From the impossible to the imperative.

With only 8 months to develop and launch a Cultural Policy for the Province of Alberta, building coalitions, developing the value proposition and creating a unique communications strategy were the keys to delivery.

We got it through, with funding and broad stakeholder support. As a bonus, the Government established a stand-alone Ministry of Culture and Community Spirit. 

It was unclear, in 2007, when I accepted the opportunity to develop and implement a cultural policy for the Province of Alberta, whether there had ever been one. Perhaps in the 70’s under Premier Peter Lougheed when he created the first Department of Culture under Minister Horst Schmidt. How things had atrophied for the arts and culture since then, both in terms of funding and appetite at the Cabinet level. If Alberta Ballet was an oxymoron, Alberta Cultural Policy was a non sequitur. This new effort was being pushed by the Premier, Ed Stelmach, and it was obvious within the first few weeks that creating the policy would not be the challenge, selling it to the decision makers and the arts community would. The former saw arts and culture as a “frill”, the latter had little trust in a Conservative government that had been in power for over 30 years. And so I asked myself, what would an artist do right now? Design within constraints and leverage all possible assets.

I accepted the contract in September and reported to my post on the 11th floor of a government building in downtown Edmonton. The space was otherwise empty, a dry, stark box of offices housing a few over-worked staff who tried to help me with the limited resources available. The Assistant Deputy Minister to whom I reported, I quickly learned, was a box checker with no genuine interest in moving this along. Had she been, all of the research and work undertaken over the last two years would have already resulted in a policy. It was, after all, a priority for this Premier, as clearly outlined in his mandate letter. One blessing was in the competent and arts-friendly Deputy Minister Fay Orr, and there I learned, how to finesse my way through the bureaucracy to work directly with her without getting myself fired.

Looking back, there were four keys to deliveringThe Spirit of Alberta: Alberta’s Cultural Policy  which continues to provide a framework for Alberta’s decision-making related to the support, growth and development of culture:

  • A policy that reflected the spirit of the province
  • Cabinet Approval
  • Funding from treasury
  • Buy-in from the arts community

For those of us who live in this province and work in the arts, it’s difficult to describe our plight. Alberta is a fusion of fundamental Canadian values of inclusivity, community spirit, opportunity for all blended with a fiercely independent mindset led by two economic drivers, agriculture and oil and gas, predominantly male dominated. And there is a long and complicated relationship between Edmonton, the province’s capital city and cultural centre and Calgary, the financial and business hub. All that to say, we haven’t managed to settle on an identity that satisfies all.

And to the dismay of those who felt that any policy that was not specifically and uniquely dedicated to the arts signaled a cop out, it was clear that to gain acceptance at both the government and community levels, the policy necessitated a broader definition to include culture and cultural industries. Based on the extensive research that had been conducted by the department, it would be designed around four important keystones: Access, Capacity, Excellence and Cultural Industry.

Back to the arts. For decades, we’ve made miracles out of peanuts, so ensuring that there was funding for this new cultural policy was paramount to obtaining the support of the arts and culture leaders. Knowing that the funding decision would be made by the Treasury as directed by the Cabinet, securing their buy-in was critical. I discussed this with Fay and we decided to host a “lunch and learn” for her peers in all of the departments that could directly or peripherally impact or be impacted by the arts. These included Education, Advanced Education, Tourism, Sports and Recreation, Health Care, Economic Development, Community and Social Services. The goal was to help them better understand the important role arts and culture play in all facets of citizens’ lives and seek their input in the creation and implementation of the policy. We also hoped that some of this might go up the ladder to their Ministers for their support on the funding decision.

The evening the Treasury vote would be taken, I put a last call into my contact at the Premier’s Office to ensure they had everything they needed, that we were still expecting a thumbs up. His response: a number of Ministers were on the fence about funding, no guarantee. My heart sank. I asked for five minutes with the Premier and we met at the Legislature building on a bench down the hall from the meeting room. I had three points to make. I thanked him for the opportunity to lead the creation of the policy for the Province and ensure the department met his mandate. I congratulated him on the courage it took to validate the arts through this policy. And I told him the truth – all of the work done to date was for naught if the policy approval was not accompanied by funding. It would be seen as a joke and a slap in the face. He needed to use his clout as Premier and make this non-negotiable. Later that night, we got the call with a unanimous yes to both the policy and the funding.

Meanwhile, assuming all of this would get through, a parallel initiative was underway to get the buy-in of a cynical cadre of arts and culture leaders, and the public at large. How to deliver this new policy, new department and additional funding? I had spent a lot of my time meeting privately and on the QT with influencers across the province and understood from those conversations that “they would believe it when they saw it”, that the arts would never be a priority to this government. I had also had numerous discussions with the government’s public relations arm for their thoughts on how to launch the new policy. Essentially, they had way bigger fish to fry. So I reached out to my own community and pulled together a team of PR professionals who agreed to volunteer their time and expertise to help us design a communications strategy.

Led by the late and beloved Jock Osler, former Chair of the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, we hatched a plan that would bring Albertans together via a simultaneous launch from the cities of Calgary and Edmonton, televised to all corners of the Province. The events would feature local artists and the Premier himself would make the announcement. More importantly, the keynote addresses would be delivered by two revered and unassailable Alberta icons, former Premier Peter Lougheed and first Minister of Culture Horst Schmidt. It was a walk down memory lane, a statement of hope and a true celebration of the important role the arts play in all of our lives. Mission accomplished.

I got to work with some extraordinary people and I thank all those who helped and all those who didn’t, because those roadblocks became opportunities. And I would have never had the delight of attending the homes of Horst and Peter (the Honourables) to ask them to consider coming out of retirement one last time for the arts. They were like kids – Peter reliving his early years as Premier who would discuss everything with his wife Jeannie, a ballet dancer and opera singer. When he presented her with his plan for his first Cabinet, she simply asked “Peter, where are the arts?” Horst Schmidt, who became Alberta’s first Minister of Culture back in the 70’s, would open all conversations introducing himself and adding “Now don’t say that too fast!” Both were eager to help us reset the arts jewel into Alberta’s cultural crown.

And speaking of gems, Peter left me with this one. I was sharing with him the opposition we were getting in trying to get this policy through and I asked him how he survived all those years in politics, how he seemed to turn the impossible into the imperative, and remain so popular. He looked at me in the eye “Don’t kid yourself. I’m not everyone’s favourite. If I went to bed at night thinking that everyone liked me, I wouldn’t be doing my job.”


Link here for the full report: The Spirit of Alberta: Alberta’s Cultural Policy 

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