Op Ed: Art, poetry, pornography and why the GNWT should lighten up

There’s an art piece in the Legislative Assembly that I like.

The serpentine carving by Rankin Inlet’s Joanie Kaviq sits on a coffee table on the mezzanine that leads to the Visitors Gallery. It depicts two walruses ostensibly engaged in a sexual act.

Whenever I take a few citizenly hours to check on our elected officials, I pay my homage to the humping stone beasts. Yes, they do remind me of Odobenus famously disproportionate male appendage – which is hilarious – but firstly, to me, they are the keepers of the freedoms that this building embodies. They stand like a good poem, screwing in the People’s Hall, in a playful test of political license.

Their presence reassures me that the liberal ideals upon which our democracy is erected are still safeguarded somewhat. So I say a prayer.

walrus friend
you make me feel
like a ‘Rainbow Spoken’ sign
as they say in your language

I’m French Canadian, the concept of “profanity” is foreign to me. No shit.

So you can picture my ass of a face when I received this email from the department of Industry, Tourism and Investment informing me that the spoken-word clips I attempted to upload on their public arts website had been “deemed inappropriate” after being screened for “anything that has pornography, profanity or takes a political stance.”


NWTArts.com is like MySpace run by the GNWT. If you’re an artist or a confirmed hobbyist, you can build a profile with a bio and examples of your work. The thinking is when there’s a gig for a token Northerner doing whatever’s-your-shtick, you might score it if you’re listed, though it appears Northern pornographers are out of luck.

I’m not sure where my poems went too far as the ITI Thoughts and Morality Unit wouldn’t say, but I’m adamant my work contains nothing but poetry.

The first clip was recorded in Lausanne, Switzerland, at an international spoken-word festival where I was a guest performer.

To put it terribly, it’s an alliterative piece that confronts the comfortably white to the inborn injustices of colonialism, sort’a shit. There’s cussing. Twice. I use “tabarnak” as a toponym and “ouate de phoque” which is a French Canadian vernacular for “WTF.”

The other clip is from a performance at an arts forum in Ottawa. It’s an anaphoric piece built around a childish term for “penis” and a bunch of pop references from Atanarjuat to Valerie Solanas. It’s a metaphor salad. In one stanza, I use the swearwords “tabarnak” and “hostie” as compliments.

Again, I was invited (and paid) to say these awful things. These were the images of a Northern performer making his territory proud in front of national and international audiences, the kind of stuff you’d expect the Arts Program to support.

Let onlookers decide

Perhaps my art is indeed too lewd for good taste. I don’t think it’s up to me to make that call. I write poems and say them. I leave the reactions to onlookers.

What I do know is that if my inoffensive poems are overboard then there’s probably a lot of art that’s too much for the Arts website and that seems to be defying the concept.

I’m sure you can think of acting performances by Tulita’s own Leslie Nielsen that would end up in ITI’s garbage can. If the next Alice Cooper (or Gustave Courbet) is from the NWT, the government probably won’t showcase him. And too bad for the next Miley Cyrus.

Would Joanie Kaviq mating pinnipeds cut it?

What if an artist graphically exposes the family violence that is more common than anywhere else in Canada? Is that profane?

“Anything that takes a political stance” is another broad category that sounds a lot like “whatever we disagree with.”

In the rejection email they sent me, ITI writes that they enforce this thought control policy in order to preserve the government’s “neutrality.”

Wait? Wouldn’t neutrality imply that the government promotes art regardless of its perceived ideological content?

But what do I know?

I’m a poet. Free speech is what makes my life worth the ride. Much of my art “takes a political stance” in its celebration. As Allen Ginsberg said, “I’m not sorry.”

So I cancelled my NWTArts account.

I’ll be back at the Legislative Assembly though, whispering my poems to the glorious screwing walruses, while they’re around.


photo courtesy Batiste Foisy


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