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Become a Cultural Navigator

Scholar Zainub Verjee shares her thoughts on systemic racism, diversity management, and Canada’s place in the arts

Zainub Verjee
Zainub Verjee is a Senior Fellow of Massey College and a McLaughlin College Fellow, as well as a widely admired public intellectual in Canada and soon-to-be SFU honorary degree recipient.

For the past four decades, Zainub Verjee has been a thought leader and a champion of the arts in Canada.

Now a Senior Fellow of Massey College and a McLaughlin College Fellow, she is widely admired as a public intellectual, writer, critic, cultural administrator, and artist.

Her commentaries and scholarly writings on Canadian Art and Culture, particularly as they pertain to constitutional matters and the political economy of culture, have shaped national debates.

Verjee is the laureate of the 2020 Governor General’s Visual and Media Arts Award for Outstanding Contribution. In addition, she’s been the recipient of honorary doctorates from OCAD University and NSCAD University.

She has held senior positions at the all levels of government including Department of Canadian Heritage, Canada Council for the Arts, City of Mississauga, International Art Gallery, Lisbon and Western Front, Vancouver. Currently, she is the executive director of Galeries Ontario/Ontario Galleries—the voice of Art Galleries and Art Museums in Canada. She is a mentor at Action Canada public policy program.

Pancouver recently asked Verjee 10 questions about arts and cultural issues and policies.

Pancouver: Let’s start by going back to 1989 and a landmark event in Vancouver: In Visible Colours—Women of Colour and Third World Women International Film and Video Festival. You co-founded this event with Lorraine Chan. Why was In Visible Colours so significant that people still speak about it today?

Zainub Verjee: That’s a good question! In Visible Colours was a partnership between Women In Focus and National Film Board, respectively represented by myself and Loraine Chan as co-founders and co-directors. It is not surprising that a foundational event like In Visible Colours continues to resonate at multiple levels and there is a noticeable increase in researching its valency and archives. In Visible Colours emerged amid contestations on nation building and the making of a global neoliberal order, as much as the socio-political upheaval of the late 1970s and 1980s that foregrounded race and gender and the politics of cultural difference.  Today its history is critical to our conversations as we continue with these debates whether we speak of feminist international relations or postcolonial aesthetics or power!

In Visible Colours has etched three defining markers: first, it foregrounded the histories of struggle of the women of colour and third world filmmakers; second, it brought forth the issue of race to the second wave of feminism; and third, it created a new alignment in the emergent global politics of third cinema.

Each of these three markers further left deep imprints on the subsequent set of events that it inspired in Canada in the 1990s.

More critically, In Visible Colours is about the contested history of the modernist aesthetic and the making of the contemporary condition as a historical marker for the decolonized world. In Visible Colours then raised the question, which is equally central to our times now: who is defining this marker?

Not just this question, but as the forthcoming film of Dr.  Marusya Bociurkiw’s Before #Metoo will pan the generation of feminist media activism that preceded the #MeToo movement—an underground media revolution that changed the world and how Feminist media impacted everything from Hollywood cinema to government policy.

In fact recently, there was a two-day conference titled In Visible Colours Remediated 2022 in Vancouver hosted by VIVO Media Arts in collaboration the Archive/Counter Archive project , and the Vulnerable Media Lab (Queen’s University) —as an inter-generational, multi-sited gathering. It was heartening to learn about the young research scholars that were digging into the archives of the In Visible Colours! Given its broader impetus to activate Canada’s Moving Image Heritage, as part of a seven-year research project, its intention is to historicize differently, to disrupt conventional national narratives, and to write difference into public accounts.

Pancouver: What did you learn from that experience?

ZV: Canada was in a flux! We had an agency to shape our country. We were making a claim. I was riding on the tailwinds of my introduction to the transformational power of arts and culture that emerged out of my work with the legendary Leon Pownall in 1977. He pioneered Institutional Theatre Productions as part of a venerable rehabilitation program at the Matsqui Institution, a federal medium-security prison facility in Abbotsford, British Columbia, which was part of partnership between University of Victoria and Simon Fraser University. That marked the beginning of my Canadian journey advocating the critical role of Art and Culture in our society, its role in the larger process of nation building.

Subsequently my work with Sara Diamond on BC Women’s Labour history project, Vancouver Status of Women and its periodical Kinesis were part of a continuum among other passionate engagements. Likewise, in the tumultuous times of the 1980s and 1990s, in the thick of Constitutional reform processes, in 1991, in the context of the twin failures of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, I worked closely with the late Senator Laurier LaPierre on the Citizen’s Forum on Canadian Unity. Involved thus, in the national debate on Canada’s constitutional arrangement, as a Citizens’ Forum Official Moderator for Vancouver, facilitating numerous public consultations.

These formative and diverse experiences offered a well-rounded understanding of art and culture, its constitutional arrangement, and broader policy architecture as to how art and culture functions in Canada. Recently I reflected in the form of a lecture at the Massey College at University of Toronto.

In Visible Colours was one critical moment of this journey and a deeply enriching experience that vindicated the belief in transformative power of art. For me In Visible Colours was essentially informed by the era’s worldwide push for decolonization and as I have often maintained: In Visible Colours was made, not found; it was historically produced and was historically productive.

After 1989’s critical success of In Visible Colours, I and Hank Bull organized Performance Art from Japan— a nine-city Canadian Tour featuring two young artists, exponents of the latest developments in Japanese performance art—the feminist performance artist, the late Ito Tari, who experimented with movement and sound, and the video, computer graphics and performance artist Haruo Higuma.

During the negotiations as part of the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement, I was working with the historically significant settlement of the Japanese community in Vancouver located around Powell Street (Japan Town as it was called then), aligned myself closely with the Japanese community through my work on the Board of the Powell Street (Japan Town) Festival in Vancouver. This Redress Agreement led to the Canadian Race Relations Foundation Act (1991).

In the same decade, while working with the late Jim Wong-Chu and Paul Wong towards establishing Asian Heritage Month in Canada, first I co-founded with Jim and others, the Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society (VAHMS) and later contributed to the nation-wide discourse to enable Senator Vivienne Poy to legislate it into an Act in 2001. This effort of mine was recently recognized by the VAHMS in their marking of silver jubilee in 2021.

Here I am alluding to the fact that In Visible Colours fostered big picture thinking; how to turn ideas into reality; how to listen; how to bring about change; how to question “settled thinking” and “recited truths”?

Zainub Verjee anchoring a Massey Dialogue on Women at Helm: Women and Leadership, a year later this discussion is relevant as we look at the set of events unfolding at our national institutions. 

Pancouver: You’ve written that systemic racism in the arts world is deeply entrenched. Why wasn’t this addressed in the 1990s by the mainstream leadership in the arts and cultural sector?

ZV: It was very much addressed! The 80s-90s were very contentious period that challenged the orthodoxies. But there was a systemic erasure of that history. A whole generation grew without any knowledge of these histories. It is not part of secondary or post-secondary education. You will not find any reference to even something as foundational as In Visible Colours (80s) or the collapse of Association of National Non-Profit Artists Centres (ANNPAC) in 90s?

In fact, it took a good three decades to talk about In Visible Colours in Canadian Art; forget about curriculum in educational institutions!  Another instance, Local Colour—an Artists Coalition for Local Colour, took on the Vancouver Art Gallery in a public meeting in raising the issue of exclusion of artists of colour from Canadian arts institutions who determine what gets defined as art and who gets defined as artists.

Further, the residue of erasure leads to re-inventing the wheel, wherein a generation is given the impression that nothing was done in preceding period.

Structural and institutional exclusion and marginalization have meant that people of colour and their work must always bear the weight and burdens of race and racism. The public role for artists of colour, and their work, carries this burden of representation regardless of audience. This burden of representations, a condition of the historical marginalization, often means that questions of representation, gender, and sexuality are brought forward in reductive ways which foreclose the possibility for critical dialogue.

At the core of these debates was modernity and its place and understanding in Canadian Art. That till this day defines the crisis in art in Canada.

The other undercurrent to this was the shift in the priorities––institutions were busy responding to the economic imperatives of the 400-page Report of the Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee of 1982 otherwise known as the Applebaum-Hébert Report! In my private conversations, many of those leaders who are still in the position of influence regret signing on those dotted lines to allow the economic priorities to dictate all.

Pancouver: You’ve also written that this sector practises “diversity management” nowadays. What do you mean by that term?

ZV: “Diversity Management” is not restricted to this sector but is pervasive and prevalent across all sectors. Let me explain what I mean by this term.

In the year 1987, the last two years of the Reagan Administration, a report came out from the RAND Corp, entitled WORKFORCE 2000. This report essentially predicted in 1987 that the challenges to the U.S. industry in terms of workforce will have to grapple with this new forthcoming globalization of the 21st century and need to diversify the labour force and consequentially how the U.S. manufacturing will be able to capture / dominate the global market.

One must keep in mind the context of this report: the 1980s. This decade saw the wave of decolonization—a number of nations gaining independence and saw waves of immigration.  The Trade and Tariff Act of 1984 was an important marker that led series of debates under the framework of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade Agreement. We had our debates on NAFTA for example!

By 1995, the world had completely transformed and arrived at what is known as the Washington Consensus, as well as saw the establishment of the World Trade Organization implying the institutionalization of the globalization of trade. I know I am simplifying a complex two-decades process, an era in which I was at the forefront of many of these contestations as Culture emerged on the Trade table.

It was in 1992, I still distinctly remember leading a workshop at an international forum on globalization and nationalism in Montreal on an invite from the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation at the First International Conference for Young Leaders! I must say here that a mainstay of the decolonization processes was a call for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). The debates began in the 1970s and lasted till the end of the Cold War.

These debates were encapsulated under the rubric of the MacBride Commission at UNESCO. The MacBride Commission in its final report titled Many Voices, One World, summarized the multitude of research papers that underwrote the call for a new world order. The fate of the report and unprecedented opposition by the Western powers especially the United States demonstrated how hard it is to give “others” voice. One of the impacts of this heavy-handedness in crushing even the voicing of an alternative and differently imagined world and its history discouraged further struggles around these issues at the United Nations.

It is interesting to note that the Workforce 2000 Report findings were debunked after a decade of its publication, but its import was picked up and institutionalized by the Management discourse in the U.S.0 academia that produced a particular method of corporate practices. These practices, though, focused on the labour; it was deeply embedded in productivity and market.

It is here I want to draw your attention to an important fact:  that labour was not addressing issues of equality or affirmative action agendas. It was addressing the market! This led to a paradox. The paradox was that diversity was removed from the idea of equality while it offered an equivalence to the notion of productivity.

This is a very important and nuanced point that sits at the premise of this idea of diversity management.

To address the broader policy shifts in Trade, we began working in 1995 for the New International Instrument on Cultural Diversity. It took us more than a decade to see the promulgation of UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity in 2001, and towards its eventual adoption in 2005.

It is a complex area of endeavour, indeed!

Pancouver: If institutions are practising diversity management, how is that manifested in the division of labour in the cultural sector?

ZV: This is a very good question and worth a thesis! Of course, here we are not talking of a simple division of labour.  Instead of giving you an expansive response, perhaps, a tangential way to reply to your question is to understand artistic labour, questions of waged work and what is the place of art in current re-assessment of work. However, I will underline the fact that the contemporary emphasis on artistic activity as work, draws its strength from the 1970s feminist critique of the politics of work which rightfully relocated the domain of work beyond factory to domestic realm—the housework.  Here I am alluding to Silva Federicis’ landmark publication Wages Against Housework (1974).

It is not surprising then, today, the world of labour looks a lot like the way art labour has looked for decades!

Pancouver: How should Indigenous, Black, and racialized cultural workers respond when confronted with this reality in the cities in which they live? Should they be demanding racial-equity targets, for example?

ZV: Well, that seems to be a simple, rather simplistic way of putting it. That’s not the way! Let me give you a counter example to illustrate my point. If all the television anchors/reporters of our Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) were to be indigenous, Black and racialized, would that make any change to the news value of CBC? The power remains in that abstract idea of news value.

The issue is not representation but some fundamental rethinking about this locus of power.

We are already seeing the difficult journey we need to endure with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report.

Zainub Verjee with Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez.
Zainub Verjee with Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez.

Pancouver: The cultural sector has different silos. Dance, visual arts, theatre, film, and music are a few examples. There are also different funding bodies, ranging from Telefilm Canada to the National Film Board to the Canada Council for the Arts, and their provincial counterparts. Are any of these areas doing better in addressing systemic racism? And if so, what can policymakers learn from that?

ZV: Along with the silos we have bubbles within. Disciplinary discourses and history do influence each of these silos that you identified. We already talked about film for instance while discussing In Visible Colours. Likewise Zarqa Nawaz’s Little Mosque on the Prairie almost reinvented the Canadian Sit-Com TV industry.

We have made immense progress in theatre, music, visual arts, and dance but we still see three steps forward, one-and-half-step backwards approach. We have a long way to go before we see impact of our affirmative actions and policy outcomes.

Let me give you an example from across the pond. There is a kerfuffle in the United Kingdom, as Arts Council of England (ACE), in an explicit policy direction under Leveling Up, ACE moved funding from central London towards other smaller groups that were “more representative” both in terms of diversity and geography. This is an apparent move to improve diversity in the arts and building a representative industry. But in the process, it wielded the axe on the bigger organizations like English National Opera!

It is a fragile ecosystem! What we are seeing is how diversity management has been instrumentalized. We see this for example Art for social change projects that are activated within a philanthropic context to allow for donors (primarily white) funding projects of racialized, Indigenous, Black artists. I know business and finance world are complex and this is not about some piety! The last decade’s social justice agenda is co-opted into this practice.

An extension of this is also manifested in the broader Festivalization of art and culture and how it is getting further couched in a set of macro policy shifts leading to an emergence of what I term the SET Complex (Sports-Entertainment- Tourism). This is where the verticals of the policy delivery mechanism meet the location imperative!

This is the significant shift that we are observing now. I have spoken on this at different places.

Pancouver: What is the cost to Canada, culturally and economically, when systemic racism
continues to fester within the arts world?

ZV: I wish I could give you a quick number in response! The fact is that such a number does not exist given the low priority of research in this area.

Though, myriad research suggests that more economically inclusive organizations, cities, and societies tend to be more resilient and more prosperous. Despite allied knowledge that we have gathered, it is one area that is at the bottom of economists’ priorities. It is seldom to come across an economist working racial inequality or structural racism. Of course, I remember the famous paper, Economics of Discrimination, one of the earliest essay by Gary Becker, a ’92 Nobel Laureate, who wrote on the impact of discrimination in reducing real income for both its target and perpetrator.

I believe we have someone like Professor Lorne Foster at York University who is pursuing research in the political economy of racism.

Yet, we have to keep our heads up and build on the good work accomplished. We have to endeavour to meet the Agenda 30 targets!

Pancouver: We’ve reached the 50th anniversary of a large number of Ismaili Muslims coming to Canada to build a new life. As you look back on these five decades and see where Canada is today, what goes through your mind?

ZV: Yes, this year marked the 50th anniversary of the South Asian expulsion from Uganda!

I recently spoke at a conference at the Carleton University on the role of cookbooks, recipes and women in settlement. Often settlement is only perceived and study in its economic imperatives. I was interested to foreground the affective factor in settlement and significantly, women’s labour in these processes that needs to be studied.

Welcoming refugees, helping them settle in and building their new lives, has been a long-cherished tradition of Canada. As was with the South Asian expulsion from Uganda, or the Syrians or the Afghans and more recently with the Ukrainians!!

As I look back on these five decades, with great humility, I can say this country made and shaped me! It is an interesting fact that of those five decades I have spent the first 25 years in British Columbia and the later 25 years in Ontario and have been fortunate to travel coast to coast to coast and including interior and rural parts.  I have spent time talking to people and reading to help me develop a good sense of the nation, its people and the land.

When I began my life at the Simon Fraser University, it was then known as the “Berkeley North”, a young university and a radical one!  The seventies were turbulent period with the overflow draft-dodgers into Canada, especially in Vancouver and their contributions to the building robust civil society in Canada. Likewise, the Chilean women refugees arriving in Vancouver after the 1973 Chilean coup d’état –– a military coup in Chile –– contributed to the forces of second wave of feminism as it received impetus from the failure of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (1967) to address the concerns raised by the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. Perhaps that shall be the subject of my memoir, as I begun to put my thoughts together.

Canada birthed many progressive ideas during these tumultuous years—women studies, women labour movement, prison reform movement, prison theatre, and other arts-based initiatives. New institutions were built, and policies developed. The world was changing fast and “history was coming to an end” as Francis Fukuyama famously annotated the times. Many new international instruments pertaining to culture were being signed. Institutions were being built. I was fortunate to be deeply involved in these processes and make contributions across sectors.

As we moved into the 21st century, and with 9/11 and subsequent growth of the Islamophobia cottage industry, we got a bit derailed. Priorities shifted. We had a new cultural pied piper by the name of Richard Florida who was followed by every mayor and politician in this country at their own peril. There were shifts in policy language and its vocabulary implied something different. The inter-generational gap widened.

Therefore, today’s growth in populism is not surprising and we have to realize the ambivalence the very term posits—populism takes cover in the shadow of Democracy! This impacts on various fronts—decolonization to climate urgencies. In a way, its déjà vu! Today, I am more energized and committed to building the next generation leadership in this country!

I feel Canada has yet to realize its ambition, but I retain my commitment to our country. Canada remains a beacon of hope in the turbulent world.

Zainub Verjee and Justin Trudeau
Zainub Verjee and Justin Trudeau chatted at the National Culture Summit about arts policies.

Pancouver: If you could sit down with the prime minister and have a frank discussion, what would you tell him?

ZV: Well recently I had an opportunity to be with the prime minister at the National Culture Summit where we were able to exchange few thoughts.

But a good sit-down meeting will be more conducive to address the bigger picture as much as the immediate urgencies of the present.

Primarily I would like to focus on three points: One, the imperative to revamp the ’70s policy architecture as pertaining to the Arts & Culture Sector. The urgency of upgrading policy infrastructure is something that has been collectively raised—be it the Competition Act or Museum Policy!

Two, foregrounding the material conditions of artists—precarity, insecure housing, poverty, unacceptable wages and working conditions.

Three, to underline art as a public good as central to the policy armature pertaining to art and culture and throw light on the fact that cultural communities and artists are central to sustaining democracies. To paraphrase my friend Guillermo Gómez-Peña, academics and policy folks have binoculars, artists have radars. Trust the artist as we build a better tomorrow.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.