An open letter to Toronto’s major cultural organizations


Matthew Teitelbaum, CEO, Art Gallery of Ontario

Grant Troop, CEO, National Ballet School of Canada

Alexander Neef, general director, Canadian Opera Company

Denise Herrera-Jackson, CEO, Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival

Alexandra Montgomery, executive director, Gardiner Museum

Kevin Garland, executive director, National Ballet of Canada

Janice Price, CEO, Luminato

Michèle Maheux, executive director, Toronto International Film Festival

Andrew R Shaw, CEO, Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Dear friends and lovers of the arts:

Together with Kevin Beaulieu, Pride Toronto executive director, you comprise the most senior people at those 10 cultural organizations that receive money from the City of Toronto. In 2012 the city gave you a rather paltry total of $6,030,960. Pride Toronto received the least ($123,807), and the Canadian Opera Company received the most ($1,317,015).

I write today with a word of caution and a request for help. City executives made a disconcerting decision Sept 10 while you were likely busy working. It’s understandable if you missed it — even Mayor Rob Ford skipped the meeting.

Council’s executive committee on Sept 10 asked the city manager to redraft the city’s anti-discrimination policy to include a ban on criticism of Israel. Deputants said the phrase “Israeli apartheid” is hate speech and called for Pride Toronto funding to be cut if the group Queers Against Israeli Apartheid is allowed to participate in future Pride events.

This is despite the fact that last year city manager Joe Pennachetti said QuAIA’s participation in Pride does not violate the city’s anti-discrimination policy, and the group marched in the 2012 Pride parade to little fanfare. Never mind that former American president Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu — two Nobel Peace Prize winners — have oft used the word apartheid to describe the situation in the Middle East. Or that Jessica Montell, the executive director of B’Tselem, one of Israel’s most respected human rights organizations, has said, “In some cases, the situation in the West Bank is worse than apartheid in South Africa.”

This is despite the fact — most important, if you ask me — that Toronto City Council has no business making pronouncements about international affairs that it will never have an effect on. (Do councillors have nothing better to worry about? Housing, public transit, gravy!)

Of course, I can hear you yawning. I know most Torontonians are tired of this debate. Unfortunately, the executive committee’s decision matters. It is a restriction of free speech and a chilling warning to you all: at any moment councillors can decide to cut funding because they deem something in one of your festivals, exhibits or shows offensive. Councillor James Pasternak (who won his seat with just 19 percent of the vote) and Councillor David Shiner, a former clothing store owner, have asked the city to go “beyond provincial and federal statutes and legislation.” Council’s executive committee, sadly, voted nine to one in favour of Shiner’s motion.


Deputy city manager Brenda Patterson rightly asked if “Israeli apartheid” is added to the anti-discrimination policy, what next? Meanwhile, Councillor Gord Perks wanted to know why Pride is being targeted. It’s a good question and the reason I’m asking you to speak up. It’s safe to say gay people help keep your institutions afloat — the same gay people who celebrate Pride. We need your help — and you should provide it if for no other reason than you could be next.

For example, Ms Maheux, what if councillors got word that Annemarie Jacir presented her film When I Saw You at this year’s TIFF? Between us, Jacir has openly used the word apartheid to describe the situation in her Palestinian homeland. It’s very possible she used the words “Israeli apartheid” over the last couple weeks while she was in Toronto speaking in an official capacity at TIFF. This could mean your $800,000 in city funds is threatened next year because some Jewish lobbyist is chummy with Councillor Pasternak.

What about the year TIFF screened Atom Egoyan’s Ararat, a film about the Armenian genocide? Imagine if Turkish Torontonians had lobbied council to ban the words “Armenian genocide” and asked it to cut funding to TIFF if you ever show a film in which those two words are uttered? It’s more than possible now. The doors are open. Banned words at city hall can now change with the seasons, depending on which interest group has the ear of politicians.

What about you, Ms Price? Luminato has a history of showing controversial work — like in 2007, when you staged the Monty Python satire Not the Messiah. Christian groups have labelled the production blasphemous. If city council can decide it’s unlawful to pass judgment on a nation state like Israel, it’s entirely possible in future it will decide Toronto cultural organizations can no longer criticize any religion.

You get my point. The arts are meant to be controversial. City council should remember the immense collective benefit a thriving and critical cultural community brings to any city, never mind the tourist dollars. We become Russia or China once we give our leaders the power to silence us if we use words that might offend them.

First they came for Pride. I urge you to speak up now, because next they may come for all of you.

Danny Glenwright was formerly Xtra’s managing editor. He has a background in human rights journalism and media training and a masters in international cooperation and development from Italy’s University of Pavia. Before coming to Xtra, Danny was the editor of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary news service in South Africa and a regular contributor to South Africa’s Mail and Guardian news. He has also worked in Sierra Leone, Palestine, Namibia, the United Kingdom and Rwanda.

Keep Reading

7 queer and trans storylines to watch at the 2024 Paris Olympics

From Nikki Hiltz to the Olympics’ first openly gay male judo competitor

In ‘The Default World,’ Naomi Kanakia skewers the hypocrisy of progressive rich kids

REVIEW: The novel is scathingly funny, painfully realistic and relentlessly critical in its view of the world

‘Fancy Dance’ finally gets the release it deserves

REVIEW: Lily Gladstone stars in the tender and arresting queer Indigenous drama
A close-up of Celine Dion's face, looking emotional, in I Am: Celine Dion

‘I Am: Celine Dion’ tackles the icon’s legacy from her own point of view

REVIEW: The film highlights an icon sorting out her life without the very thing that built her career