Politics and culture at the 2015 Canada Winter Games

👤Rob Budde 🕔Mar 27, 2015

How does one deal with corporations with questionable ethics and their sponsorship pitches to support arts and culture? No matter what, it is an awkward but important decision.

Prince George’s Canada Winter Games were an unmitigated success: the city put on a great show both in the sporting venues (except speed skating but, you know, that climate change thing) and the concert series. Besides the Lheidli T’enneh Pavilion and the nation’s fabulous, game-changing (pardon the pun) involvement, perhaps the biggest story was the ways in which local musicians dealt with the games’ corporate politics.

Both Northern Gateway and TransCanada were official sponsors. Corporations contribute to events like these for a number of reasons, one of which is to have a good social conscience and give back to the community where they are making their money. Other motivations include tax breaks and public relations in order to get social licence: a phrase that occurs most often when it is clear that a business project does not have it.

Should the Canada Games organizers have taken pipeline money? I wouldn’t have. As a message that these companies’ plans are not in the best long-term interests of this community, which is evidenced by many polls and reviews, I would not have associated the games with their logos.

So, the next question is, what if as an artist or musician you are asked to participate in an event sponsored by corporations of this kind? Two local acts had such a quandary to consider. Raghu Lokanathan chose to not participate. In a Prince George Citizen letter he explains that, “I’m very much opposed to the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline project and don’t wish to play any event associated with Enbridge.” His rejection of the invite is a political message and he felt so strongly about the issue that he would sacrifice the career advancement the games exposure would have given him. I admire and applaud his decision.

Black Spruce Bog, a local punkabilly gypsy-jazz rootsy folky bluegrass ensemble, chose another response to the problem. They accepted the invitation and then, on stage, two members wrote, “Love This Land!” and “Food Not Dams” on their guitars. In the same performance, the other two members wore black anti-Enbridge T-shirts. In a second performance, two members of Black Spruce Bog wore “Stop Harper” shirts.

In an open letter to their fans, the band explained, “We cannot participate in such a grand ceremony without acknowledging that two of its major financial sponsors (Enbridge and TransCanada) are proposing to put the very landbase we are celebrating at immense risk. This is our statement of support—support for the lands of northern British Columbia, for the people who work the lands and for the people who live in these communities. These are the people who should be making the decisions about our natural resources. We play our music for them.” As well, they contributed a portion of their Canada Games earnings to the Unist’ot’en Camp, “a group standing on the front lines of resistance against all proposed oil and gas expansion in BC.” I admire and applaud their decision.

Such is the nature of art: Creative expression works within the very structures of thought and institutions that it actively resists. It is the job of the artist to call attention to the issues of everyday living and stage them for us to see in a new way.