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The ArtsSmarts Story

A proposal to
The Canadian Conference of the Arts
Silver Donald Cameron
October 26, 2000

Silver Donald, don’t do this. You’re 63 years old, you’re already doing a weekly newspaper column, and you have a novel to write.

I know, I know. But The ArtsSmarts Story is a perfect assignment for me. The people involved in this are doing all kinds of interesting and innovative things all across the country, bringing the arts and education and economic development together. That’s where I’ve been all my life, you know. I’m the guy who spent several years trying to replicate the Banff Centre in Cape Breton as the founding Executive Director of Centre Bras d’Or in Baddeck. I’m the guy who quit being a tenured English professor at the University of New Brunswick in 1971 so that he could stop talking about literature and become a writer himself, primarily a scriptwriter and a novelist –

Ahem! When was the last time you published a novel?

That would be Dragon Lady, in 1980. Well, there was the children’s novel, The Baitchopper, in 1981. But you’re forgetting the 55 radio plays, and Peggy, which got the Gemini nomination for best short TV drama, and the stage play and a few other things too. Four National Magazine Awards, for instance. But that’s not the point –

It is. We had this discussion in 1994, Mr. Novelist, and you went off and became the founding Dean of the School of Community Studies at the University College of Cape Breton. Yes, I admit it was an interesting job and you may even have done a little good. Yes, you had academic departments reporting to you that would be relevant to ArtsSmarts, like the Department of Communication and the Department of Culture and Heritage. But listen, you flathead —

Don’t talk to me that way. Show a little respect.

I’m your Artistic Conscience, bud; brutal honesty is my job description. So listen, you flathead, do you think you’re going to live forever?

Yes. Well, no. But a long time yet, anyway. And remember I took the Dean’s job at UCCB because I had been doing all kinds of community development work here in Isle Madame – writing economic development plans, starting up a community TV station, rebuilding Victorian houses and renting them to tourists – and I could see that the future prosperity of my little island depended on access to knowledge and opportunities for learning. I mean, if you’re going to do aquaculture or heritage tourism, somebody’s got to know about fish science and heritage, right? So Isle Madame needed a strong link with UCCB. That’s how I got back into education, which is where I started when I became a high school teacher at the ripe old age of 20. And a principal at 21. And a faculty member at the University of British Columbia at 25.

And what else did you do when you were at UBC?

Wrote two novels, which I didn’t publish. They were pretty bad. But that’s how you learn to write novels, by reading a lot of them and then trying to write them. It’s the same in any art. I’m writing a newspaper column on George Steeves, the photographer, and he says the same thing.

So are you ready to write a terrific novel now?

Oh, God, yes. In fact I’ve started it, but I’ve had to lay it aside for a number of months. Marjorie and I are going out to BC between January and April for family reasons, which takes me away from some of the distractions in Nova Scotia, and I’m hoping to do some solid work on the novel then. But even that fits in well with the ArtsSmarts project – I’m here in Cape Breton till early January, which means I can easily visit projects in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland now, and then use Vancouver as my base to visit projects out West. And I may have to be in Ottawa in February – I’ve been asked to serve on another Canada Council jury, Senior Arts Grants in Non-Fiction.

I thought you’d sworn off Canada Council juries. You’ve done what, six, seven? That’s enough. You promised me you’d never do another.

Well, I haven’t said I’ll do this one. I probably won’t. I certainly won’t do another one like the Governor-General’s Award for Non-Fiction, which swilled down the entire summer of 1993. But if I do accept, I could visit some ArtsSmarts projects on the same trip, and confer with the ArtsSmarts Secretariat at the CCA as well.

Of course I could visit Ottawa in April, anyway, when I have a speech to give in Montreal. Or stop on the way out to BC.

You really find the ArtsSmarts school projects that compelling?

Some of them. You can’t always tell from a brief description – I’ll have to have some candid discussions with people involved in the program. When someone says they’re “using visual arts in the teaching of mathematics,” they may be doing something brilliant or they may be doing something quite mundane.

But for instance, there’s a wonderful project with my friend Harry Thurston going on in Whitney Pier, documenting the community’s heritage and looking at its future, a bunch of kids doing exactly the sort of thing that community leaders have been doing in Isle Madame. And that’s only a 90 minute drive from home, by the way. That might be a Sunday Herald column, all by itself.

Well, at least there’s some publishable writing built into this. “The ArtsSmarts Story” itself isn’t going to add to your public profile, or bring any reprint fees or speaking engagements or anything like that.

No, but there may be other spin-off articles for other publications. And the fee has to be generous enough that the project makes sense anyway. The spin-offs would be a bonus.

You really want to do this, don’t you?

Yes. When I read Ken Robinson’s speech on the ArtsSmarts Web site, I thought, “This is exactly what I’ve been saying for years.” We do still have an educational system designed to produce factory hands, and we need one that produces entrepreneurs, innovators, artists, small business people, self-employed professionals, imaginative and humane managers, people like that. ArtsSmarts represents real leadership in that process.

And educational innovation always excites me. Remember that project I did years ago for the National Entrepreneurship Development Institute? Or the one for the national science teaching awards program? Those assignments left me with an abiding admiration for what imaginative teachers can do when they’re given the tools and the freedom to be creative. One teacher in Iqualuit helped his student organize a scientific research project – field work, lab analysis, formal reporting, everything – into the community health hazards posed by stray dogs. Their findings were an original contribution to public health research, they tangibly improved the community – and boy, did those kids understand the scientific method by the time they’d finished!

That’s real education, the integration of learning into the fabric of life itself. I think that’s what life is. I believe we’re put on this earth to learn. That’s why I’ve loved being a writer; a writer is paid to research, learn and report, in any form he chooses. And it’s why I loved supervising the Bachelor of Arts Community Studies degree at UCCB. The BACS curriculum was built on co-operative learning projects, original research and imaginative public presentations of the results. That’s the farthest thing in the world from sterile, isolated exercises conducted in a classroom.

Artists work the same way, and their approach translates into sparkling pedagogy. When I was writer-in-residence at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design I saw an educational institution largely run by artists – and that place just crackled. NSCAD was the most exciting, dynamic learning environment I ever saw.

ArtsSmarts is a way of getting that energy and engagement and imagination into classrooms in every discipline. It isn’t just about the arts. It’s about the improvement of education in every field.

If you’re determined to do this, will you at least take a little business advice from your Artistic Conscience?

Possibly. What’s your advice?

Don’t take any losses on this. Allow yourself enough days to do it well, and charge it out at your full daily rate. Then you really can give your undivided attention to the novel when this project is over. Don’t let your enthusiasm for the project cloud your judgment. Remember the mistake you made at Centre Bras d’Or?

Yes. I was so committed to the dream of a Banff Centre in Cape Breton that I kept on working as Executive Director long after the money ran out. I lost $22,000 on it. It took years to recover financially.

All right. Against your better judgment, I’ll agree to one more postponement of the novel — but only on condition that you’re better-positioned to focus on your fiction when the project is over.

Seems fair. Done.

I want to see you for another checkup in three months. Make an appointment with the receptionist on your way out. Next!

Ah, Mr. Richler! I want to talk about your relationship with the National Post…