Jesse Wente | Arts Leaders Feature Series

Ahead of the second-ever intake of the Support – Arts Leaders program, we spoke with several Black, Indigenous and/or People of Colour (BIPOC) arts and cultural professionals making an impact in Manitoba and across the country to hear their stories and learn from their wisdom.

Our next guest is Jesse Wente, an Anishinaabe writer, broadcaster, and arts leader.

Born and raised in Toronto, his family comes from Chicago and Genaabaajing Anishinaabek and he is a member of the Serpent River First Nation. Best known for more than two decades spent as a columnist for CBC Radio’s Metro Morning, he also worked at the Toronto International Film Festival for eleven years.

In February 2018 he was named the first Executive Director of the Indigenous Screen Office. Wente was appointed Chair of the Canada Council for the Arts in 2020, the only First Nations person to ever hold the position.


MAC: When did you first fall in love with the arts?

JESSE: The story I always tell is that I saw Star Wars, the first movie I ever saw in theatres, in 1977 when I was three years old. I think it’s okay to call Star Wars art – well, let’s put it this way, THAT Star Wars that was released in the summer of 1977 was certainly art. If I had to pinpoint a moment, that’s probably the one, because I became fairly obsessed with movies and visual culture after that.

That’s probably the inciting moment, but I was very privileged as a kid; I got to see the Toronto Symphony, I got to see the ballet, I went to Stratford [Festival]… I myself tried a little bit of acting when I was a kid, I played in a band. Art was sort of all around me at the time; I don’t have memories where it wasn’t a part of my life.

When and how did you make the decision to pursue a career in the arts sector?

My love of movies sort of lasted throughout my scholastic career. I went to Cinema Studies [Institute] at the University of Toronto; I think the goal at the time certainly would’ve been to become a filmmaker. I got a scholarship through what at the time was called the Aboriginal Achievements Foundation and is now called Indspire. Indspire [organized] the internship that I took at CBC – which I’m not sure is “the arts,” but it ended up for me being a film critic.

I’m not sure it was a decision [to pursue the arts] in that I didn’t know of anything else I wanted to do. In terms of then me turning that into an actual career, that happened over a myriad of years and a bunch of different ways, but the original impetus was really just out of a passion.

The original entry point was just – I didn’t want to be an accountant, I really wanted to make movies. It was also very important that I went to university for my family, so to me university was an avenue to make films. It ended up being an avenue to everything but that, at least initially, but that was the idea.

“Artists are the ones who predict where we’re heading, and also unlock our imagination to imagine where we could be headed.”

What does it mean to you to be the first Indigenous Board Chair for the Canada Council for the Arts?

It means a responsibility, an obligation. It’s trying to help an organization who to me is incredibly important for, not just our communities, but what is currently called Canada. It’s incredibly important, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t do better.

I’ve been fortunate, is one word one might use, or privileged, to be the first indigenous person to do a few things. I think the sort of way you take on those responsibilities and those obligations is with the idea that you’re just the first, so you’re trying to set It up so that others can follow, always.

You know, being the chair of a crown corporation was never something I truly imagined for myself, and it’s a complex relationship – as it probably should be, frankly. But [the role] exists and is part of my understanding of how funding should be and how we should be serving the various constituents that we serve. If that can be useful and help the organization serve not just First Nations, Métis and Inuit people but all people better, then I want to do whatever role I can.

I guess part of the obligation is to make sure I do a good enough job so that it’s understood – not so much [by Indigenous people], I think Indigenous people understand that we could do any of these roles – that other people understand that we should be allowed to do them, and that we might bring something that is needed – maybe particularly at these moments. If we’re actually going to tackle the main issue in front of, I think, the world, which is “how do we undo the harms of colonialism 500 years ago?”, part of that process has to be Indigenous people taking a greater role even within the systems that have done harm to them, while we also make sure that we nurture our own communities to build systems and rebuild systems that supported us before colonialism.

So, there’s two things, and between the Canada Council and the Indigenous Screen Office, I’m sort of trying to do whatever part I can for both of those roles because that’s the opportunity. It’s not so much that I’m the right person to do it, it’s just that maybe I’m in the right spot to do it. For Anishinaabe, the idea is often that leaders are there, anointed, for a time, for a specific task. If you’ve ever gone canoeing and you have to do a portage, sometimes some people are really good at the portage part but maybe they aren’t good paddlers. You sort of split up the duties, and I think given my background I had some skills that are useful in this way.

So, I’m trying to make sure to use all that I’ve been given to do the most help I can to the most people. As an arts guy, this is sort of how I’ve tried to do it.

You’ve been involved in Canada’s arts and media sector for 25 years, as a columnist, an administrator, a curator, an executive, and most recently, a writer. How have you seen the Canadian arts scene change since you began your career?

The reality is, it’s radically different. I think too often we get caught up on the snags that aren’t, that have remained the same. But it’s a very different place; you know, when I entered the media, there was no APTN. There was no Indigenous presence in movie theatres or on TV; there was no social media. A lot has happened!

A lot has changed, and as important as it is to acknowledge that, it’s also key to remember how it’s changed, which is through struggle and advocacy and activism and through enormous communal effort to move things. But again, it’s human nature, and I’m guilty of this as anyone else: as much as you may have moved things, it’s the little strands that you can dote upon. I would say those are just reminders that we still have a ways to go, but we’ve come a long way, whether it’s arts or anything.

I’ve got two kids, 14 and 15 years old, and they know more Anishinaabemowin than I did at their age – and that was taught to them at school. That’s radically different. Is it radical enough? Of course not! We know that these things are slow, and it’s never comforting that they’re slow, but nonetheless we have moved.

Sometimes I have trouble with these questions because I’m always far more interested in where we’re going in a lot of ways. I’m always interested, of course, in where we’ve been, because that helps you understand where you are and how you might want to change for the future, but I think what’s coming or what might be interesting for the Canadian cultural sector to consider is… I’ll give you an example.

When I started this, yeah, there was global media, but not like we have global media today, where a TV show made in Korea could be the most-watched thing on a major platform. That is a sizeable difference. When I was a kid, if you wanted to see the latest Asian cinema, you had to go to a theatre in Chinatown and you were lucky if you got to see it. Now you can stream it from home.

So, I think what might be interesting is, for a Canadian cultural scene that has sometimes struggled with its own identity (particularly in English Canada), that the opening up of the globe is actually an opportunity for Canadian culture to right itself, reorient itself.

I’m often asked about the future of media, and what I would say it: I think we’re in an age where the more specific you are, the more universal things become. There is an enormous opportunity for Canadian creators within an ecosystem like that, because we can be really specific. This is particularly true when it comes to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, who of course have been here longer than Canada. There’s a specificity to that that’s very unique to this place, that I think we’re beginning to see can reach audiences that are far beyond this place.

In fact, I think the media [industry] can take a lesson from the other artistic mediums where you’ve seen Indigenous people – where it’s literature, music, visual art, or whatever – really begin to take a more prominent position within Canadian culture in the past few years, with really just modicum of support. There hasn’t been some grand investment in Indigenous art; there’s just been iterations, these sort of pausing investments, and look at what it’s yielded. I think that’s both a sign of the investment, it’s certainly a sign of the vibrancy of the talent that’s available, but it’s also a sign that there’s an audience that we sometimes haven’t always recognized that’s both of us, but also not us.

So, I think there’s a lot of opportunity for the Canadian cultural sector institutions. I think the artists are already sort of there – it’s up to the institutions to sort of catch up. I think we too often worry about how we’re going to compete in a global space, when the fastest way to compete is investment into ourselves and telling very specific stories that can reach beyond that – because what’s the key to any of that stuff? Visionary storytelling, and I don’t think there’s a lack of that in Canada, whatever artistic medium you want to find. And there’s always an audience for it.

I’m very bullish about all of the opportunities that’re present, while also being realistic about how hard it has been and how hard it is going to continue to be just because of the pandemic. The strategic plan that the Canada Council put out was called “Arts now, more than ever.” To me, what this moment is really requiring is, we need to be able to envision what the future looks like, and who helps us do that but artists? Artists are the ones – sometimes for good, sometimes for bad – who predict where we’re heading, and also unlock our imagination to imagine where we could be headed. We desperately need that, because look at what the imagination of artists and storytellers has wrought.

The first time I ever saw an iPad was on an episode of Star Trek from the 60s; that’s what art can help us do. It’s not that these things are idle, it’s that we [can] imagine something and humans have the capacity to make those things real – that’s our gift as an animal. We need artists to help cue our imagination, because right now we need to be imagining what our future is, and we need to be reorienting ourselves to that future. I’m confident artists can help us get there.

“The role is not that you yourself can shift these things by ninety degrees; your role is, can you shift them by one? That shift by one degree, that change will mean a different outcome.”

In your book Unreconciled, you speak about the harms of misrepresenting Indigenous people in media, and the importance of truthful Indigenous representation in the arts, created by Indigenous artists. How important is it to see Indigenous people behind-the-scenes as well, in administrative, executive and board positions?

It’s as important, if not more important. I don’t think you get narrative sovereignty if you don’t also control the decisions that get made. The reality is that representation on-screen is needed and important, but if you don’t have decision-making power, then it will only extend so far.

I think we understand this as Indigenous people quite well. In so many sectors, we’ve been stripped of decision-making power around how things operate for us, and it has not worked out well. The idea is, we need similar controls. There are all sorts of evidence in how that can be effective and yield better outcomes.

I think it’s incredibly important; that’s why [the Arts Leaders program] – I wish something like that had existed when I was a younger person, although I’m not sure – I mean, I thought I was going to be an artist, I sort of fell into arts administration, so I’m not sure I would’ve self-selected. But part of the work of the Indigenous Screen Office is to make sure that there’s a destination for people who go through a program like that. We’re trying to build an organization that’s full of Indigenous arts administrators who are doing this work.

Plus, the reality is, as with narrative sovereignty, we start to get measures of it within even colonial institutions. There’s going to be required more people there. I think the real challenge is that our communities are needed a lot of places, and we want our communities to be there, especially if we’re going to access those spaces.

So yeah, it’s vitally, vitally important that the decision-making positions, the arts administrators, that we’re everywhere. If I dream of something, if I imagine what I would dream of, that’s what it would be like. We would find ourselves, our community would find itself, everywhere, and that through that presence and through all of that work… [it] would be transformative. And I think already we have to acknowledge that the discourse in Canada, by the presence of Indigenous people, has shifted. Heck, take it from 2017 to now – it’s shifted.

It’s vitally important that we’re in all of those spots, that we are supported and comfortable and can do the work we need to do for our communities and for everyone else. Sometimes what’s lost is the idea that Indigenous ways of doing and being and understanding are somehow exclusive to us, but they can benefit a lot of people. So please, more arts administrators! And if more people go, I will do my part to make sure there are jobs there.

What advice do you have for aspiring Indigenous arts and cultural professionals?

Stay true to what you believe and who you are. Try to, as much as you can, keep the teachings and our way of being at the center of what you do, our communities at the center of what you do. Know that there’s a lot of people there to support you. Know that you’re exactly where your ancestors want and need you to be, you’re where our community needs you to be.

And make sure you, as much as you can, take care of yourself. This is not always easy work, and to know that part of what all of this is a part of is healing.

I’ve begun to understand the work that I do is part of healing – for me, for our community. So try to be kind to yourself as you go through it. Making sure you’re okay is what allows you to be there for community as much as you can be.

Know that there’s a network there, because there were aunties and uncles that came before me. They might not have held the exact roles that I did, but they were there doing the work to make sure one day someone would hold those roles. And likewise, I’m just another uncle who’s trying to make sure that there will be space. I look to the folks who came before, but the folks that are coming behind, and that’s how we know that we’re supported.

The other advice I would give is a piece of advice I got before I took on the chair of the Canada Council: when you start a journey and you’re on a path, and you change directions by a single degree, it seems like you’re on the exact same path; it seems like you’re travelling in the exact same direction. But after a while, after time has passed, that shift of one degree will actually mean you’ve ended up in a completely different place than where you’ve started.

The role is not that you yourself can shift these things by ninety degrees; your role is, can you shift them by one? That shift by one degree, that change will mean a different outcome. It will also mean that if you shift that one degree, the person who comes after you, maybe it’ll be a bit easier for them to shift another degree. And then you can truly have transformation.

So don’t burden yourself with having to completely change everything – that’s not how I’ve done it. It came from building up over time, me building on other people’s works, knowing that other people would build on my work. This is why I can say, from when I entered to now, it’s radically different, but where were the leaps in that? I’m not sure I would necessarily identify them. What I would say is incremental steps.

Take comfort in those steps, don’t be hard on yourself for the leaps and valleys. As often said to me: you never get to leap unless you take a bunch of little steps first. Know that you’re loved, and that you’re enough, and that really the whole secret to everything is: we’re here to try to help each other, and that’s how humans exist. So do that, and do it the best you can, and everything else will sort out.


Apply to the Arts Leaders program

The Manitoba Arts Council’s Arts Leaders program supports building the capacity for leadership by individuals who self-identify as Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Colour (BIPOC) in Manitoba’s arts and cultural sector. The program has the goal of seeing more BIPOC professionals in senior leadership positions in the arts.

This program is supported through a partnership agreement between Manitoba Arts Council and The Winnipeg Foundation.

The next deadline to apply is February 15, 2022! For more information on how to apply, visit https://artscouncil.mb.ca/support-arts-leaders/.