Her Excellency the Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson
Speech on the Occasion of the Presentation of the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards
Rideau Hall, Friday, November 5, 2004
It's a great pleasure to welcome you all here tonight to be part of the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards, honouring some of Canada's greatest artists. I'm particularly happy because you're here at Rideau Hall, which in its own modest way has contributed to the performing arts in Canada. The arch that you can see at the rear of this Ballroom was indeed, in the time of Lord and Lady Dufferin and for a while afterwards, the proscenium for a stage that was often used for plays and operettas – such things as "The Happy Woodcutter's Daughter" – in both French and English. Fine Canadian artists still perform here.
These eight new recipients have not only made life in Canada more zestful and bright – they have also deepened life's meaning and increased our esteem for it. Great performers touch us profoundly as human beings. They immerse us in the very ebb and flow of life. They amplify our senses and they heighten our perceptions, so much so that we can come to feel that we are in the song, that we are part of the emotion, part of the dance.
Our artists are distinctive—they are stitched into the fabric of Canadian life, with its two main languages and its many cultures. They are part of us. As the poet David Helwig said: "To have a country is to have / a way to encounter history in the streets / of a burning city whose fire is our own."
That creative fire, that raging history, burns in all the laureates whom we honour tonight, and it has been transmitted to us, their audiences. It gives us something of beauty which we might never find or make for ourselves, no matter how much travelling, shopping or working out we submit ourselves to. They are the prophets and the magicians. They let us know that "we are the music while the music lasts", though they are the ones who create it. It is their gift, their own kind of music that, in the words of poet Émile Martel, "should be allowed to gather in and around the doorways of warehouses, extraordinary vibrations that we can always capture later on, in moments of silence."
We can feel those vibrations long after the performance is over. Those that we honour tonight have helped to bring the ecstatic, the divine, the other-worldly, the funny, into our sometimes very ordinary lives. They transform the everyday into a thing of delight, even if only by a little laughter or a sweet song.
Great performance is not just about amusement, although we can be amused by it. It is not just about entertainment, although we'll often be entertained. Great performance accepts our deepest human needs and emotions, and helps us to release and realize them in acceptable and civilized ways. The Greeks knew this, of course. In the ancient world, theatre was a religious experience. It was mind-altering—audiences were quite literally entranced, and the rituals of performance allowed them to work out their strongest desires and deepest needs. Reading Aristotle's accounts of "purging" and "catharsis" of the emotions is actually quite shocking: we realize the intensity with which human beings can respond to performance, and thereby channel what could destroy and maim them.
Yes, artists can keep us from going crazy, from tearing ourselves apart and from doing those things which frighten the horses. They water our spirits when we feel lost in deserts of our own design. I believe this is a kind of compulsion for them. Artists often say that they had no choice, really, that they had to do this thing that has directed their lives. These are multi-faceted, talented people who could have done a lot of other things. Jean-Louis Roux studied medicine, and Joseph Rouleau political science. Eric Till began by writing radio copy and record notes. Gordon Pinsent was a soldier in the Royal Canadian Regiment for three years – and a dance instructor. Kate McGarrigle wanted to be an engineer, and Anna a painter. Veronica Tennant, of course, we know came dancing out onto the delivery table, already in point shoes!
But they all chose to heed a call that we understand as human beings: to make music; to make believe; to sing and move and shape what we have seen, known, and loved. This is the command that a true artist sooner or later obeys, while many of us try to avoid the sacrifices and the struggle that are required. Because they challenge our smugness and affirm what we may only dimly grasp to be true, we need our artists. We need our artists more, I think, than they need our applause.
Honorees, I know so many of you personally that to be able, as Governor General, to present you with these medals is a deeply moving experience for me.
Those who engage themselves in any art bring a special love and commitment to it. Constance Pathy, the winner of the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism, could have used her talents in many ways. She's a lawyer and an accomplished musician in her own right. But for years, she has provided numerous arts organizations with her guidance. This sort of voluntarism is at the foundation of much of the arts infrastructure of our country. I am very pleased that Gerda Hnatyshyn, Ray's wife, graciously accepted our invitation to present this award tonight.
And then there's Rick Mercer. He seems to know more about us than we know about ourselves or that we would ever tell. And what he doesn't know, he gets us to reveal. So I'm not telling him anything. And what he's guessed about me is not true. At least, it's not true the way he thinks it's true. Rick, maybe we'll get together and talk about that another time. Weren't we supposed to go to Mark's Work Wearhouse together to choose a wardrobe? Actually, I've been there already, and to Value Village, so we'll have to think of another place for a date.
When I started at the CBC, Eric Till was already a great director of televised performances of the National and Royal Winnipeg Ballets, who did series such as The National Dream and Glenn Gould – A Portrait, as well as productions like Bethune. To me, he has never had the kind of recognition that is his due and I'm so happy to be able to give it to him tonight. He has worked with Veronica, with Gordon, with the best artists and technicians here and abroad. He is Canadian television and film's quiet genius, and perhaps after tonight this will not be such a secret.
Now Veronica is the first person that I interviewed in 1965 for one of the opening shows of my series Take Thirty. She was barely 18 years old and was making her debut as Juliet. She was a star beginning to shoot across the heavens of dance, and we are so fortunate that her light remained constant for so long. And now she continues to bring dance to a wide audience through her writing and producing of films. She has gained a very rare level of affection in our hearts, and tonight only adds to her many honours.
I have worked with Jean-Louis Roux for four and a half years since I became Governor General and he was Chairman of the Canada Council. But of course, I loved him from my teenaged years watching the Plouffe family on television. He was the Plouffe son that I had a crush on. He played Ovide, the failed priest. When I finally met him, some twenty-five years later, he looked the same. For all the work that he has done in building and sustaining some of our most beloved cultural institutions, I am especially delighted to think that, in a few weeks, I will see him again in Kafka's Le Procès, staged by François Girard.
Joseph Rouleau is one of that amazing group of Canadian opera singers who have made, and are making, major impressions in the great concert halls of the world. Along with his distinguished international career alongside such as Callas, Domingo, and Pavarotti, he has also been an outstanding teacher and upholder of musical opportunity here in Canada, especially as professor emeritus at UQAM and with Jeunesses musicales du Canada.
And Gordon. Now, I can't say he's my favourite Newfoundlander because there are so many wonderful Newfoundlanders I have as my friends. (Besides, Rick is here!) But he has always been a glorious performer – versatile, humane, warm, and a consummate professional. Performing, directing, writing – but I guess I'll always think of you, Gordon, as Quentin Durgens, M.P., the idealistic young politician in the first political drama ever done by the CBC. To me, all idealistic politicians should look just like Gordon Pinsent, then and now.
I did an hour-long documentary on Kate and Anna McGarrigle many years ago, at a time when "Heart Like a Wheel" was making a major impact on our musical imaginations. They are unique in their ability to produce work that blends English and French, as well as deep musical traditions with personal innovation. Not to mention that they are at the centre of a musical dynasty, best heard on their lovely family album, The McGarrigle Hour.
In honouring all of these artists tonight, we are saying out loud the inner message of all the arts. We are made to move, to wonder, to sing, to be. We can come just a little closer, because of them, to living a whole life, a profound life, one aimed at more than mere survival. By their example and by their gifts, they inspire us to our fullest humanity. For this and for all the pleasures that we have known in their company, we are hugely grateful.
To tonight's honorees, I hope that coming to Rideau Hall – the national house – feels like a homecoming. Our Canadian family knows and loves what you have given. And may this evening also act as an invitation for all of us to continue to support and embrace the arts, to nourish our own creativity and that of everyone in the communities where we live.
One of the most wonderful things about these awards is that these performing artists know how to take a bow! It is quite miraculous. I once talked to Veronica and to Karen about that, because I had just returned from seeing Maya Plisetskaya in the Soviet Union take 27 bows. It's wonderful to be able to take a bow, giving us the opportunity to thank you in this way.
Last week I was in Italy for the 60th anniversary of the Italian Campaign during the Second World War. It went on for a year and a half. Canada fielded about 100,000 soldiers. We lost nearly 6000 who are buried there, and 20,000 were wounded. We commemorated those events with a group of veterans, met the mayors of the villages, and went to the cemeteries in Cassino, Rimini, Ortona. While looking at the places where the battles had been fought, one could not help but think, "What was this for? What was this all for?" If you say simply that it had no meaning, you are really saying that those lives did not have meaning. And those lives had meaning and dignity, whether they came from a small town, whether they were with The Hastings and Prince Edward County Regiment, whether they were Polish, English, or Canadian; all of those lives had meaning because they were trying to preserve something which would make it possible for us to freely celebrate as we are tonight.
We are celebrating creativity. We are celebrating beauty. We are celebrating civilization. That's what you have done and made for us, and that's what it all means in the larger context of our lives together, not only in Canada but all over the world.