06/03/2013 10:49 EDT | Updated 08/03/2013 05:12 EDT

Canadian Cities Take Over Cultural Policy

Ten years ago, I was one of the organizers of "Accounting for Culture," a conference held in Gatineau, Quebec to mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Federal Department of Canadian Heritage. The theme of the conference was "cultural citizenship," an idea much in vogue at the time.

Across the cultural policy sector, people were convinced that culture played a key role in binding citizens to their communities and clarifying their rights and responsibilities as Canadians. Along with Canadian Heritage, the 2003 conference was sponsored by the Canadian Cultural Research Network, a now-dormant network that brought together university-based researchers and cultural administrators from all levels of government.

It's hard to imagine now, but the Department of Canadian Heritage in those days was an incubator of lively thinking bout the role of our national government in building and promoting a national culture., the on-line Canadian Cultural Observatory, was launched that year, joining an international network of cultural observatories designed to bring information on the cultural sector to all those who needed it. Working groups within Heritage turned out interesting policy documents on the role of culture in strengthening social cohesion, or on how digital media might challenge the very foundations of national cultural policy. Experts from Canada's Department of Canadian Heritage were key players in the international cultural policy field.

Then, at some point in the last decade, the location of interesting thinking about cultural policy in Canada shifted. The Canadian Cultural Observatory was closed down in 2008, following a Strategic Review of Canadian government programs. So, too, were most of the policy workshops within the Department of Canadian Heritage which had offered high-level thinking on the role and relevance of cultural policy. I watched as most of my friends in Heritage took early retirement, convinced that there was no tolerance anymore of big-picture thinking in the cultural field. The Department of Canadian Heritage web portal is now a sleepy compendium of information on War of 1812 commemorations, the Monarchy and cultural funding programs left over from previous governments.

As this was happening, cities in Canada (and around the world) became newly energized as sources of innovative thinking about culture. In 2000, only a handful of cities in this country had detailed and forward-looking cultural plans in place. Today, as any on-line search will quickly reveal, most Canadian municipalities have put forward detailed policies to build or improve their cultural sectors. (I'm particularly intrigued by the plan being developed in my birthplace, Hamilton, Ontario.)

For better or worse, the key debates about culture in Canada are no longer, as they were in the 1980s or 1990s, about how we might define a Canadian identity -- about the ways in which our films or music, for example, might be different from those produced south of the border. The influential ideas about culture these days have come out of studies of individual cities rather than musings about the nation as a whole.

Controversy in the cultural policy area these days centers on whether Richard Florida's "creative classes" bring inequality to Canadian urban areas, or whether gentrification might be ruining the underground culture of cities like Montreal. Night-time cultural festivals like nuits blanches or experiments like the Calgary-based Cowtown Opera Company's "Pop-Up Opera"events, held during the Stampede, invite city-dwellers to reflect upon urban citizenship and the role of culture in shaping civic involvement.

Canadian cities, large and small, are where the action is these days in the cultural policy field. Much of the credit for this goes to the activists, creators, politicians and thinkers who have thought in richly stimulating ways about the place of culture in urban life. The Federal government, which has largely vacated the realm of significant policy-making in the cultural sector, can only watch all this activity from the sidelines.