The force of culture : Vincent Massey and Canadian sovereignty




Finlay, Karen A.

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In Canada, a country defined by a certain cultural reticence, Vincent Massey (1887–1967) was that remarkable entity, a champion of culture. Through a wide range of initiatives in the arts and education, he expressed his determination to frame a cultural model of Canada. Earlier conceptions of the country's make-up had tended to be narratives about the march from colony to self-government, or were predicated on environmental and economic factors. On the contrary, Massey held that its spiritual foundations, traditions, values, and aspirations rendered Canada a community and a nation. True Canadian sovereignty meant developing a “fully-rounded national life”. He argued for the force of culture over what he called the force of geography. The cultural model that Massey advanced had particular features. Its bedrock was a faith in education, specifically, a liberal arts education, as distinct from a strictly technical or professional training. Culture and education were virtual synonyms in early twentieth century Canada. It was widely understood that the beneficiary of a liberal arts training exhibited independence of mind, served excellence over self-interest, displayed flexibility and tolerance, and, in turn, contributed to societal harmony. Culture, in this sense, was the source of community. Virtually inseparable from culture was citizenship; the idea of character, the goal of a liberal arts education, was central to both. Individual character, which was esteemed for its allegiance to the greater good, and, perhaps paradoxically, its resistance to conformity and standardization, was analogized with “national character and citizenship”, a refrain of the 1920s. To speak of national character was not only to affirm the moral nature of Canada's citizenry, but to prize its uniqueness and diversity in the face of the forces of cultural homogenization seen to be emanating from the United States. Culture was the cultivation of citizenship, and, as such, the foundation of national sovereignty. The fine arts, slow to gain acceptance in Canada generally, only belatedly secured a foothold in this scheme. Steeped in Methodism, Massey never adopted an art-for-arts-sake doctrine. He came to understand, however, that the arts, without being moralizing, could serve a moral agenda: the constructing of national community. In this, they, too, were agents of culture. Influenced by British models of state-supported art, Massey increasingly aligned culture with the federal government, but distinguished firmly between state control and state intervention. The substitution of excellence and diversity as new moral imperatives in the construction of the state, in place of authority and political exigency, was the key to his recommendation of government-supported culture and art (Massey Report, 1951). The principle he sought to honour, pertaining deeply to the nature of humanism in Canada, was community without uniformity.



Massey, Vincent, Statesmen, Canada