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‘Reflections on T.R.A.I.N: 5 takeaways from the arts advocacy and activism learning stream’ by Josh Marchesini

Josh Marchesini shares his reflections on Why Bother?! Arts and Advocacy, one of the workshop series hosted during T.R.A.I.N. T.R.A.I.N took place from September 2022 until March 2023.

The Canadian arts sector is without a doubt related to the government decisions made on all levels: municipal, provincial and federal. Funding and programming are directly affected by funding and policy decisions made by city councils, provinces as well as Parliament in Ottawa. Every year, these different levels of government release their budgets and we artists and artworkers pay attention to these announcements, with hopes that the arts sector will continue to receive support to produce, present and exhibit artistic work that is truly Canadian.

As the Communications Assistant for the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT), I take an active approach to disseminate information that is useful to those working in Canadian theatre. Job postings, peer-to-peer sessions, announcements in new artistic leadership are all important. 

Just as important, is the dissemination of arts advocacy opportunities, where policy decisions made at the federal level are shared to our membership. Our sector heavily relies on project and core funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, Canadian Heritage and the various government funding that supports our infrastructure, employment and presentation spaces that allow us to serve our community with artistic excellence. 

Arts advocacy and activism can be daunting and it may feel like political representatives may seem too distant to actually approach our concerns and issues in creating theatre. With this in mind, there are many ways to approach arts advocacy and activism. This blog will outline 5 takeaways on arts advocacy and activism that you can use for your arts organization.

1. There are many tools that one can enter arts advocacy and be familiar with the work that the government is engaged in.

For instance, one way to get involved is to read up on the latest government consultation reports. This includes communiques from standing committees as well as press releases disseminating results from a study or survey. For arts organizations, a good way to get involved is through your arts service organizations (ASO). ASOs will often publish reports, host town halls, conduct research for their members as well share advocacy resources to their membership and/or on their websites. 

As well, arts organizations can consult the Government of Canada’s Open Data portal. This portal allows you to access information regarding who has received funding in the past, what programs were funded in previous budget cycles as well as the amounts funded for these programs. 

Another way is to look up the various sites that list government officials working across Canada. The Government Electronic Directory Services (GEDS) provides a directory of public servants across Canada. This is a good way to know where each minister or government official is working and who works in their respective offices. 

Contact information can also be found in Our Commons and Elections Canada. Specifically for Elections Canada, you can enter your local postal code and the search results will indicate the sitting MPs in your respective ridings. In relation to this, a way to meet your local MP is to determine exactly when they’ll be in town versus when they are in Ottawa for Parliamentary sessions. The House of Commons Sitting Calendar outlines the specific days when they are in Parliament. Oftentimes, MPs will be back in their local riding in the summer months (July and August) so this is a great way to invite your local MP to a meeting or community event happening in your area. 

Don’t underestimate writing to your MP. Take the time to write a letter directly addressed to your MP or Minister and simply write why you would like to meet them. Address any opportunities for connection and ways that you can be contacted for future meetings. Tweet your MP or Minister! Yes, depending on your MP or Minister, they are very active on social media and love to see the work your organization is doing on a regular basis. Tagging them in a tweet can go a long way in developing a connection with a government official. 

Every year, the sitting government releases a budget outlining how they will spend money for the upcoming year. This includes a Fall Economic Statement that outlines the government’s plan to continue to help Canadians with costs of living and building a Canada that addresses various sectors. The budget document may be daunting as it can be as long as 300 or 400 pages. One strategy to look into this document is search for keywords: arts, culture, tourism, heritage. Looking up these keywords can take you to the specific parts of the budget that will affect your arts organization the most. 

Organizational buy-in is crucial to your advocacy process for the arts. With support from your staff and Board of Directors, you can identify key players within your organization to support you in advocacy activities, such as attending meetings with your MP, drafting letters or sharing your organization’s work on social media. 

2. Participate in government consultations

Government consultations can take many forms. Arts organizations can participate in caucus meetings. Drafting direct letters to a specific Minister or MP which can lead to a one-on-one meeting. Agency consultations and department consultations can take place through virtual meetings or surveys that arts advocates can participate in on a regular basis. These preliminary surveys can determine the more pressing issues in the sector and inform how conversations will be conducted for advocacy in the arts. 

Government consultations also take place through the budget process. The budget process provides a great framework for consultations and developing your ask that will be shared with your Minister or MP in a letter, in a meeting or in your pre-budget submission. Don’t know how to write a pre-budget submission? Read the pre-budget submissions for the 2023 budget cycle.

3. Take time to understand the budget cycle

The budget cycle can be summarized in four general steps. It’s important to remember that timelines may vary as it depends on the sitting government, whether it is an election year or not or extenuating circumstances like the COVID-19 pandemic. The first step is Budget Prep: here, broad themes are decided on for the upcoming budget. Next is Budget Consultation, this is where the government begins formal stakeholder engagement with nonprofits and ASOs along with any other key organizations working in a given sector. Third is the Budget Decision, where the sitting Cabinet makes final decisions on spending. Lastly is the Budget Review and Approval, where there is a review process and approval of the budget by Parliament. 

It’s important to understand the sector or organizational context your organization exists within. As well it is important to consider the political and policy context. As mentioned before, you can find out more about this through pre-budget submissions that were contributed by your peers. Finding collaborators is crucial to the advocacy process as you may find that they are already existing in advocacy work for your sector. This may take the form of an advocacy committee in an ASO, coalitions or other organizations in your region dedicated to advocacy. 

Writing a pre-budget brief can truly capture your ask and outline how this ask is important for budget consideration. Consider a holistic communications approach: include statistics, storytelling, economic, environment and social information. As well, clearly outline your recommendations and state them at the beginning and at the end of your pre-budget brief. 

Test the messaging of pre-budget brief within targeted contexts: with specific MPs or within your membership in an ASO context. Through traditional channels, you can submit your brief and shop around to find the right government advocate for your ask. Engage consistently, follow up with strategic contacts (more info on how to do this below) as well as re-submitting the pre-budget brief to parallel consultations for other Ministries. 

In general, government consultations will ask three questions to you when meeting for your ask or issue that you would like to be considered: What is the most important issue to you? What challenges do you see ahead? What should the government be focused on in the next budget?

4. How to build an advocacy network within your sector or membership

As part of this learning stream, participants got to have a session on how to build an advocacy network within your sector or membership. This session featured Tyler Boyce, activist, professor and Executive Director of The Enchanté Network. The network emerged in 2020, where folks found that there was a gap in an existing network to facilitate discussion and engagement of 2SLGBTQ+ issues in Canada. Many leaders in the sector met within US networks and wanted to replicate that network in a Canadian context. In doing so, they are the largest network of 2SLGBTQ+ centres in Canada, focused on capacity building and advocacy. 

In the session, Boyce outlined the importance of feedback within the network’s membership. The organization emphasizes a member-driven process while trying to not give into the pressure of urgency that organizations experience within the budget process. This network is an example, demonstrating a process that is thoughtful and coherent to its membership. Just as important is building trust within your sector or membership, so that they feel confident that you can best represent them in future opportunities to meet with the government. 

5. How to build a government network

As part of the learning stream, it proved useful to develop a spreadsheet of a list of government contacts to have for advocacy for the arts. In the session, we used an example of advocacy for more core funding versus project funding for arts nonprofits. I mentioned this before, but one entry point to building contacts is through the Prime Minister’s Cabinet website. Here, we found info for the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion as well as the Minister of Finance, all whom we can reach out to regarding this issue. Another point of entry for building contacts is by looking at the list of Parliamentary Secretaries. Parliamentary Secretaries ​​serve as key representatives of the Government and as integral links between ministers and Parliament. A key part of this website is that they include biographies of these secretaries so you can look into each one and determine which ones would best align with your policy issue. 

As mentioned before, you can find contact information of your local MP on Elections Canada. Like Parliamentary Secretaries, biographies may be included in the MP’s listing, how they got to their current position as well as mandate letters that they are currently following. All this information will deeply inform your approach on who to contact. Just as important, arts advocates must also consider the shadow ministers or critics of these minister portfolios from opposing parties. Both the NDP and the Conservative Party. Having contact information from both the sitting government and opposition parties are important to arts advocacy. Remember, it is crucial to not engage in political games with the government and to remain neutral and non-partisan while building your government network. 

Our Commons is where you can find the contact info for the existing committees within the government of Canada. These committees have members of various parties so reach out to them as well. Committees usually will look at studies on its sector of focus or recommend changes based on internal research. As well, bills are often reviewed by the committee before moving forward to Parliament. Caucuses are also formed by this may depend on the region or sector of focus. 

Earlier, I mentioned The Government Electronic Directory Services (GEDS) where you can look at bureaucratic staff that work within a given Ministry or committee. Bureaucratic staff are often instrumental in getting a first meeting or engagement with a government official as they are not elected into their positions. As well, they tend to serve their positions beyond a single term, working for different governments as they change throughout the years. Look up an official’s Chief of Staff, their Regional Advisor or a Policy Advisor that focuses on your ask or policy issue. In summary, you are more likely to receive a response from a staff member as they manage the work of a given Minister.

When contacting folks within the government, it’s also important not to feel too offended if you don’t hear from them after your first email. Oftentimes, invites from organizations to a Minister or MP will be organized into a binder by staff and the Minister, critic or MP will select what meetings to go to. Feel free to reach out a couple more times and you will more likely receive a response. 

Arts advocacy and activism can be intimidating but these are the various ways that you can get your arts organization or yourself involved in the democratic process. Whether it’s writing a letter or preparing a pre-budget brief or reaching out to your local MP in the summer, there are many avenues to get your local government official involved in the work your organization is engaged in. As always, be confident with your ask and strive for perseverance as one day your recommendation could make it into the next budget! 

Thanks to workshop leaders, Tara and Kate as well as the T.R.A.I.N. Program Manager Jag for organizing these sessions! I hope that this is a starting point for many artists and artworkers to engage in arts advocacy and activism and hope that one day we can see a more equitable, a more just, a more engaged arts sector. 

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MC Minds

MC Minds (our blog, podcast, and videos) will inspire, educate, question, connect and journey through knowledge on arts and culture research topics across Canada.

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