The Politics of Culture

The following is a draft version of two excerpts from books-in-progress, The Politics of Culture. The first is about the beginning of events which would lead to the separation of Canadian Actor’ Equity Association (CAEA) from the U.S. union, Actors’ Equity Association. The second deals with the awakening of the collective bargaining concept following an unpleasant season with the Stratford Festival.

THE INDEPENDENCE MARCH

The period from the late 60s through the 70s were ten or more of the most tumultuous and exciting years in Canadian Theatre. Fueled by our rising determination to express culture through our own sensibilities, in our own terms, and using the freshly minted, often rough writings of our own voices, it was a heady period of growing cultural awareness and hunger. When the dust had settled, Canadian Actors’ Equity Association had been born, new theatre venues brought into existence, and indigenous plays not only being written, but performed for longer runs to audiences proud to see their world interpreted on their stages. The road was rarely smooth, though the journey was necessary, fulfilling and, ultimately, successful.

Major events, more often than not, result from simple decisions. In Equity’s case, it was the amalgamation of two underutilized committees into the Membership Education and Development of Theatre Committee (MEDoT). The change was suggested by several new faces on the Canadian Executive Committee (CEC) then the governing committee for American Equity (AEA) in Canada, to which I had recently been elected.

Fortuitously, MEDoT undertook, wholeheartedly and with enthusiasm, full scale research amongst the membership, and it was this committee’s provision of a free-wheeling forum for debate, encouraging a diverse, creative flow of ideas, that guided many constructive proposals onto the agenda of CEC meetings. One of these, I immodestly suggest, has had the greatest effect on the evolution of Canadian Equity than any other; a proposal to undertake a series of cross-country, face-to-face meetings to determine member’s views on the future direction of their organization. A number of questions were proposed and accepted and, as Chair of the Committee -shortly thereafter Chair of the CEC itself – I traveled the length and breadth of the country for the better part of a year, soliciting members’ ideas. An extensive report was presented to the CEC, containing 20 recommendations, almost all of which were adopted and eventually enacted. Some were milestones in the evolution of Equity in Canada.

Not to diminish the importance of other proposals, such as creating a single, universal theatre contract (the Canadian Theatre Agreement, the CTA), to replace a plethora of oft-conflicting rulebooks written and designed for American needs; our thrust to “canadianize” our theatres by introducing a “non-member/non-resident policy”, limiting the unnecessary import of foreign talent; our strong campaign for the production of indigenous works in our regional theatres, and addressing serious administrative and political considerations regarding a growing sense of alienation in the West by opening our first branch office in Vancouver, perhaps the most significant of these recommendations was a move to separate from our parent union, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), based in New York, of which we had been a part since the mid 1950s.

Besieged From Elsewhere

Overriding the creative turmoil within the theatre community at the time -and there were many pressures, not the least being the federally funded Local Initiatives Programme (LIP), which was seriously undercutting our minimum wage scale, and a lingering colonialism which said “culture comes from any place other than here”- was a building frustration with our American “political masters” on decisions affecting theatre in Canada. At the time, we enjoyed a de facto autonomy, the New York Council simply rubber-stamping the CEC’s decisions in most cases. We knew, however, we wanted de jure independence. We were recognizing a need to establish our own union, separate from the international (American) AEA. The juggernaut had been rumbling, gaining momentum with each members’ meeting, and it appeared there was no stopping it if we wanted. A critical decision point was approaching. It crashed into the political arena in a spectacular fashion at the 20th Congress of the Federation Internationale des Acteurs (FIA), in Sweden, in the early 1970s.

The Stockholm gathering began angrily. On entering the first session I discovered we were not seated with fellow Canadians, but with the American representatives. Delegations sat behind national signs in alphabetical order by country. ACTRA and Union des Artistes, representing Canada’s artists, were seated behind a sign reading “CANADA”, up front. Further back, there we were behind one saying, “U.S.A.”. I refused to take my seat.

Congress was delayed, while I stood, loudly proclaiming I was not American, did not represent Americans, would not be identified as a U.S. delegate. Eventually, a hastily printed sign saying “CANADA” appeared at my place and I agreed to sit, still ruffled, but chuffed in being able to point out the aptness of our position, between the U.S.A. on the right (of course) and the U.S.S.R. appropriately on the left. The Soviets loved the joke. The Yanks were less sanguine. However, our march towards independence was now well underway.

THE ODYSSEY IS LAUNCHED

The end of September brought the ’65 Stratford season to a close and, with it, my immediate move to Toronto for the in-town Canadian Players season plus a five-week tour of Canadian towns and cities. Rehearsals had begun even before leaving Stratford via commutes to Toronto on “days off” and continued apace. Enthusiasm returned, with much enjoyment ensuing in its rediscovery and in creating with my colleagues in the company. During the rehearsal period I attended an Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) annual membership meeting. The organization, headquartered in New York, represented all live performances in Canada at the time.

Organized labour was not part of my past. Indeed, like most actors at the time, involvement with unionized workers was somewhat foreign, even questionable. There was no animosity, more a laissé faire attitude and a sense that, generally, society really didn’t understand what we did or why we did it so why waste time marching and demanding rights, which is about all I then knew about the actions of labour unions. Oh, coming from the famous Pictou Coalfields, there was a history of workers’ strife in my memory, knowing how Nova Scotian miners were deserted by their union, the United Mine Workers (UMW), during the dirty thirties and beyond, refusing their Canadian members access to the union’s strike fund into which they had sacrificed part of their measley, slave labour wages. No one would easily forget that. And, there was the sad plight of the men themselves, in hock to the ‘company store’ for provisions and to the ‘company landlord’ for a leaky roof over their heads; abandoned, knowing there was no way out; when freedom only came with your death in a rock burst, or when the whole, ill-maintained shambles was shut down and the British owners allowed to walk away without obligations and nary a murmur from government representatives. No one will easily forget, either, the betrayal of 26 men still entombed in Westray, near my hometown, where a later, even lesser, version of those government representatives sold their working citizens down the river once again. No, my awareness of labour struggles was not all glimpsed through the veil of corporate publications, boasts and propaganda. However, my attendance at the AEA meeting was more out of curiosity, and a vague notion that perhaps others might be prevented from suffering my unfortunate experience at Stratford.

The meeting was in a small, mid-town Toronto hotel where three or four dozen members attended out of a membership of around 600 or so in Canada’s branch of AEA at the time. Other than the officials seated behind a table at the front of the room, very few spoke. Following the reports and comments, we were invited to remain for a coffee and cookie or two. I took the opportunity to introduce myself to the chief elected honcho, Vernon Chapman, a well-known, older actor/director, who was then Chair of the Canadian Executive Committee (the CEC) charged with the responsibility of administering AEA’s jurisdiction in Canada on behalf of the New York headquartered Actors’ Equity Association.

I mentioned my problems during the past summer and my appreciation of the support readily offered by the Equity Deputy1 at Stratford, Joseph Shaw. As did Shaw before him, Chapman immediately said there must be a protest from Equity to which I replied that it would be a waste of time since I did sign the contract! I wished to get on with things, having judged the experience a lesson learned, i.e., NEVER sign a contract unless you are sure you agree with every word it contains. I did say I thought others might profit from my experience and perhaps members could be reminded of the importance of signing only that with which they agree and are fully informed. Chapman asked if I would be able to devote some few hours to a discussion of the question, at the Equity offices, as part of an ad hoc committee. I agreed. I was being unwittingly recruited.

Although certainly unaware at the time, Vernon Chapman had just convinced someone whose next several decades would be intimately involved with the development of Theatre in Canada, and become a committed voice for the growth, strengthening and organizing of cultural artists in our country and elsewhere. Nor was there any inkling then of how closely I would become involved in the blossoming of Canadian cultural affairs, and the burgeoning of the organized labour movement within it.

Very soon, I found myself shoe-horned into a small space in an old mansion on Toronto’s formerly-classy Jarvis Street once owned by the Massey Family, yakking with a half-dozen like-minded others, and feeling quite comfortable and chuffed that some good might come out of my miserable summer after all.

Equity was shortly to move to slightly larger quarters -three “a-bit-larger” rooms instead of two, although they were now in a basement- and I trundled along. I had become more interested in the value and potential effectiveness of a group which seemed so fiercely committed to bettering conditions for Canada’s artists. I found myself running for an elected position on the Canadian Executive Committee, the CEC, which exercised control over live stage performances for our benign head office. While CEC decisions were still subject to approval by AEA Council in New York, de facto, there was little interference and we operated as though we had de jure independence.

This was the mid-sixties, remember. Our country was restless to see ourselves portrayed on our stages – and to the world – however good our copies of foreign cultures, mainly British and American, might be. That eagerness to experience our own culture was not shared by all artists, particularly those who came from elsewhere and were unprepared, and unwilling, to look on indigenous works as “worthy” investments. There were large numbers of British immigrants in our midst, most of whom we welcomed with open hearts and who proved to be supportive colleagues, and who did very well, of course, portraying characters from the plays selected for the bulk of our theatre seasons by imported artistic directors. There were also many directors, particularly in television, who were simply using Canada as a stepping stone to greater fortune (and in their minds increased artistic importance) in the United States. These were frustrating times. Native-born Canadians were treated as second class performers who, should they be lucky enough to convince these non-Canadian directors of their abilities, were usually required to speak in foreign accents in order to undertake a role in the “Canadian” Theatre. How ridiculous does that seem now-a-days? This attitude persisted throughout the country, resulting in the loss of many of our talented performers to other more welcoming places such as Britain and the U.S., and it persisted not only in live entertainment but in all cultural areas. Later, in reviewing manoeuvres in ACTRA politics, we will discuss our disheartening struggles to achieve acceptance in electronic media -film, television, radio and other recorded fields.

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