The Massey Commission, formally known as the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, was officially appointed on 8 April 1949 by Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent.
The Massey Commission, formally known as the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, was officially appointed on 8 April 1949 by Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent. The Commission was chaired by Vincent Massey and issued its landmark report, the Massey Report, on 1 June 1951. After investigating the state of arts and culture in Canada, the Massey Commission advocated for the federal funding of a wide range of cultural activities, and made a series of important recommendations that resulted in the founding of the National Library of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada), the creation of the Canada Council for the Arts, federal aid for universities and the conservation of Canada’s historic places, among other initiatives. The recommendations that were made by the Massey Report, and enacted by the federal government, are generally seen as the first major steps by the Canadian government to nurture, preserve and promote Canadian culture.
The question of financial aid for universities and the role of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) had been growing concerns for the Liberal government of Louis St- Laurent. The use of propaganda and cultural institutions by totalitarian regimes in Germany and the Soviet Union during the Second World War also led many arts groups in Canada to call for government support of art and culture as a way to protect democracy.
There was also growing concern over the anemic state of Canadian culture and the pervasive influence of American culture in Canada. Canada’s increasing military and economic association with the US in the post-war period led to rising fears of continentalism. At the time, few books were published in Canada and movie theatres played American films almost exclusively. There was also little in the way of Canadian musical performance, which was blamed on the high cost of copying orchestral parts and scores, but also on the prejudices of audiences and publishers.
In 1949, to address these issues, St-Laurent asked University of Toronto Chancellor Vincent Massey to lead the Royal Commission on the Development of the Arts, Letters and Sciences. Massey had a hand in selecting his fellow commissioners: Hilda Neatby, a history professor at the University of Saskatchewan; Arthur Surveyor, a civil engineer from Montréal; Norman Mackenzie, president of the University of British Columbia; and Georges Henri Lévesque, dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Laval University.
The “Massey Commission,” as it came to be called, held 114 public meetings across Canada in 16 cities and heard from some 1,200 witnesses. About 450 briefs were heard, and experts in various fields were invited to present special studies. One such study on the state of music in Canada was written by Sir Ernest MacMillan. The Commission examined the role of federal agencies such as the National Research Council, National Film Board (NFB), CBC and National Gallery.
Perhaps most important, the Commission investigated the overall state of culture in Canada. Recognizing that their task was “concerned with nothing less than the spiritual foundations of our national life,” the commissioners set out to search for “what can make our country great, and what can make it one” — the last remark a reference to the duality of French and English heritages.
The Commission’s report recognized that the development of Canadian culture was challenged by “vast distances, a scattered population, our youth as a nation, [and] easy dependence on a huge and generous neighbour.” As a result of these challenges, the report argued that the arts and culture in Canada were indeed in a state of anemia: “If modern nations were marshalled in the order of the importance which they assign to those things with which this inquiry is concerned, Canada would be found far from the vanguard; she would even be near the end of the procession.”
The report concluded that Canada faced “influences from across the border as pervasive as they are friendly,” and warned against “the very present danger of permanent dependence” on American culture. The report also pointed out the lack of a first-class music library, a published history of music in Canada, a music information centre, and university facilities for graduate training in musical research.
The report ultimately argued in favour of state support for the arts on the grounds that “it is in the national interest to give encouragement to institutions which express national feeling, promote common understanding and add to the variety and richness of Canadian life, rural as well as urban.” Recommending federal patronage, the report stated: “Good will alone can do little for a starving plant; if the cultural life of Canada is anaemic, it must be nourished, and this will cost money. This is a task for shared effort in all fields of government, federal, provincial and local.”
Recommendations and Results
The report made several recommendations, some of which were enacted soon after the report was submitted, while others were invoked several years later. St-Laurent was already predisposed to funding higher learning. The prime minister had commented in 1950 that, “Some means must be found to ensure our universities the financial capacity to perform the many services which are required in the interest of the nation.” His government acted upon the recommendation to provide funding to Canadian universities right away, despite criticisms.
Perhaps the most important recommendation was that which called for the establishment of a “Canada Council for the Encouragement of the Arts, Letters, Humanities and Social Sciences.” Worried about the political fallout of a policy directed purely at culture, the St-Laurent government was not predisposed to act on this recommendation. (The prime minister was said to have replied, somewhat disdainfully, “Funding ballet dancers?”)
It was not until 1957 that the St-Laurent government acted and created the Canada Council for the Arts. Its mandate, according to the Canada Council for the Arts Act, was to “foster and promote the study and enjoyment of, and the production of works in, the arts.” Patronage would take the form of scholarships at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and for persons engaged in the arts and letters to study in Canada or abroad. The Council would also promote Canadian music, drama and ballet through underwriting tours, commissioning music for events of national importance and establishing awards for promising young artists. At its inception, the Canada Council was referred to by the Globe and Mail as “one of the most remarkable achievements in the development of Canadian culture.”
Other significant recommendations of the Massey Report included the creation of a national library, the construction of a new home for the National Gallery and the expansion of the NFB. Most of these recommendations were carried out. The National Library of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada) was founded in 1953. Plans for a new building to house the National Gallery were halted in 1954, and the Lorne Building in Ottawa was used as a temporary home until the Gallery’s current building was completed in 1988. The NFB was expanded and relocated from Ottawa to Montréal in 1956, and a separate French production branch was established in 1964.
Criticisms, Impact and Legacy
The Massey Report was generally well received, particularly by those in the artistic and intellectual community. It did, however, have its detractors, including the Québec government of Maurice Duplessis, which argued that many of the report’s provisions were an intrusion into provincial areas of jurisdiction, such as culture. Georges Henri Levesque, the Commission’s highest-profile Québec representative, bore the brunt of the most vociferous criticism.
Over time, the Commission’s view of culture — with its emphasis on refinement, education and taste — has come to appear dated and somewhat elitist. As well, little was recommended in the way of promoting and preserving Indigenous art and culture. Nonetheless, the Massey Report is considered a landmark moment in Canada’s cultural history. Robert Fulford, writing in the National Post in 2001, called it “the most important official document in the history of Canadian culture.”
To appreciate the historical importance of the Massey Report, it should be remembered that state support of the arts — long taken for granted in most European countries and flourishing modestly at the time in Québec — was an unpopular idea in North America. Many people felt that any enterprise that did not pay for itself did not deserve to exist. Others feared that state support would mean state control. Advocating the spending of public funds for artistic endeavours was considered suicidal by elected politicians. (By comparison, the US government did not create its artistic funding body, the National Endowment for the Arts, until 1965.) The policies that were put in place following the Massey Report and the various other commissions that followed had a tangible impact on the Canadian cultural landscape.
As the “Federal Government Policy on Arts and Culture” reported in 2013, “Between 1971 and 1981, the arts labour force increased from some 156,000 to about 273,000 — a 74 per cent increase compared to a 39 per cent increase in the total workforce. The audience for performing arts nearly doubled from about five million in 1972 to more than nine million in 1983. Federal government spending on culture increased from $400 million in 1972 to $1.8 billion in 1987.”
The Canada Council, the most important result of the Commission’s report, continues to support artists’ endeavours; it issued more than 6,000 grants from 2011 to 2012. The role of the state in supporting the arts has been firmly established since the Massey Commission, although periodic debates about the depth and breadth of government support continue.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences 1949–1951, Library and Archives Canada.
Michael Dewing, “Federal Government Policy on Arts and Culture,” Library of Parliament Research Publications, Social Affairs Division (31 January 2013).
David A. Walden, “Paradigm Shift in the Arts and Cultural Heritage: From Supply to Demand and the Demand to Supply,” keynote address given at Heritage Conservation 20/20: Hindsight and Foresight at the Round Table in Montréal organized by the Canada Research Chair on Built Heritage, School of Architecture, Université de Montréal.