It was so nice to see the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards Gala stage a massive comeback Saturday night at the National Arts Centre after so many pandemic months of concert halls falling silent, seats going cold and the livelihood of artists looking more precarious than ever.
Maybe “nice” is underplaying it. “I would say the word we all are using is ‘ecstatic’,” said NAC board of trustees chair Adrian Burns, who helped to greet the laureates that night as they arrived to the NAC.
The last time the GGPAA Gala was held in person was three years ago. In 2021, the awards were celebrated through a television broadcast in late November, accompanied by a special screening party at the NAC. It was announced at that time that the GGPAA Gala would be back in person this spring, once the curtain had fallen on the worst of the pandemic.
The laureates arrived one by one Saturday wearing their commemorative medallions from the Royal Canadian Mint. They were given red carpet treatment, pausing for photos while flanked by the Governor General's Foot Guards standing stoically and expressionless (one can only assume; they were wearing protective face masks).
There to officially welcome everyone to the 30th anniversary of the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards Gala was Gov. Gen. Mary Simon. She had presented the awards to the laureates the night before during a small ceremony at Rideau Hall. “The speeches were from the heart,” said Burns, who was among the attendees. “They were really happy and proud to be Canadian.”
Recipients of a 2022 GGPAA for Lifetime Artistic Achievement were: Fernand Dansereau, a pioneer of Quebec film and television; television broadcaster, theatre artist, scholar and activist Rita Shelton Deverell; songwriter, composer, performer, producer and philanthropist David Foster; author, pianist and songwriter Tomson Highway; and dancer, teacher, choreographer and somatic movement educator Linda Rabin. Michelle Smith was this year’s recipient of the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts. The award is named after the governor general who established the GGPAA in 1992 as a way of celebrating Canadians whose accomplishments have inspired and enriched the cultural life of our country in the categories of theatre, dance, classical music, popular music, and film and broadcasting. Choreographer and director Crystal Pite was the recipient of the National Arts Centre Award, which recognizes the work of an extraordinary nature by an individual artist or company in the past performance year.
Foster, who's worked with such artists as Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Michael Bublé and Stevie Wonder, created a stir upon his arrival. On the red carpet, he got the gala's official photographer to switch places with him in order to include as much of the crowd as possible. "Quite a turnout," the sixteen-time Grammy Award winner was heard saying. He was accompanied by his gorgeous wife, American singer-songwriter and actress Katharine McPhee.
Christopher Deacon, president and CEO of the NAC, told OBJ.social how “thrilled” they were to have the awards gala return in person this year. “For us, it’s symbolic that the performing arts can be celebrated in person. We encourage people to experience the performing arts live and in person, now that it’s possible.”
It’s been “desperate times” for the performing artists, pointed out Jayne Watson, CEO of the NAC Foundation and GGPAA Gala national committee member. “We’re not out of the pandemic yet but this is a step forward in the process, which is encouraging,” she told OBJ.social. “We’re absolutely delighted to be honouring some wonderful people this year. Hopefully, it’s a positive light on the road to recovery.”
The NAC managed to pull the night off during a busy weekend for the downtown core. The Tamarack Race Weekend was also going on, just outside the NAC building.
GGPAA Gala attendees included former prime minister Brian Mulroney and his wife, Mila; former finance minister Bill Morneau with his wife, Nancy McCain; Canada Council for the Arts director and CEO Simon Brault, Canadian Live Music Association president and CEO Erin Benjamin, and Telefilm Canada CEO and executive director Christa Dickenson, who's taking over as the president and CEO of specialty channel CPAC this fall. She was joined at the gala by her mom, beloved Ottawa culinary ambassador Margaret Dickenson. Speaking of beloved, Peter Herrndorf, who was president and CEO of the NAC from 1999 until his retirement in 2018, attended the gala. The idea for the GGPAA goes back to a discussion between him and music industry notable Brian Robertson.
Local members of the gala's national committee included businesswoman Liza Mrak, who's also on the board of the NAC Foundation. The committee was chaired by Toronto-based producer Kate Alexander Daniels.
Gala-goers, including those who attended the VIP dinner, took their seats in Southam Hall for an evening of tribute performances and National Film Board shorts that honoured each of the laureates.
From the GGPAA Foundation were its chair and CEO, Douglas Knight, and co-chair, Anik Bissonnette. Some of the former laureates who attended the gala were singer Susan Aglukark, who also performed on stage that night; Veronica Tennant, a former principal dancer of the National Ballet of Canada; and actor and singer Tom Jackson. There were many folks from out of town, including NAC Foundation board member Anisha Virani, who flew in from Vancouver with her group. "We wouldn't miss a party," she said.
The evening was also the perfect excuse to get dressed up again. For Adrian Burns, that meant being able to wear the flattering rose-printed dress that she had bought for the later-cancelled 2020 GGPAA Gala. "At least it still fits," she said good-humouredly.