A Roundtable Sponsored by the Conseil des arts de Montréal and the British Council
This year Montréal will celebrate the 375th anniversary of its foundation by French colonists Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance, the first governor of the city and the founder of its first hospital, respectively. The fact that this territory was seized by force from its original inhabitants, the Iroquois and other Nations, is increasingly recognized in official and other cultural events. At very least, lip-service is now being paid to this historical fact.
One such event was the roundtable entitled Montreal – “Cultural Vitality and Inclusive Artistic Communities,” which took place on February 3, 2017 and was co-sponsored by the Conseil des arts de Montréal and the British Council. It was fittingly inaugurated with a statement to the effect that this roundtable was taking place in unceded Iroquois territory. The event was conducted in French, English and American Sign Language (ASL). On this occasion, the word “inclusive” in its title meant the inclusion of artists with “handicaps” such as deafness, autism and Tourette’s syndrome. The speakers, however, made little reference to people from different cultures, ethnic origins or language groups, with the exception of Charles Bender, a First Nation’s speaker. Mr. Bender is a well-known media and theatre personality who has acted in multicultural settings such as Teesri Duniya, a colour-blind, socially aware theatre group with close ties to Montréal Serai.
Jess Thom was the British Council’s contribution to the roster of speakers. And what a contribution! Her talk was received with a standing ovation, an irony considering that Ms. Thom is confined to a wheelchair and suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. Well, she would not agree with the word “suffers,” because she has turned her handicap into an asset. People with Tourette’s syndrome tend to have physical and verbal ticks, and some of them cannot control the use of salacious words. As Ms. Thom explained, Tourette’s syndrome is a spectrum disease, with different neurological characteristics. She considered herself to be seriously afflicted until a friend of hers told her that she was a word manufacturing machine and should use this to her advantage. She certainly did that by becoming a stand-up comedian. Ms. Thom is a well-known performer who has travelled extensively, inspiring the public and making audiences laugh. Her insights were uplifting and informative. She proved that so-called “handicaps” can be turned to one’s advantage with proper sustenance from institutions and society at large. She also touched briefly on the concept of “relaxed theatre” in which people with autism, Tourette’s syndrome or sensory hypersensitivity – or even parents with young children – can relax without fear of disrupting the performance. Ms. Thom and other speakers urged cities to provide greater cultural access for their differently-abled inhabitants. Montréal Serai’s representative suggested providing free access to museums and the like for the homeless, but this recommendation seems to have fallen through the cracks in the final conclusions.
Montréal Serai wishes to thank the Conseil des arts de Montréal for its invitation to participate in this roundtable discussion. We hope to be invited to make a contribution to the 375th-anniversary celebrations of Montréal. After all, we have just celebrated our own 30 years of sustaining culturally marginalized voices and bringing them closer to the centre.