Keynote address, Mayors Luncheon for the Arts, 2019: Debbie Patterson

Photo: Leif Norman, This Magazine.

I love this event. It’s the only time all year that we get the whole gang together, share a meal. It’s kind of like an annual seasonal holiday, without all the family dysfunction. Just a gathering of a great community celebrating something that matters.

I love any celebration that has us eat together. There’s a reason why food is so central to all cultural practices. When we share food, we share pleasure while recognizing our shared vulnerability, our basic human neediness. When we share food, we acknowledge our connection to the land that feeds us. When we feast together we are part of a tradition that goes back, way back, on this land. So as we feast, let’s offer gratitude and respect to all the peoples who have feasted on this land, and from this land before us.

I want to tell a story. I was working in Gaboury-Lagimodiere Park, around this time of year. It’s just over in St. Boniface just across the river. So this park got its name from Marie Anne Gaboury and Jean Baptiste Lagimodiere because they used to live on that land. And as I’m sure you know, they were, among other things, the grandparents of Louis Riel. So I was walking down the path (this was a few years ago, obvs) thinking about Louis Riel, thinking about how, when he was a kid, he would probably go stay with his grandma and grandpa in the summertime, just to give his mom a damn break. And as I was walking down the path I was thinking “I wonder if he ever explored around here, if he walked on this ground like I’m walking now.” And then I found this asparagus growing wild. Did you know asparagus grows wild within the city limits? It does. Then I thought “I wonder if Louis Riel ever found wild asparagus growing here”. Because those root systems are strong, they last forever. So, I was sitting there eating my asparagus, there’s nothing like fresh picked, wild, raw asparagus, thinking about Louis Riel sitting there too eating his asparagus. And it’s like we were having this little picnic, both in the same place doing the same thing just separated by a few years. And now every time I eat asparagus, I think of Louis Riel. And now you will too.

Storytelling is another tradition that goes back, way back on this land. So I want to offer gratitude and respect to the original storytellers of this land.

I’m a theatre artist. And theatre is just an elaborate form of storytelling. But it’s also kind of like a shared feast, it’s a way of getting people together to share in an experience that’s nourishing and pleasurable and wouldn’t be nearly as good if you were all by yourself. It’s the best tool I know for building empathy in a divided and dangerous world.

There are three things I’m primarily concerned with in my artistic practice right now. They are disability justice, climate change, and reconciliation. And sometimes I think they’re all the same thing. Because at the heart of these three things, these three very different issues, is an unwillingness to engage with the way things actually are because were afraid to stop doing things the way we’ve been doing them.

Disability justice which is the area where I feel I can speak with the most authority, so this is where I’ll begin. And to be clear disability justice, is not about helping out the poor crippled people so that even though they’re useless they can feel like their lives aren’t a waste of time. That’s disability charity, and as we know, when there’s justice there’s no need for charity. Disability justice is about recognizing that all of us: the disabled and the temporarily able-bodied, have limitations that must be respected and none of us should be defined by our ability to contribute to the economy. Disability justice reminds us that our vulnerabilities unite us in a web of interdependence. It’s like the asparagus. Each little shoot may look like an individual plant, but it’s not: there’s this vast web of roots that is the lifeline for every little asparagus.

Ultimately disability justice demands that we recognize that we, all of us, have value beyond our ability to produce. Disability justice demands a disruption of capitalism because capitalism is what created the injustice in the first place.

Similarly, climate change is a refusal to recognize the limitations of the earth, and a belief that the land’s only value is its ability to produce. And we can place the blame for this situation on the same culprit: capitalism.

In his recent excellent article in the Free Press Niigaan Sinclair points out the finding from the report on the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that “directly connected Canada’s resource extraction projects to the exploitation of indigenous women and girls. They found an increased rate of violence in work camps near First Nations made up of mostly nonindigenous young men with little to no stake in the host indigenous community.” Which sounds suspiciously like the fur trade to me. I would argue that capitalism was the driving force behind colonization, it wasn’t about a nation building an empire, it was corporations accumulating wealth by sending in men to extract resources.

It seems like that’s a thing that happens everywhere. Eve Ensler, in her book “In The Body Of The World“ talks about mining projects in other parts of the world and how there is almost a causal relationship between the extraction of resources and the exploitation of women and girls. Logically, this makes no sense. But in my body, it makes total sense. Our bodies are the earth. It’s not a metaphor, it’s a fact. The earth becomes the asparagus, Louis Riel eats the asparagus, the asparagus becomes Louis Riel. We aren’t just in relationship with the earth, we are the earth. And when we exploit the earth, we exploit ourselves, our bodies, and each other.

And that exploitation is driven by capitalism; the devaluing of everything into its potential for making money.

So I’m here to argue that capitalism has jumped the shark, it needs to be cancelled. We’ve all lost interest. It’s time to recognize that continuous expansion is unsustainable in a finite world. It’s time to see the stock market for what it is: a fear-driven disaster run by jittery greedy psychopaths. Why are we letting that bunch of clowns control our prosperity?

We have to abolish the tyranny of the profit margin and embrace a new paradigm, a new measure of success.

So what does that have to do with the arts in Winnipeg right now? I’m so glad you asked.

Winnipeg is the centre of Turtle Island. This is the hub. When you drop a pebble in a pond the ripples expand outward. This is where change can be most significantly felt over the largest possible area. We can have an impact!

And why the arts? Smarty-pants Slavoj Zizek observed that it’s easier for us to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. How many Hollywood blockbusters have been made about the end of capitalism? And it seems that if we don’t imagine the end of capitalism, we won’t have to imagine the end of the world. So let’s not let the world end because of a failure of imagination. Not when we have a room full of artists right here whose job it is to imagine. Whose imaginations are ripped like the bodies of elite athletes.

Artists observe carefully “what actually is” and then we imagine what could be. If we’re going to build a new paradigm, a new way of living and working and sharing and taking care of each other, we need artists to imagine what that new world is going to look like.

Artists already know what it is to measure our success in terms that aren’t monetary. We don’t care about ticket sales as much as we care about form and content, or as I like to call them beauty and truth. We prize honesty, rigour and risk-taking. We know how to grapple with big issues and complex ideas. And all of us, when we are planning our programming or doing our artistic visioning, ask ourselves “What does the community need? What stories need to be told right here, right now? How can we serve our audience? Will this project help to build empathy in a dangerous and divided world?”

For years I’ve been coming to these luncheons and I hear people come up here and talk about the economic impact of the arts and make a case for supporting the arts on financial grounds. And yes, it’s true and it’s important. And arts organizations I have been connected to have benefited from business leaders serving as consultants helping us with our strategic planning and our sustainability. And that’s all great but what I’m here to say is we need some balance. I think as a society we need to stop making a business case for the arts and start making an arts case for business. So business leaders, I ask you, How are you going to evaluate what you do in terms of truth and beauty? How are you going to really, critically observe what actually is and imagine what could be? Do you regularly ask yourself how you could better serve your community without attaching market expansion as a measure of your success? How are you going to respond to the fact that, given the reality of climate change, sustainability and continuous expansion of profit margins are mutually exclusive?

Can you imagine if every sizable business in Winnipeg was required to have an artist in residence? If arts organizations benefit from the consultation of business people, surely this would be a plus. It wouldn’t cost that much. Most of us never aspired to much above the low income threshold. Throw in a bus pass and we’ll be laughing! Money is not how we measure our success nor is it the thing that motivates us. Let’s bring back the culture that supports company choirs! Start an improv troupe or a drawing club. Kings used to employ fools to keep them entertained and to tell them when they were being self-interested dicks. Imagine if every elected official and CEO employed a comedian. Fools offer the wisest council.

(to the Mayor) You could do this. You could just make it a thing. I dare you.
What about commissioning a monument to the victims of capitalism.

We need to change the way we do things. And the change is way bigger than plastic straws and electric cars. Because we can’t turn back the clock. We are already in a period of climate upheaval. And it’s going to get worse. Those of us who live in bodies that are self-destructing the way the planet is have knowledge about how to live within an unstoppable process of destruction. And I suspect that those of us who are survivors of genocide know what it means to live in a world that wants you dead. Artists know how to take the shit that’s been dished out to us and turn it into compost to grow something true and beautiful.

A few years after that little asparagus picnic with me, or maybe it was years before, Louis Riel said: “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”

This is the time and this is the place. This is the group of people who can make it happen. The alarm is ringing, don’t hit the snooze. Let’s wake up and get started.

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