Diversity and Equity in the Arts: Are we there yet?

Speech by Rahul Varma during the event Bridges of Hope on May 5, 2019 at Musée des maîtres et artisans du Québec.

I can only have this conversation by first acknowledging the context and the theme my colleagues Hanieh Ziaei and Nadine St-Louis have presented i.e. Exile - Peuples d'ici et d'ailleurs or People from Here and Elsewhere.

I speak based on four decades of struggle as a playwright, as an artist, as the co-founder and current artistic director of Teesri Duniya Theatre, and as the co-founder of alt.theatre magazine.  

I came to Canada from India. That was 43 years ago. India is an ancient civilization brimming with differences – 26 languages, 250 dialects, 29 provinces, and various territories, religions, races, ethnicities and cultures. While the social cohesion of India is injuriously threatened by today’s rising majoritarian Hindu nationalism – it is still the diversity that unites this vast country.

Diversity is as old a phenomenon as human existence. Differences do not create distance but rather, motivate equality – for it is differences that propel citizens to demand equality.  

While I applaud the growing awareness of cultural diversity in Canada, I cannot ignore diversity’s hidden counterpoint known as adversity, which manifests in the form of systemic barriers and societal tensions. My goal has been and continues to be the erasure of such adversities; we must make diversity a shared egalitarian concept. And it is with this backdrop that I will discuss – are we there yet?

Before starting any public program these days, we proclaim land-acknowledgment; we declare that we are on un-ceded Indigenous territory and that the Indigenous people are custodians of this land.  Acknowledgement exists, yes, but let’s look deeper…

I am frequently asked – “Where are you from?” This is a question that offends many of my compatriots and many people of color. However, I am not offended by this question for it gives me a chance to inform and introduce myself. 

So, I introduce myself as this: “I am a theatre maker who left my birth-country to find a new home in my adopted country, Canada.”

I am a Canadian passport holder and a proud Canadian citizen; however despite my citizenship, the above introduction assigns me a set of labels with political implications – labels such as exile, immigrant, transplanted, displaced, or what I prefer to call a new Canadian also known as culturally diverse. This is my reality – I am a Canadian but different – and different but equal.

And, as I have told you, I have no objection answering where I’m from. I do have an objection when the same is not asked of a white English or French man who also came from somewhere else.

In the 43 years that I have been here, I have yet to hear from a white Anglo-French European, “I am from England or France and I came to live in a land I was not born in,” or “I am a descendant of settlers who dispossessed original inhabitants.” There is still a fundamental misconception wherein many believe that they are discoverer or the founder of a nation that wasn’t their’s by birth. ….

 Historically, we have witnessed time and again the Western man claiming that which is not his, seizing the lands of others and declaring it a discovery or founding of a nation.

A big difference between me and them is that my stereotypical label is: an exile, an immigrant, a new Canadian; their label is:  settler or the founding fathers.  

So, it would be inappropriate if I didn’t acknowledge that I too am a settler, a settler immigrant turned a new Canadian, a culturally diverse citizen seeking equality and inclusion, not unfairness and exclusion.

In 1975, while applying for my immigration, a flyer at the Canadian High Commission said that Canada was built by European explorers through barter with Aboriginal inhabitants. But it wasn’t a barter of goods, it was an occupation – it was colonization. Even before arriving in Canada, I was made aware of historical distortions. Yet, I came with hopes to live and belong. I came here with one mouth to feed and two hands to work.  

And, I can tell you with certainty that I and culturally diverse people who number approximately 20% of the population are necessary for the survival of the political economy of this country.

So, what’s cultural diversity and what is its relationship with exile? Cultural diversity refers to people who trace their origins to Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, mixed race origins, or those who are distinguishable by the color of their skin and appearance.

A culturally diverse artist as an individual and cultural diversity as a political class are ancient and agonizing, theatrical and political, complicated and challenging. The journey of a culturally diverse artist is a cultural expedition that defines the needs and ideas of home and homeland. Their quest is to belong.  

Cultural diversity is associated with exilic conditions and the fight for various forms of economic recognition and the means for self-expression. Within the experience of cultural diversity one faces cultural loss, breaking with a past mythology, and the necessity of coming to terms with the values of an adoptive nation. It also provokes a state of happiness and pleasure, as well as a bittersweet taste of remembrance for one’s home, childhood, history and political consciousness. Political consciousness triggers artistic discoveries, enriches one’s capacity for creativity and innovation, and supports the reinvention of the self. Naturally enough, a culturally diverse artist sees him or herself as an artist gradually moving away from an ethno-cultural label to recognizing oneself as a representative of a certain profession. This artist is someone who chooses to continue his/her creative quest in his/her adopted country and embraces the linguistic, cultural and economic challenges of the new land not as obstacles but as stimuli for creativity and personal growth.  

And thus, culturally diverse art becomes an amalgamation of inherited cultural traditions and the traditions of the new world. Culturally diverse arts maintain the tension between continuity and difference.  They unleash a search for a professional homeland that transcends cultures and encourage the development of society as well as the development of the self.  A culturally diverse artist is not someone who speaks only to their own culture, but rather, someone who reaches three audiences:

1) The larger audiences of their adopted country, thus aiming their works at international and domestic audiences.

2) The diasporic audiences of their home-country’s community abroad;

3) Their former home-country’s audience.

Cultural diversity offers great scope and potential.

Yet, instead of tapping into this potential, we are forced to question if culturally diverse artists and citizens, the exiles from elsewhere and from within, have same opportunities as their dominant counterparts. Are they assigned the same value for their work?

I am not saying that their 10 $ should have more value – I am questioning whether they have the same opportunity to earn their 10 dollars as their dominant counterparts?

We have a long way to go.

Systemic inequity continues to exist despite the recognition of diversity, the acknowledgment of indigeneity, and the existence of equity policies.  Systemic discrimination cannot be disproven by merely pointing towards procedures, protocols, and selective statistics. It can, however, be proven through stark markers of inequity including patronage and material conditions afforded to certain groups over others.

Let’s not forget that support for arts and culture is a public policy, and therefore it must be distributed without prejudice across the entire cultural spectrum.

The most concrete marker of inequity is the superior patronage offered across disciplines to white Francophone and white Anglophone organizations in comparison to organizations made up of visible minorities and Indigenous communities.

When I arrived in this country and started my practice, the art-world was dominated by a euro-centric hegemony. Today, 45 years later, art-world is still dominated by a euro-centric hegemony producing three unequal art worlds along racial lines.

The first two of the three art-worlds are white Francophones and white Anglophones, both considered formal art-worlds. Their legitimacy corresponds to their history as the “founding-nations”. The 3rd art-world is that of the Other. This world consists of Aboriginal inhabitants and communities of colour. They have historically been regarded as the low-status and informal art-world.

There is an obvious discrepancy between the material conditions afforded to the different art-worlds for their creation, public visibility, frequency of productions and market value.  

While there have been reforms and many individual artists are finding support and voice, structural inequality continues to exist both ideologically and materially. As my good friend and filmmaker Ali Kazimi says, the system has learnt to plant a tree but prevents the cultivation of a forest necessary to show all colours, all varieties and all species.  

Despite multiculturalism as a state policy, art-councils continue to operate as a bi-cultural institution under the cover of bilingualism. The government and its institutions continue to practice regressive policies due to a fear of diluting the primacy of the dominant group.  We have seen this manifest through the Charter debate, reasonable accommodation, Quebec-style secularism, the Blackface controversy, the ban on face-covering, and most recently, through Bill 21.

These things are systemic. Why?  Let’s look into the example of Bill 21.

The first major decisions of the Legault government targeted immigrants, diversity, and exilic people. Its immigration policy is represented by the decline in the number of selected immigrants -- namely the cancellation of 18,000 cases (50,000 people!). Then, the deregulation of the taxi industry: most of the victims will be the immigrants who service the taxi in Montreal. And finally, here is the law on so-called "secularism" — the flagship measure of this new government that dares to exclude believers (who are mostly of immigrant origin) from the job market!

A key characteristic of an inclusive democracy is equality before the law and freedom of expression. Bill 21 infringes on these fundamental rights. It profiles Muslims, Jews and Sikhs based on religious attire. By barring visible minorities from public service jobs on the basis of their attire and religious adherence, Bill 21 will exclude them from fully participating in the economic and social life of Quebec and sanction discrimination by the state.

Far from being neutral, Bill 21 validates prejudice and stigmatizes racialized and ethnic minorities already burdened with overt discrimination.

We have made progress, but not enough to claim equality. To be equitable we need to eliminate fear and stereotypes and implement a marker that measures inequality.

In summation, terms such as integration, assimilation and accommodation are an inadequate solution to racism – the right terms are belonging, participating and contributing.  Therefore, it is imperative that cultural diversity is included in the national ideology of art patronage.

It is imperative that cultural equality is implemented in the arts.  And equality does not mean sameness – it means affording the same treatment to different cultures while always upholding quality.  


The event was coordinated in collaboration with Festival Accès Asie and Les Productions Feux Sacres Inc.

In collaboration with Festival Accès Asie, Musée des maîtres et artisans du Québec, and Les Productions Feux Sacres Inc.

Teesri Duniya