El Sistema in Canada

An update to this page, including a directory of the major Sistema programs, was posted on February 16, 2012, and is available here.

I’m somewhat surprised by this realization, but I’ve never seen a Canadian el Sistema initiative myself. It isn’t for lack of programs: I’ve heard of startups in Calgary, Hamilton, Mississauga, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton, but I’ve simply never had the opportunity to visit.

In writing the attached article, I was compelled by both circumstance and journalistic ethics to focus on what I did know and could report factually and objectively. Fortunately for me, there was plenty to report for May, with perhaps the two biggest el Sistema events of the year outside of Venezuela taking place in Canada in the month.

Even beyond the conferences, the evolution of Sistema in Canada bears watching closely. Canada occupies a somewhat strange position in the political spectrum, an uneasy straddling between the highly centralized funding models of Western Europe and Venezuela, and the American opposite, the near-complete reliance on the private sectors. Zarin Mehta, now President of the New York Philharmonic, once described this as “the worst of both worlds,” perhaps more than a little unkindly. (See this article if you’re interested in understanding why he said it, but in the briefest of summaries, the balance between government and individual funding means that organizations have some wretched, stagnant stability, without the funds or real need to innovate.) This philosophy extends into the social sector too, with implications that go far beyond the structural; in nations with higher levels of socialization, different social problems arise and manifest in different ways. In the very least, disadvantage is less apparent, and I can say that with confidence having lived on both sides of the 49th parallel. Not less prevalent, necessarily, just less immediately visible, and also focused within different ethnic demographics.

Canada is also quite fortunate in having a relatively well-functioning school system that compares favourably when  ranked internationally. One province in particular is gaining tremendous attention in Britain for its pedagogical and organizational methods. Arts education is generally strong, and Canada as a nation has produced a disproportionate number of world-class artists against the size of its population.

At some point during my South African travels, one jaundiced local, when asked to comment on the Cape Festival’s plans for a núcleo in Johannesburg, fairly shouted “we don’t NEED yet another program.” It was selfish protectionism at its best – or worst – and I disagreed. There will always be a need until every child has a meaningful choice to participate in music. It’s very easy to advocate need against the backdrop of the townships of South Africa, the barrios of Venezuela, the slums of Calcutta, the favelas of Brazil, or on the residential frontlines of the sub-prime crisis in the United States. It’s not so easy in Canada, Britain, France, or Germany, where disadvantage has a different metaphorical, literal and practical face. There is need in Canada too, despite its eminent position on the UN’s Human Development Index. This is what will make the development of Sistema there so interesting, what kind of balance is found between government and the private sector, what role Sistema takes on in the broader context of  the national schooling philosophy, and most interesting of all, what arguments are advanced on the movement’s behalf.

To be continued in London, Ontario, on the 29th…

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