Cultural leaders gather to explore the industry’s future on Manitoulin Island

LITTLE CURRENT—After two years of intense planning, fund-sourcing and consultation, LAMBAC staged an important symposium on November 9 at the Manitoulin Hotel and Conference Centre in Little Current. For the first time, says LAMBAC head Mary Nelder, artists and culture were included as “one of the economic sectors of significance” within the purview of the 2010-2015 LAMBAC Strategic Plan. From the outset, the vision was “to enhance and leverage culture” as a critical driving factor in the area’s economic development, right up there with LAMBAC’s traditional core support through programs for businesses and consumers, tourism products and marketing, natural resource restoration, telecommunications service enhancement and new industry development.

In 2012, the new Cultural Planning Project was approved for funding (by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport’s Creative Communities Prosperity Fund), and in early spring 2013 a steering committee was formed to represent the interests of a diverse cross-section of Manitoulin Island’s cultural scene. Since the funds are tied to municipal cultural planning efforts, the Township of Billings came on as a sponsor—a natural fit as the township had already established cultural planning as a priority in its five-year Sustainability Plan of 2012. Ms. Nelder makes clear that “while the contract is in Billings’ name, all Island municipalities have contributed financially” to the project. Consultants were hired to analyze the economy of the Island as a whole, and that of the cultural sector in particular, and meetings with them and the steering committee began in May of this year. Surveys were made to identify as many of Manitoulin’s cultural assets as possible in the categories of places, activities, individuals, groups, private businesses and organizations, as well as economic data related to cultural occupations.

In addition to this inventory, which included the construction of a digital cultural map and website, a goal of the strategic exercise was to hold a symposium to bring together creative workers to discuss what could be achieved by thinking of Manitoulin as a cultural destination in its own right.

So last Saturday, approximately 120 representatives of Manitoulin’s vibrant cultural sector met in a bright, accommodating conference room of the Manitoulin Hotel to hear from the consultants, exchange views and contribute ideas to the evolution of a cultural plan for the Island. The agenda included the sharing of small individual “items of creative expression” that were placed on a map of the Island which was soon crowded with paintings, knitwear, books, jewellery, moccasins, pottery and CDs representing a wide swath of Manitoulin talent. Four local performances were interspersed throughout the day by: Curtis Kagige, an energetic hip-hop artist and breakdancer from Wikwemikong, the much-loved Down Yonder country music band, the agile young student dancers of Maja’s Classical School of Dance and the vocal flights of the four-member Simple Life group. Off to one side a digital slide show of local art revolved continuously, a panorama of wide-ranging imaginings that anchored the proceedings in light and colour. Bottomless cups of coffee and a delicious lunch buffet kept enthusiastic spirits and minds in a participatory mood.

After introductions by Mary Nelder, music director Alex Baran (who directed ‘The Gondoliers’ (2012) and performed in ‘Ruddigore’ (2013) at the Burns Wharf Theatre in Manitowaning) outlined several “success stories” of tiny, even remote, communities developing wildly ambitious cultural plans and succeeding outrageously: Parry Sound’s Festival of the Sound, Espanola’s Fibre Arts Festival, Yellowknife’s Northwords Writers’ Festival and many others that had started as small, seemingly impossible-to-realize ideas that burgeoned into very big tourist attractions and economic powerhouses for their regions. With that, the symposium was off to a grand start, infusing the audience with a sense of endless possibility, a kind of “sky’s the limit” enthusiasm for the task ahead.

Joahnna Berti, who joined the Debajehmujig Theatre Group in 1993 in marketing and stabilizing operations, spoke of the 30-year trajectory of the company. Today, Debaj is the only professional theatre company in Canada with salaried artists (called arts animators, a professional designation), developing a holistic approach to grow into an internationally touring and acclaimed cultural resource with performances in European cities such as Amsterdam, Paris, Glasgow (and in Wikwemikong and downtown Manitowaning) every year. Much of the equipment and materials had been outsourced at the beginning, but now, says Ms. Berti, the group owns its own Creation Centre, builds its own sets and costumes and provides its own professional support services, training and labour, thus enabling a reversal in the flow of resources, keeping the economy almost entirely local. In fact, the “watchword” of Debaj is “internationally linked—intentionally localized,” building on local relationships and re-investing in the community while developing those all-important international connections. An inspiring model for creative groups that wish to extend their reach while based on Manitoulin.

Eric McSweeney, of Ottawa-based McSweeney and Associates, one of the consultants retained for this project, is a specialist in the area of economic development and sustainability, tourism and cultural plan strategies. After assessing responses to the surveys, he compiled an inventory of cultural assets on Manitoulin and showed how, despite the small size of Manitoulin’s arts and culture sector, this sector is more concentrated and growing faster than in the rest of Ontario. He noted that the number of jobs in this sector is not a good measurement of the cultural economy as so much cultural activity is “under the radar,” and that most cultural workers must support themselves through other paid work. The largest surveyed group (11 percent of respondents) make between $10-15,000/year. Looking at his “Annual Income Derived from Culture” presentation page, it’s obvious that no one becomes an artist to become rich; he subtitled this page “For the love of culture, not money…” Enough said. He is developing a website to serve as a portal for culture on Manitoulin, a cultural directory and a promotional tool; artists will have the opportunity to have their own web page on the site for a small annual fee. The new cultural site (manitoulinculture.ca) will go live on November 30.

Steven Thorne, a specialist in place-based cultural tourism who is a regular guest lecturer in the University of Waterloo’s Graduate Program in Tourism Policy, began his richly thought-provoking and entertaining presentation by saying that, overall, Canada does not market itself effectively as a cultural destination. Canada markets itself more successfully as an outdoor scenery and nature-based destination, leaving cultural attractions “not prominently positioned” in tourism marketing. The result is that Canada is not being known internationally as a cultural destination, despite the fact that an overwhelming percentage of tourists (especially from the US) actively seek cultural tourism experiences, and that Canadian tourists in Canada by and large also prefer attending cultural attractions and events to participating in many outdoor activities. In his estimation, “the experience of place is a place’s most strategic asset” and should be capitalized on to realize economic benefits, especially in areas that are reliant on tourism revenues, like Manitoulin Island. In place-based cultural tourism, the place itself is the tourism product, composed of all its cultural experiences, not fragmented into different sectors for heritage, literary, music or culinary tourism as separate entities.

Armed with this leading-edge information, the symposium participants engaged in three group discussions aimed at ferreting out ideas on sustainability, Manitoulin as a cultural destination and on a shared vision for the future. The ideas from each table on these topics were recorded on large newsprint sheets that papered the room’s walls, to be compiled into salient points for the follow-up Action Day on November 27 at the Park Centre in Kagawong, when a concrete cultural action plan will be developed for the next five years. FedNor is funding and LAMBAC sponsoring the Action Day, and any initiatives will be funded at least in part by FedNor and supported by LAMBAC, working with individuals, businesses and organizations to implement specific cultural priority actions.

In closing this dynamic day, Mary Nelder emphasized that this first symposium is “step one in a long journey,” a journey that undoubtedly will present challenges, but one that is well worth taking for the sustainable future of Manitoulin’s cultural assets within the tourism industry.

Isobel Harry