The Value of Reinvention

One lesson newcomers to Canada learn very quickly is that little in this country stays the same. Government rules shift, the job market changes and even corner stores morph (change their appearance).

Organizations that help immigrants integrate into local culture continually reinvent themselves to find the best fit for newcomers searching for their ways to contribute. Nowhere is this more evident than in the creative industries, where ever-shifting public taste can confuse the most experienced artist.

Since 2006, Ottawa’s Coalition of New Canadians for Arts and Culture (CNCAC) has been helping newcomers match their talents to the city’s demand. Its projects range from visual-arts shows to festivals and conferences, but always with the goal of integrating people into the economy rather than just showcasing their cultural product.

Zimbabwe-born Chiko Chazunguza, an artist, musician, teacher and former CNCAC volunteer, quickly learned how networking in the city’s arts industry required new discipline. His time with the coalition helped him transform his approach. “It was a chance to reach out to other possibilities and get into the middle ground of language and understanding about how to survive (financially),” he says.

This synthetic process was first laid out for CNCAC by consultant JP Melville, who earlier had spent two decades in development work in countries like St. Lucia and Mali. He believed that real inclusion meant creating commercial opportunities, and foresaw the coalition becoming an incubator for arts and culture workers without “sliding into the quagmire (swamp) of multiculturalism.”

He wanted to combine arts partnerships with project promotion and used small, local grants to get the process rolling. In late 2010 Melville secured a huge $180,000 grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to create a pilot project in Ottawa for the entire country.

But In the summer of 2011, things changed. There were disagreements about what the “capacity-building” funds should be used for. Staff and some board members quit, and the coalition was forced to reinvent itself under Gabriela Lopez and Maria Gomez Umana.

“It’s been a bit slow, a bit frustrating, but the goal about integration has never changed. If artists just stay in little silos (compartments), then they have no context (about the marketplace),” says Gomez Umana, CNCAC’s Operations, Partners, Members Director.

The coalition has pulled back from running events as it focuses on strategic planning. Its top priority is to revamp its Website as a gathering place for immigrant artists, to show their work but also to facilitate networking and mentorship that is vital if newcomers are to have a chance of earning a living in their professions.

The mandate is similar to Canada’s only other similar non-profit - Hamilton’s Immigrant Art and Culture Association - which started in 2002. But the two organizations are slightly different in how they interpret their roles. In Ottawa the idea is to push re-invention, on both sides of the cultural divide.

“Everyone has to yield, to reinvent a little bit. (The newcomer) has to understand and work to fit into Canadian culture. But the establishment has to transform too, to offer opportunities (that don’t currently exist),” says Gomez Umana, who is originally from Colombia and who has degrees in graphic design, art and teaching earned on three different continents.

She and Lopez still see CNCAC as a pilot project that will be taken across the country. It will take time, because real integration always moves ahead in fits and spurts as it adapts to local cultural trends.

Gomez Umana settled permanently in Canada 10 years ago. “I couldn’t survive as an artist then. What we are trying to create are ways and networks so that (immigrant artists) don’t have to face the same challenges that I did.”

Photos: Chiko Chazunguza (photography by John Ceprano),
Maria Gomez Umana (photo courtesy of CNCAC)