of music can live at all on what Canada pays him for his compositions. Apart from radio drama, no playwright, and only a few actors and producers, can live by working in the theatre in Canada." Gifted Canadians "must be content with a precarious and unrewarding life in Canada, or go abroad where their talents are in demand."

To develop Canada's indigenous cultural and intellectual life, the Massey Report recommended that the federal government create a Canada Council for the Encouragement of the Arts, Letters, Humanities and Social Sciences. With the revenues from the death duties of 2 prominent industrialists, Sir James Dunn and Izaak Walton Killam, the Council was established and began operations in 1957. In 1978 the government created the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, leaving the Canada Council responsible solely for the arts.


The Massey Commission had operated in the wake of World War II, keenly aware that totalitarian regimes could control and manipulate cultural activity for propaganda purposes. Because of "the dangers inherent in any system of subvention by the central government to the arts and letters and to the culture of the country generally," the Commission proposed that the new council be established with a high degree of independence from government. In introducing the Canada Council Act to Parliament, then-Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent said, "Our main object in recommending the establishment of the Canada Council is to provide some assistance to universities, to the arts, humanities and social sciences as well as to students in those fields without attempting in any way to control their activities or to tamper with their freedom. Governments should, I feel, support the cultural development of the nation but not attempt to control it." As a result, the Council is, in St-Laurent 's words, "as free from state control as it is prudent for any body entrusted with public funds to be." Operating at arm's length from government, it is an independent body accountable to Parliament through the Minister of Canadian Heritage with responsibility for establishing its priorities, policies and funding programs and making grant decisions.

The Council is headed by a board of 11 members appointed by order-in-council, as is its director, the chief executive officer. The chair and vice-chair are appointed for terms not exceeding 5 years, and other members for terms of 3 years with the possibility of one renewal. Many of the Council's professional staff come from the artistic community, and the Council relies heavily on the advice of artists and other arts professionals in developing its program policies and allocating grants.

In its first year of operation, the Council had a budget of $1.5 million for the arts, humanities and social sciences from an initial endowment of $50 million. By 1964 these funds were clearly insufficient, and the Council proposed that the government substantially increase the endowment. Instead, the government provided additional money for the Council's operations and programs. Annual parliamentary appropriations soon became the Council's main source of revenue.

Current Operations

In 2007-08 the Council awarded grants to some 1597 professional Canadian arts organizations, including orchestras, opera companies, art galleries, book and periodical publishers, media arts organizations, dance and theatre companies, and groups working in interdisciplinary arts. Over 2369 individual artists won grants to create works of art, undertake research, or further their professional development. Artists applying for grants must be Canadian citizens or permanent residents of Canada.

To assess grant applications, the Council establishes peer assessment committees made up of independent artists and other professional practitioners in the arts. These committees evaluate the comparative merits of applications in a given competition, establish their order of priority, and recommend grants to the Council. In 2007-08, some 771 people served on an assessment committee.

The mid-1990s "program review" process, which the federal government undertook to curb spending and reduce the deficit, affected the Canada Council as it did other federal agencies and departments. During this period the Council was restructured and its staff numbers reduced. Toward the end of the 1990s, however, there was a significant reversal in the Council's financial fortunes, and it entered what its then-chairman, actor Jean-Louis Roux, has called "the beginnings of a new period of growth." In October 1997 the Minister of Canadian Heritage announced additional funding of $25 million for 1997-98 and each of the following 4 years, an amount that was eventually added to the Council's base appropriation from Parliament. A further $10-million increase in the appropriation was announced in the February 2000 budget.

In May 2001, with the announcement of the federal government's Tomorrow Starts Today initiative, another $25 million was provided to the Council over and above its base appropriation between 2001-02 and 2003-05. The initiative was renewed until 2009-10 resulting in a Parliamentary appropriation of approximately $150 million. In 2006, the federal government provided one time funding of $50 million ($20 million in 2006-07 and $30 million in 2007-08), all of which was awarded to grants. In 2007, it announced an additional $30 million to be added permanently to the Council's base budget, bringing the Parliamentary appropriation to about $180 million in 2008-09.

In June, 2006, Robert Sirman, formerly Administrative Director of Canada's National Ballet School, was appointed Director of the Canada Council. Seven months later, the Council began a year of celebrations to commemorate its 50th anniversary. The anniversary year also marked the development of the Council's new strategic plan, guided by the most wide-ranging consultations with the arts community, the general public and other stakeholders in the Council's history. The strategic plan, launched in October 2007, and the subsequent Action Plan released in 2008, outlined five overall directions for the Council over the next three to five years: reinforcing the Council's commitment to individual artists, working alone or collaboratively, as the core of artistic practice in Canada; broadening the Council's commitment to arts organizations to strengthen their capacity to underpin artistic practices in all parts of the country; enhancing the Council's leadership role in promoting equity in fulfilling Canada's artistic aspirations; making partnerships with other organizations, including other funders, a key element in the Council's approach to advancing its mandate; and enhancing the Council's capacity to support the arts and implement change by strengthening its structure, staffing and services.

Besides providing grants and services to the arts, the Canada Council administers the Art Bank, which holds the largest collection of contemporary Canadian art in the world and rents works to the public and private sectors. Operating under the Council's aegis are the secretariat for the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and the Public Lending Right Commission, which in 2008 made payments worth over $9 million to about 16 000 Canadian authors for the availability of their books in Canadian libraries.

Each year the Council offers prizes, some privately endowed and given in perpetuity, to nearly 100 artists and scholars for distinguished contributions to the arts and scholarship in Canada. Outstanding examples include the Killam Program of scholarly awards and prizes, the Molson Prizes, the Governor General's Literary Awards, and the Governor General's Visual and Media Arts Awards, which were inaugurated in 2000.

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