Roch Carrier (Interview)

Two years ago, on the same day that he finished the manuscript of a new novel, Petit Homme Tornade (Little Man Tornado), author Roch Carrier received a call from Ottawa asking him to become the director of the Canada Council. Telling himself that "it was time to give back to the system," he agreed.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 22, 1996

Two years ago, on the same day that he finished the manuscript of a new novel, Petit Homme Tornade (Little Man Tornado), author Roch Carrier received a call from Ottawa asking him to become the director of the Canada Council. Telling himself that "it was time to give back to the system," he agreed.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on April 22, 1996


Two years ago, on the same day that he finished the manuscript of a new novel, Petit Homme Tornade (Little Man Tornado), author Roch Carrier received a call from Ottawa asking him to become the director of the Canada Council. Telling himself that "it was time to give back to the system," he agreed. Since June, 1994, the 58-year-old Montrealer - best known for his novel La Guerre, Yes Sir! (1968) and the beloved children's story "The Hockey Sweater" (1979) - has presided over a difficult period in the funding body's four-decade history. With its budget cut to $91 million from a 1992 high of $108 million, the agency has slashed administration costs and reduced funding to several institutions and programs. Carrier spoke to Maclean's Associate Entertainment Editor Diane Turbide about the future of the arts:

Maclean's: As a prolific writer, you have benefited from Canada Council programs in the past. How different is it for a young writer today?

Carrier: I think it was easier when I started. In those days we were not many, and there was plenty of money. When I was appointed, I asked to see my file. I received $15,000 over eight different grants. That money helped me do a lot of things that I would not have done otherwise. And now when I see how difficult it is to provide financial support to emerging artists, I feel very sad. We are not taking care of our future. A country's best asset is talent, it's the only asset.

Maclean's: Some critics argue that all arts activities should be self-supporting in this country. What is your response?

Carrier: I'm not a whiner. I take a realistic, positive approach. There are sectors in the arts working well according to market forces. But there's another side that needs support - the kind that is being given in England, France, Austria, Korea. During the height of Mexico's economic crisis, they built a huge arts centre with theatres, art schools, studios, etc. I asked the official who was responsible, 'What was the argument you used to persuade the government to undertake this expense at this time?' And he drew himself up and said: 'Sir, we are Mexican and we are proud of our culture.' Japan has said it will double its budget for culture by the year 2000. When I was there last month as a guest of the government, I asked my hosts, 'What are your magical arguments?' He said: 'First, we want to create jobs because we have an unemployment problem. And in a few years, Japan will export culture the way it now exports technology and cars.' We should take note of that. As well, the Japanese have come to realize that economic affluence is not enough for the well-being of their society. They have to go back to the source to discover what it is to be Japanese. They want to do that by getting back to their culture. The people telling me this were not intellectuals and poets but guys dressed in suits - businessmen, managers, government officials. They said this with conviction, and it wasn't to impress the visiting foreigner.

Maclean's: If culture makes a large contribution to the economy - an estimated $16 billion in 1992-1993 - then why do cuts continue?

Carrier: When we point out that the arts create jobs and bring a lot of money into the system, the answer is, 'Oh, so you're making a lot of money, so why do you need any support?' We explain that it's a continuum, that there is a whole ecology to it. Someone at a particular moment in his career can support himself, but at the beginning that artist needs support. Mention any artist - Carol Shields, Robert Lepage, Michael Ondaatje, Atom Egoyan - and the Canada Council has played a role at some point. Part of my job is to teach politicians how much good this small amount of money is doing to the country. So I tell them they can see the benefit of Council money in their own local areas. A small group of artists can bring life to a dying area. There have been incredible changes in Moncton, N.B., for example. It's partly due to the university, but also to a vibrant group of artists. They turned an old school into a dynamic arts centre, and it has spawned bookstores, restaurants, etc. It's the same in parts of Quebec City.

Maclean's: In 1994-1995, the Council dispensed $81 million across Canada - 4,200 grants out of 14,000 applications. Has the country's cultural vigor meant that you are increasingly unable to satisfy the demands you've developed?

Carrier: Yes, that's one of our biggest challenges. In 1957, there were probably three professional theatres; now there are about 200. In '57, it was possible to know personally every writer in Canada, and to read each new book. Now, we have writers, dancers, musicians and playwrights known internationally. But no, the budget has not kept up with demand.

Maclean's: You have said that if government fails in its support of the arts, that would be a lost opportunity of major dimensions. What is at stake?

Carrier: We've built glorious organizations, the best in the world. But we've always kept them on the verge of bankruptcy. From year to year, they've had to beg for their budget, they've been limited in their vision by year-to-year funding. They were just doing what was absolutely essential, without fostering the next generation. On top of that, there is a lack of arts education in the schools. So our national treasures are in a precarious situation. Our obsession with deficit-cutting is destroying what has been built over the past 40 years. There is a real danger of losing not only individuals but also groups, because they will find better conditions elsewhere. And people will then say, 'Oh look, our people are doing very well because they're working in the States or in Europe.' That's fine, but it will be a shame that they could not perform in their own country.

Maclean's: What is being done about improving arts awareness in general?

Carrier: Politicians will not be sensitized to the issue unless they hear the voice of the voter. When I was very young, I asked the mayor of a small town, 'How come you're always there to open a hockey game but you never attend a cultural event?' And he told me, 'When I open a hockey game, there's a photographer there, and my picture is on the front page of the newspaper.' That's why I'm always telling artists to please explain what they're doing. To simply do the thing is not enough any more. You have to invite the local MPs, you have to talk to them.

Maclean's: Will Heritage Minister Sheila Copps protect arts funding?

Carrier: Ms. Copps is a very experienced politician, and I think she'll be able to get what she wants. I believe, perhaps naïvely, that the most difficult times are behind us.

Maclean's: What do you do when corporate support to the arts has decreased even while corporate profits are up?

Carrier: Recently, a prominent businessman told me that his company was a big supporter of the arts. He put in the annual report a picture of one of the artists they sponsored. The next day, he said, the head of the union complained that if the company could support artists it could afford better conditions for its employees. [Compare] that to the Nippon Steel Foundation, Japan's biggest steel producer. It built a concert hall with two halls, one for traditional music, another for classical. The Nippon sales department sells the tickets, they sign the contracts, they do the promotion. Why? Because, they tell me, 'We have to do something for the country, and we believe in Japanese talent.' I tell that story as often as I can.

Maclean's: What has this job given you?

Carrier: I'm learning a lot about the arts and the regions. I'm meeting wonderful people. That started when I was a younger writer. Thanks to the Council's readings program, I met individuals all over the country. Then, suddenly, individuals were a couple, then the couple had a child, then the child grew up, and the children form new couples and have children. [Laughing] So now I know three generations of people in Newfoundland, in Western Canada, all over. And without that, without that, I would be where? I'd be somewhere in Quebec, probably a separatist, and I would be completely ignorant about this country.

Maclean's: Does the Council have a mandate to promote national unity?

Carrier: No it does not. But we can't talk unity in this country without talking about diversity. The Council supported the expression of that - nobody was forced to be what she or he was not. So helping Canada to find its voice - that is a great contribution to national unity. But national unity does not mean uniformity. Unity is diversity that is accepted by everybody.

Maclean's: Are you optimistic about the future of the arts?

Carrier: Yes. You don't go into the arts if you're pessimistic. I used to visit a lot of schools. I'd always tell the kids that there would be no planes today if there hadn't been somebody, somewhere, who was dreaming of flying. It always starts from a dream. And artists are the ones who are dreaming. We need dreams - in the arts, in business and politics. Because dreams are vision, and people need a vision.

Maclean's April 22, 1996


Selected Works of
Roch Carrier (Interview)