Painter battling cancer pushing for Parliament to revive artist laureate proposal
The bill to create a new parliamentary visual artist laureate died in the Commons late last year, but that hasn't stopped Nova Scotian Peter Gough from pushing to see it revived, even as he undergoes cancer treatment. (Photo courtesy Peter Gough)
Published Wednesday, February 13, 2019 10:53AM EST
OTTAWA – The artist who first proposed the idea of a Canadian parliamentary visual artist laureate is currently in the fight of his life, but his focus has been on seeing this new role come to fruition in this Parliament.
Peter Gough, a painter based in Liverpool, N.S. has been pushing for this new position for years but after the bill to create the title died in the House of Commons in late 2018 he's launched a renewed push to see the it revived. He's been doing so while undergoing chemotherapy for an aggressive form of cancer.
Gough was the one to come up with the proposal of a national visual artist laureate, modelled after the existing Parliamentary Poet Laureate.
The role of the parliamentary poet laureate is to write poetry for parliamentarians or for special occasions, to hold poetry readings, and to help curate the Library of Parliament's poetry collection. The poet position was first created in 2001, in a similar way to what is being proposed in this case.
Gough first pitched the visual artist laureate idea to Liberal MP Geoff Regan, who he calls "a friend," but because he is the House of Commons Speaker he couldn't propose or push forward a private member’s bill. It was then suggested that then-senator Wilfred Moore be the one to champion the idea through a Senate public bill, and Bill S-234 was drafted and introduced in 2016.
The legislation proposes to create a new position titled: Parliamentary Visual Artist Laureate, with the mandate of representing Canadian art. Backers in the arts community have said it would be a boon to the country's visual arts, and it passed the Senate with wide support. However, Bill S-234 died on the House of Commons order paper late last year after failing to secure a House sponsor to shepherd the bill through the legislative process.
Since then, a push has been underway in the arts community, with Gough driving much of it, to see what political pressure can be put on parliamentarians to resurrect this initiative.
"I'm just trying to garner as much public support for this bill and for artists as I can," Gough told CTVNews.ca.
In October, he was diagnosed with Mantle Cell Lymphoma, which is considered incurable, and given a prognosis of three to seven months to live if it went untreated.
"That was quite a shock," Gough said. He's since undergone three rounds of chemotherapy and is "feeling great," putting much of his energy into outreach on the parliamentary visual artist laureate idea.
"All I can do is take one day at a time but I was kind of hoping that this bill would have been close to third reading now and become law. For me personally… my ultimate quest for this thing is to support the arts in this country," Gough said.
"He's not giving up," said fellow artist and friend Josy Britton. In an interview with CTVNews.ca she applauded Gough's determination to this cause amid his ongoing health challenges, and described him as "an incredibly generous person who is always thinking about other artists."
'Uncontroversial' yet not unanimously supported
The bill—four pages in total— prescribes that the mandate of the visual artist laureate would be to promote knowledge, awareness, and development of Canadian art, and over their two-year term the artist may:
- Produce artistic creations to be used in Parliament, or for state occasions;
- Sponsor artistic events and exhibits; and
- Advise the Parliamentary Librarian on the library’s collection and cultural acquisitions.
The proposal is similar to how the poet laureate position was first proposed. Then-senator Jerry Grafstein pushed for and eventually saw a Senate public bill passed that created the role, which comes with a $20,000 stipend, $13,000 for travel expenses, and a budget for planning programming and translation services. To date Canada has had eight, including the current poet laureate, Georgette LeBlanc. Bill S-234 doesn't spell out any compensation or stipend for the visual laureate, but throughout their study and debate Senators suggested that would be a decision left for the House of Commons to make.
Liberal MP Dan Vandal had planned to sponsor the bill upon its passage into the House, but after becoming a parliamentary secretary, his office told CTV News that Vandal had handed Bill S-234 over to fellow Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault but that didn't end up coming to fruition in time. According to parliamentary records there was no noted official sponsor as of late November when the bill camp up for debate, putting the bill in a precarious situation.
NDP MP Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet attempted to save the bill from being killed for not having a named sponsor by proposing a unanimous consent motion to pass the bill at all stages. In presenting her proposal to the House she said because the bill is "totally uncontroversial" she was hopeful all sides would support passing it immediately.
However, an unknown number of MPs said "no" when the Speaker asked if there was the unanimous consent needed, and so the proposal and the bill were dropped from the order paper, essentially killing it. Those closely following the bill believe that the members who said “no” were from the Conservative caucus but that remains unclear and unconfirmed.
Over the last few months, Gough has written to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and spoke with Conservative heritage critic Steven Blaney's office about whether or not it was an initiative they could revive. In a letter back from the correspondence unit of Scheer’s office, the Conservatives said the party "strongly believes in supporting our artists," but offered no way forward for the bill in the House, pointing to the Liberals' inability to secure a sponsor as the catalyst for the bill's fall.
If allowed, Senate to re-introduce
Senate sponsor of the bill Independent Sen. Patricia Bovey told CTVNews.ca that the only way forward for the legislation since it fell off of the House's agenda, is to revive it in the Senate.
Bovey is hoping to re-introduce the legislation in the Senate when it resumes sitting next week. She is currently in the process of getting procedural and legal opinions on how she might be able to do so.
She was the one to pick up the bill upon Moore’s retirement and was the one to get it passed in the Senate in May of 2018.
"If I'm allowed to bring it back on the 19 of February, I will," Sen. Bovey told CTVNews.ca.
She views the precarious position the proposal is currently in as a purely procedural problem.
"I'm looking at this as being revisiting logistics, not needing to revisit what this bill is about and what support there is. I think the support is very much there," she said.
Bovey has been closely connected to the Canadian art scene throughout her life. Before being appointed to the Senate in 2016, she was a Winnipeg-based gallery director, curator, and art historian.
Clock is ticking, pressure on MPs
In an interview with CTVNews.ca, Moore applauded Gough and Bovey’s passion for this issue and said he shares their disappointment that the bill is not still before the House or on its way to passage.
He noted the limited amount of sitting days left before Parliament rises for the fall federal election. During the remaining 59 days of House of Commons sitting time, the pressure will be on the government to decide which bills they must pass, and Moore voiced concern that this proposal may not make that list.
"It's tight, but it could be done. If the political will is there, this can happen. It’s as simple as that," Moore said.
In an effort to build the political will needed, supporters of the bill are circulating letters of support and being encouraged to reach out to their artist networks to implore their members of Parliament to request the bill be brought back to life.
"Stand up and let your politicians know that artists and the arts matter," reads one message sent to members of various arts originations including The Canada Council for the Arts and the Sculptors Society of Canada.
A statement from the Visual Arts Alliance—a consortium of national visual, media, and craft arts organizations— also voiced their concern over the fate of the proposal.
"We are hopeful that there still remains the collective will to enact meaningful change in this regard… and we urge the government to implement this action as soon as is functionally convenient," the Alliance said.