Committe Testimonies

Studying the impact and utilization of culture and arts in foreign policy and diplomacy

Feat. Colin Robertson

Senate Standing Committee of Foreign Affairs and International Trade
November 30, 2017

Remarks to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on the impact and utilization of Canadian culture and arts in Canadian foreign policy and diplomacy

November 30, 2017
Colin Robertson
Vice President and Fellow, Canadian Global Affairs Institute


The great English art critic John Ruskin observed that “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts—the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last.”

After 33 years in the Canadian foreign service with postings in New York, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Washington, I know firsthand the importance of cultural diplomacy both as an end in itself and as a vital instrument for advancing Canadian objectives in peace and security, trade and investment, immigration and development.

This is what I learned:

First: We need a cultural diplomacy strategy that draws and collaborates with other levels of government – provinces, territories and cities and the private sector. This will create a critical mass to advance Canadian culture and arts. Specifically:  

  • Closer collaboration among key federal government departments and portfolio agencies such as PCH, GAC, Canada Council, Telefilm, National Film Board, CBC, national museums and national art galleries as well as with private and not-for-profit sectors, especially those with expertise in digital and animation.
  • Draw inspiration from existing initiatives like the Advisory Council on Economic Growth and the Business and Higher Education Roundtable.
  • Where responsibility for promotion finds a home – the Canada Council, Global Affairs Canada, Canadian Heritage -  is less important than that it exists. It does mean dedicated officials, dedicated budgets and a minister dedicated to being its champion.

Second: Make Canada a world platform for cultural productions. Specifically:

  • Develop a turnkey policy of tax credit and regulatory environment at the local, provincial and national level that recognizes the rapid convergence between content, production, and technology.
  • Bring together the content of culture with its delivery means - in person, on screens, in games, through virtual experiences.
  • Launch a Brand Canada that draws from the positive experiences of other recent nation branding campaigns. Great Britain used cultural diplomacy very effectively to position the UK brand – GREATBritain - as an innovative country that is open to tourism, international students, and investment. The Calgary and Vancouver/Whistler Olympics significantly advanced a global sense of Canada as a northern country and a nation where pluralism works.

Third: Promote Canada's key missions as cultural spaces and exchanges abroad to project Canada's progressive social and economic dynamism. Specifically

  • Re-brand our cultural presences in key cultural and media places like Paris, Berlin, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, Seoul, Jakarta, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City through the creation of Canada Houses, as we do currently in Paris, for stand-alone cultural spaces abroad.
  • Set up artist exchanges in priority countries – starting with our G20 partners -  to share Canada's artistic excellence.
  • Develop a cadre of entrepreneurial cultural attachés with a long-term career path that would include stints at Canadian and international cultural institutions. In a practical sense this could include an assignment with the Canada Council or Canadian Heritage, helping to manage a symphony or dance company, museum or cultural center, experience in digital media combined with postings abroad. In short, develop a career trajectory that attracts and retains practical cultural expertise with an appreciation of the bottom line.
  • Encourage missions to innovate. For example, when I was in In Hong Kong in the late 80s, we began a Children’s Film Festival and through our films, most notably those of Roch Demers and les Contes pour tous, we underlined Canada as a place to live, study and work. Exposure also helped Roch Demers sell his films for distribution into China.

Fourth: Create a modernized Canadian Studies program to highlight, amplify and contribute to Canada's research excellence.  

  • Focus for study would include the integration of migrants into big cities, effective pluralism, agri-food, clean energy, Arctic development, oceans management, climate mitigation – all areas in which Canada has or is developing expertise;
  • Youth exchanges like we used to do through programs like Canada World Youth create long-term goodwill. For example, the current Indonesian ambassador and his wife are both Canada World Youth alumni.

When it comes to culture and the arts we punch way beyond our weight.

That’s why it’s odd that in recent years, successive governments have cut back on their investment in the promotion of our cultural industries. Programs have a natural life cycle and should be re-examined for effect, but the curtailment of support for our cultural industries abroad was extreme.

An example.  When I was Consul General in Los Angeles we created an on-line talent guide to Canadians working in the industry that helped win us more production in Canada. We should recreate this so that it appeals not just to Hollywood but to Bollywood as well as European and Chinese film production.

Advancing our cultural industries brings with it collateral benefits. In the wake of 9-11, then Prime Minister Jean Chretien led a Team Canada mission to Los Angeles to help sell western goods and services but to also underline Canadian solidarity with the USA. I enlisted my friends Paul Anka and David Foster and we hosted an event at the Getty Museum that drew international attention. And it also helped sell Canadian products and draw investment.

When you consider that we do a million dollars a minute in business with the USA alone it makes you wonder about false economies.

If we continue to treat cultural diplomacy as an afterthought within Canada’s international relations, we miss opportunities to use our foreign policy to generate economic, political and security benefits for Canadians.

Canadian culture and the arts should be a major pillar of Canadian diplomacy and foreign policy. Others – Australia, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Mexico, Korea - derive real economic and political benefits from their much more strategic use of short and long term cultural, educational and scientific exchange programs.

Without support from governments – federal, provincial and municipal - travel by our world-class orchestras and dance groups and exhibitions by our visual and digital arts is severely constrained. But our arts has been, and again can be, important tools in advancing our foreign policy objectives as well as an end in themselves.

In her recent speech outlining Canadian foreign policy goals Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland asked the question: ‘Is Canada an essential country at this time in the life of our planet?’

The answer is yes. We are an essential nation, especially in our daily practice of pluralism and in how we have compromise with our geography and climate. 

With acknowledgement to John F. Kennedy, I look forward to a Canada that will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to a Canada that will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.

With commitment, we can do much better when it comes to promoting Canadian culture and arts. Our sense of what it is to be Canadian is nurtured and reinforced by how we are seen beyond our borders. Investment in our cultural industries is both profitable - it creates and sustains jobs – as well as a positive boost to our identity.

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