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In my opinion

The power of the arts

And why Atlantic universities need to champion their arts programs.


On September 19, the Association of Atlantic Universities presented its annual regional awards for outstanding teaching in Halifax. The following speech was given by Heather Sparling, ethnomusicology professor at Cape Breton University, on being presented with the award for demonstrated commitment to the improvement of university teaching.

It’s a true honour to be speaking here, and to have received the Anne Marie MacKinnon Educational Leadership Award. I was asked to speak about good teaching, but as the recipient of the educational leadership award, based in part on my involvement in developing new courses and programs at Cape Breton University, I’d like to speak about good curriculum instead, and particularly about the role and future of arts programs in Atlantic Canadian universities. But before I do that, I want to tell you a story.

In December 1989, a freighter from New Caledonia, a francophone community located 800 miles east northeast of Australia, was travelling the Cabot Strait (between Cape Breton and Newfoundland) when a vicious storm arose. Several ships went down that night. The New Caledonian freighter, called Captain Torres, lost its engines. It drifted among waves 50 feet high, in winds blowing 60 or 70 knots, and in temperatures well below freezing. When the crew realized that their ship would go down, they radioed the Coast Guard and requested that each of the 23 crew members be patched through to call home. They calmly took turns making two-minute phone calls to their loved ones, saying goodbye.

The award-winning author Silver Donald Cameron gives this story a few paragraphs in his book, Wind, Whales and Whiskey: A Cape Breton Voyage. James Keelaghan, a well-known Canadian folksinger, later learned of this story, which inspired a song. I’d like to play you an excerpt.

[If you don’t have time to watch the whole video, watch 4:50-8:03 or read the lyrics, below]

If you’re wondering why you never heard about this story before, it’s because it happened on the same night as the Montreal Massacre, which eclipsed all other news stories. For Keelaghan, the two stories resonated. On the one hand was a story of the worst in men: a man who feared and therefore killed women. On the other was a story of the best of men: 23 men who, in the face of disaster, thought of their families and calmly lined up to say goodbye to them. For Keelaghan, his song illustrates that most times, in extreme circumstances, people exhibit the best of human nature rather than the worst.

I don’t know how you are all feeling after hearing that song, but it regularly brings me to tears, even after listening to it dozens of times. My, and perhaps your, visceral physical reaction to Keelaghan’s song is the power of the arts. I’m sure you all know cognitively and intellectually that the arts are powerful, but I think it’s sometimes helpful not just to know it, but to feel it. And this is also the value of the arts: knowing not just with our minds, but through our bodies. The arts open up different ways of understanding the world.

When I speak of the arts, I don’t only mean the creative arts of music, dance, drama, and visual art, but the arts of the humanities and social sciences too. They invite us to think of our worlds in creative ways, which the Atlantic region surely needs in this age of uncertainty: economic, religious, ethical, social, cultural and political uncertainty. The arts offer paths to learning about unfamiliar others, leading to greater compassion, empathy and understanding. This is so urgent on a global level, of course, but also relevant close to home, in our universities where local students are encountering ever greater numbers of international students, and where international students want to learn not just a discipline, but about Canadian life and culture.

Again, I fully expect that this is all completely familiar territory. But sometimes we stop seeing familiar territory for its familiarity. In this time of declining populations on Canada’s east coast, and particularly a declining youth population, Atlantic Canadian faculty are very fortunate that our administrators and faculty have found ways to protect our universities by developing and expanding increasingly popular programs in business, science, health and technology programs that have far-reaching impacts not just on our region but, thanks to growing international student populations and the success of our local graduates, throughout the world. I’m grateful for those programs that keep our universities healthy and vibrant. They are essential because all good universities need a variety of programs, in the same way that strong communities need citizens with wide-ranging skills and expertise.

But where are the arts in the future of Atlantic Canadian universities? Yes, all Atlantic Canadian universities have long-established and well-developed arts programs. But our arts programs are also experiencing a precipitous decline in students.

So here’s my point: Atlantic Canadian universities are in a unique position to champion the arts. Canada’s east coast is known nationally and internationally as an area of great cultural strength and wealth. We produce a ridiculous number of successful artists, and scholars, and powerful speakers, and charismatic leaders.

We also attract them. Perhaps some of you are “come-from-aways” yourselves. I am. Silver Donald Cameron is. When I interviewed James Keelaghan, a Calgarian, I asked him why so many disaster songs  – the subject of my current research – seem to come from Atlantic Canada. I was surprised and intrigued by his answer. He suggested that it was because Atlantic Canada has already had hundreds of years to develop its culture since the arrival of European settlers, whereas Canada’s west has had a much shorter history and will require hundreds more years to get to the same cultural place where Atlantic Canada already is today.

We need business, science, technology and health programs, absolutely. But we also need healthy arts programs. We in Atlantic Canada have the unique opportunity of becoming leaders in the arts at a time when many institutions are unwilling to invest in them. My point is that good curricula in Atlantic Canadian universities shouldn’t just include the arts because of tradition or expectation, but should champion them. Let’s forge our own curricular path. Let’s build on our region’s acknowledged strengths and show the world how the arts can lead the way to a more prosperous, healthy, and happy world. Thank you.

Heather Sparling is an associate professor of ethnomusicology and chair of the department of history and culture at Cape Breton University.

Captain Torres

by James Keelaghan

How small the Captain Torres
How high the sea
Gale ten and engines failing
No quarter, no lee.
They know when the wrong wave hits them,
Perdu, they’re gone.
They’ve played their share of poker
They know odds are long.
La mer ne pardonne pas

Time yet for consolation;
Each makes one call.
Signals came ship to shore,
Words plucked from the squall.
His heart a deep, deep ocean,
His voice so small.
So faint through all the static,
Five words, that’s all.
La mer ne pardonne pas

Do I count myself lucky?
I was home, the phone was ringing.
What of others’ wives who missed it,
Came home to red lights blinking?

How strange this world of wonder
Ships sailing, planes flying,
Sound sent at speed of light —
Phone calls from young men dying.
These walls bought and paid for
By labours on board
Gone months to clothe and feed us,
Gone now, forever more.
La mer ne pardonne pas.

(Lyrics reprinted with permission of James Keelaghan)

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  1. Susan Knutson / October 8, 2012 at 13:15

    In 1988, I moved from Vancouver, BC, to take up a teaching position at Université Sainte-Anne, Nova Scotia’s French Acadian university. Sainte-Anne, although it is a French university, offers a BA major in English, which shows, I think, the depth of our university’s commitment to offering genuine cultural literacy to our students. Our double major in French and English offers an exceptional foundation for full participation in our complex international culture. In my years here in the Maritimes, I have learned to love the deep culture of these coastlines and inland lakes and rivers, enriched by the histories of the First Nations, the Africadians, the French, English, Scots, and so many others. Heather Sparling is right: we are so well placed to champion the arts, and everyone would benefit.

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