Arts & culture focus would help retain Saskatchewan youth
By Brian Cross
Saskatchewan would attract more investment and retain more of its young, educated people if the province’s politicians and business leaders placed a greater emphasis on promoting arts and culture, says the former mayor of Winnipeg.
Glen Murray said the departure of many of Saskatchewan’s brightest and most innovative thinkers is the result of conservative attitudes that place too much emphasis on economics and infrastructure maintenance and too little on building creative, unique urban environments.
Murray delivered his message March 17 to about 250 people at the University of Saskatchewan.
“There’s something heartbreaking about losing your young people and your creative people to an environment that you should be able to create in your own community,” Murray said. “These are spectacular cities that we live on here in the Prairies, but we’ve somehow lost our sense of pride and our sense of uniqueness.”
Murray, a supporter of liberal arts funding and urban renewal, served as Winnipeg’s mayor for six years, winning a second term on a platform of increased funding for the city’s arts community. He was also instrumental in forming a coalition of mayors from Canada’s major cities, an exercise aimed at securing a stable source of federal funding for urban renewal.
Murray said Canadian cities often fail to reach their full potential because urban decision-makers are preoccupied with fixing pipes, potholes and policing problems rather than supporting their creative people.
“It’s not that 3-P government is not important,” he said. “It’s just that if you go to your young people and you say, ‘we’ve fixed the pipes, we’ve fixed the pavement and there’s a policeman on every corner’, the average 25-year-old will look and you and say, ‘Okay, but I’m moving to Vancouver or Toronto anyway’.”
Murray suggested small Prairie cities like Saskatoon are too often dismissed by their own residents as places with limited opportunities, a perception that could be changed if urban leaders capitalized on the unique geographic, architectural and demographic characteristics of their cities. For example, he praised Saskatoon for its abundant natural beauty, rich history and strong track record of building co-operative links between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal residents. The establishment of one of Canada’s first urban reserves and the formation Wanuskewin Heritage Park demonstrate the inroads the city has made toward creating a harmonious multiracial community, he said.
But there is often a failure to recognize the city’s positive attributes.
“I think a lot of what’s important in our ability to redevelop our cities is the esteem we have in the place we live. Do we recognize its uniqueness? Do we value its uniqueness and do we invest in its creativity?”
Murray urged community leaders to recognize the importance of higher learning and he lauded the University of Saskatchewan for its role in defining the city by attracting artists, scientists and leaders of the future. The growth of Innovation Place and the construction of the Canadian Light Source on campus are examples of how investment in academics and scientific research can define a city’s character.
Murray decried the fact utilitarian values have taken precedence over aesthetics in urban planning, suggesting function is too often the only consideration when it come to architectural design and urban development.
“In a utilitarian (society), uniqueness doesn’t matter. Things are generic and they’re generic to a point where any development is good. We now build urban environments where whether you’re in suburban Baltimore or suburban Saskatoon or suburban Omaha, you don’t know the difference because you can’t tell where you are. And where’s the (sense of uniqueness) when you don’t know where you are?”
Murray emphasized that investment in human resources will result in a vibrant, creative atmosphere that spawns its own economic wealth. Infrastructure renewal will follow as a matter of course, he added.
“We live in the most risk-adverse time of our lives right now. But it’s our culture and our creativity that determines our ability to create wealth, not the other way around.”
Brian Cross is a Saskatoon freelance writer.