Notes on 35th Text for Reading Field: Litt

Canadian History, Week Six


Paul Litt. The Muses, the Masses, and the Massey Commission. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Paul Litt studies the making, deliberations, and outcome of the landmark Massey Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences from1949-1951. He assesses the extent of its contributions and limitations. Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and his Cabinet are credited with deciding it was time that a royal commission be struck to address a range of pressing issues regarding Canadian arts, letters, and sciences. Brooke Claxton, a powerful Liberal minister, brought the commission together under the leadership of Vincent Massey — Anglophile and diplomat, and, at the time, chancellor of the University of Toronto. His fellow commissioners included: Hilda Neatby, associate professor of history and acting head of that department at the University of Saskatchewan; Georges-Henri Levesque, Dominican priest and founder of the social sciences faculty at Laval University; Norman Mackenzie, president of the University of British Columbia; and Arthur Surveyor, civil engineer, businessman and, in the end, odd-man-out in terms of opinion.

Litt presents the collective goal of the commissioners at the outset as one of delivering to the unlettered Canadian masses a palatable program of cultural edification – which they described as “the spiritual foundations of our national life” and which Litt delights in signifying as ‘culcha.’ In Litt’s view they calculatedly sought to “seduce their skeptics and confound their enemies” by linking support for culcha/culture to popular post war nationalism.[1] Culture was seen as a means of binding Canadians together and supplying an identity distinct from any other nation. The ‘other’ most feared was America, which, to the commissioner’s way of thinking, was bent on spreading a disturbingly low culture, evidenced in the mass appeal of its commercial advertising and entertainment industries. The dire consequence of leaving this invasion unchecked would be the stultifying of independent thought and the prevention of any uniquely Canadian self-expression. Properly protected and nurtured, the Canadian capacity for self-expression would, according to the commissioners projections, preserve and promote the code of humanistic values inherited from their Western European past. The commissioners felt this task required the involvement of all Canadians, of all origins, creeds, and classes.

Litt describes the perspective of the commissioners as elitist. Post war prosperity, and heightened sense of world stature, not to mention euphoria at the success of the state-led successful war effort, was conducive to supporting the conviction in Canada that, in combination, state power, enlightened public opinion, and expert guidance ensured social progress. But, to be enlightened, the public needed the guidance of experts. The experts in turn required the support of state power if the public were to be effectively steered away from following their baser impulses. The commissioners’ prescriptive solutions, as well as their models of culture and their conception of society were hierarchically organized. Academics and creative artists were invariably positioned at the top; teachers, librarians, hobbyists, and other disseminators of knowledge followed; at the bottom there were the assumed ignorant — but in Litt’s view, more likely merely unimpressed — masses.

The gap between the commissioners and the largest proportion of their audience (the Canadian public), is presented by Litt as a pronounced social divide that persistently marked the Canadian culture debate during the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was enunciated, on the one side, as a division between elites and masses, and, on the other, as between high-brows and red-necks. For Canadian artistic and academic lobbies, the Massey Commission promised the victory of liberal humanism and Canadian nationalism over the vulgarity of the American mass market. For private broadcasters and the business community, the Commission was an unwarranted intervention whereby ‘longhairs’ would gain support at the tax payers’ expense and prevent entrepreneurs from accessing avenues of revenue and providing products the ‘common man’ actually wanted. Litt notes that it is reasonable to assume that in reality most Canadians neither fit the characterization accorded them by either elites or business, nor espoused exclusively high or low cultural forms, but sampled aspects of each in varying amounts

Litt acknowledges that the Commission has been recognized as accomplishing a great deal and leaving a meaningful legacy. After raising awareness, traveling across the country, attending 114 hearings in which 1200 people were questioned, then considering the merits of 462 formal submissions, reading hundreds of letters, and compiling a commendable amount of research, the Massey Commission’s Report, published in 1951, was a well written and thorough review, complete with recommendations, on a wide variety of subjects which the Commission had studied. These included: broadcasting and television, the National Film Board and other federal institutions, the establishment of the National Library of Canada, aid to universities, national scholarships, scientific research, information dissemination abroad, and the creation of a council for the arts, letters, humanities and social sciences. The Commission is credited with constructing the strategy of state-sponsored cultural development that led to the Canada Council, federal funding of universities, and the affirmation of the then two-decades-old CBC.

Though positive to a degree, Litt is reserved in his praise. Ultimately, he finds that Report was at best only a qualified success in determining cultural policy: it was not revolutionary, but merely “expedited an incipient change of attitude within Canadian political culture.”[2] Further, he observes that “The areas which got [government] attention were those which had prompted the creation of the commission” in the first place — other areas languished in neglect.[3] He points out that a system for providing university funding would likely have been devised whether the Commission had been created or not. The eventual, belated, setting up of the Canada Council appears to have owed more to a fortuitous occurrence (two millionaires died in the same year, leaving estate succession duties of over $100 million combined) than to any recommendation. In addition, a number of the Commission’s recommendations had previously been selected by St. Laurent’s government for possible implementation, for example television policy and the creation of a national library. Others were being investigated separately, for example the desirability of a new Film Act by the Woods-Gordon audit of the National Film Board. Some recommendations were never followed: the CBC for example did not attain the regulatory position that the majority of commissioners had set for it – to the contrary, its supervisory powers over broadcasting were eventually revoked, and license fees for radio and television sets were dropped.

Implicit in Litt’s text is sympathy for populism and the right to self-determine and enjoy popular culture. His conclusion explicitly presents the commissioners’ perspective as the Commissions’ greatest shortcoming. They viewed the Canadian people with suspicion. They were unwilling to engage with the idea of mass culture as legitimate and possibly even worthy of expression. In effect, they were intent on imposing a form of social imperialism.

“Canada 1950s,” posted on YouTube by leighammanor, 7 June 2009.

Additional resources:

Joan Nicks, review, The Muses, the Masses, and the Massey Commission by Paul Litt, Canadian Journal of Communication 19, no. 1 (1994) online,

Julie Stabile, review, The Muses, the Masses, and the Massey Commission by Paul Litt, Archiavaria 38 online,

[1] Paul Litt, The Muses, the Masses, and the Massey Commission (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 40.

[2] Ibid., 248.

[3] Ibid., 243.



About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
This entry was posted in Book Notes, Canadian History, Week 6 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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