By Tracey Mitchell, Saskatoon


Is art revolutionary? Highly political and intimate, Canadian survivor art flourished in the post-asylum era. For Tracey Mitchell, the curator who pulled this exhibit together, the work was deeply personal. Join us inside the virtual gallery she created to see how expressions of mad culture have enriched our world.


sur·vi·vor cul·ture
1. noun. Arts cultivated by those who live beyond psychiatric treatment.

Survivor culture is visual art so infused with beauty and pain that you can’t stop looking at it. Survivor culture is a theatre production where the audience has a chance to rehearse for reality by stepping in to change the scene. Survivor culture is a poem full of blood. Survivor culture is individual and collective. Survivor culture is not art therapy, or stories solicited for public education. Survivor art is political: it is the cultural expression of a quest for justice.

Patient newspapers like The Reversing Falls Review in New Brunswick and The Leader in BC were a feature of the late institutional period, but authentic survivor culture could not happen in the large residential facilities. Art was an immediate outcome of the shift to community-based mental health. Cultural expression had the potential to be healing for those reclaiming their own experience through art, but from the start it clearly also had broader political implications. Mad artists of all kinds raised social consciousness about the effects of the asylum-era and the continued shortcomings of the mental health system. Psychiatric survivors allied themselves with feminist movements, queer movements, anti-racist movements and others, challenging dominant structures and mainstream values.

Recognizing the dominance of professional voices in public discourse about psychiatric issues, psychiatric survivors began to reclaim their own narratives, positioning themselves as “experts” on mental health. Rather than living in shame and secrecy, as survivors were often encouraged to do, they spoke out, made art, and created community. This was a powerful process. Sheila Gilhooly, one of the first visual artists in Canada to be “out” about her mental health history declared, “When you flaunt something, nobody can use it against you.” In the 1970s and 1980s, a cluster of mad newspapers and magazines - In a Nutshell, Phoenix Rising and Our Voice/Notre Voix – emerged. Soon, there were also books to tell the tales, published by small alternative presses willing to push the edges on important issues. Art exhibits, film screenings, and theatre projects, among other cultural expressions, added new dimension to what had been expressed previously on paper. This multi-part exhibit just scratches the surface, sharing six of the myriad cultural projects that emerged across the country from the 1970s into the millennium. The individual exhibits were researched and written by people working in different parts of the country. You can find their names in the text of each exhibit.

Uncovering the History of My Community

In the summer of 2013 I was asked to create an exhibit that showcased the history of survivor culture in Canada. The projects that I selected span the period from 1979 to 2013 and include a diversity of age, cultural forms and ethnic backgrounds. The fact that almost all my selections are based in Canada's biggest cities – Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal – may be an indication that it is easier to “come out” as a psychiatric survivor in these centres, just as urban locales were early epicentres of queer culture.

I have training as a historian and a familiarity with much of the contemporary literature on mental health. Between 2005 and 2007 I published On Edge, a zine that tackled issues of mental health and activism. As many of the artists profiled in this project have shared, I found that when I recorded elements of my own story of survival and made it public, many, many people identified with my experiences and told me so. But I knew nothing of the older projects showcased in this exhibit. I had no idea, for instance, that David Reville, an “out” psychiatric survivor and early mad movement activist, had spent years as an elected municipal and provincial official in the 1980s, and had excerpts of his journals published in the 1988 book Shrink Resistant. Such stories were extremely empowering. The opportunity to meet contributors like Erin Arnold and Sheila Gilhooly was one of the highlights of my life. Developing a deeper understanding of how psychiatric survivors form a political movement, I am now convinced that our culture must be about building community and solidarity in the face of personal and political struggle.  Every individual tale must also be understood as part of a collective story, a response to the master narrative of mainstream “sane” society.

Nurturing Survivor Culture

Sharing one's story on one's own terms can be an empowering and transformative experience. It is also risky and difficult and is best done in the context of a supportive community, as many of those profiled in this project have pointed out. Without the support of the lesbian feminist community in Vancouver, for example, neither of the Still Sane projects would have been possible. Likewise, Montreal’s Solidarité Psychiatrie members needed community to keep their organization alive and to make it safe to share the personal stories that brought mad film to a Canadian audience.

Pen and ink sketch of naked woman curled in fetal position falling, "To the beginners of the universe" enscribed

Kathy Frank pen and ink sketch, "The beginners of the universe"

Survivor Culture also requires a receptive audience. Some of the books profiled here - Shrink Resistant, Call Me Crazy and La Folie comme de raison - were published for a survivor readership and were critical to the growth of collective/community identity. It's important to have “niche” projects like these in nascent communities where artists and writers can generate, explore, and build on ideas. The same could be said for many early books in the queer movements and feminist movements. It's also essential to have projects that spread survivors’ ideas into wider milieus. Still Sane did this in the 1980s by building bridges between mental health and lesbian feminist communities. Thirty years later, Crazymaking did this by fostering solidarity between survivor and Indigenous communities. The Maladjusted theatre project purposefully emphasized the broad-ranging impact of mental health concerns, asking audience members to raise their hand if the issues in the play resonated for them. Every night most hands in the audience went up.

Yet while community was vital to all of the projects, success often rested on the actions of key individuals. The passion and dogged hard work of people like Don Weitz, Bonnie Burstow, Irit Shimrat, Tania Willard, Robert Letendre and Chantal Saab meant that books were published, art shows took place, and the individual became the collective.

And of course all of these projects needed funding to make them public. In some cases, established, progressive arts organizations with solid funding bases like Theatre for Living and Gallery Gachet produced ventures. In other cases, individuals who initiated the projects had to raise most of their own funds, and here community support was essential. Significantly, every single project profiled on these pages benefited from state funding - grants from Canada Council on the Arts and provincial arts grants. The trend of decreased funding for arts and community organizations jeopardizes the capacity of artists and survivors to create vital projects like those profiled here.


Most of the projects showcased in this exhibit were initiated and completed by people who identify as psychiatric survivors, though some don't use that label. A few prefer to be described as consumers, a term that does not fit the activist, engaged history we tell here. Others connected to the exhibits, most notably the young artists involved in the Crazymaking project, don't identify with any specific mental health term. We chose to use the word “survivor” not because it is perfect, but because it is perhaps the best descriptor among those available.

Power, Hierarchy and Intersectionality

The sane/insane question is a sometimes silent, but always present, aspect of survivor culture. In the Still Sane project, both artists identified as survivors, but found that viewers and reviewers sometimes responded differently to each of them because Sheila’s survivor experience was more front and centre than Persimmon’s. Difficulties also arose periodically within Solidarité Psychiatrie’s programming and cultural initiatives between those who had psychiatric survivor histories and those who did not. In other projects, such as Maladjusted, participants said they didn’t believe that there was a divide between survivors and non-survivors, and the survivors involved felt the experience was empowering.

In a cultural territory with an explicit social justice agenda, equity needs to be understood as a complex issue. In survivor culture, art has been employed as a vehicle to explore intersections between mental health inequities and other forms of discrimination and marginalization. The Crazymaking project and some essays in Shrink Resistant make clear the effect of colonization on mental health for Indigenous peoples. Likewise, the Still Sane project focuses on the historical treatment of queer people by the psychiatric establishment. The projects showcased here only just begin to open the door to an understanding of how gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability, and economic circumstance, among other forms of oppression, complicate a mental health diagnosis.

Not a Consensus

A multitude of voices and perspectives find expression in the projects profiled on these pages. Don Weitz and Bonnie Burstow, editors of the pathbreaking Shrink Resistant collection, argue that psychiatry should be abolished entirely. Many of the recommendations that came out of the 2013 Maladjusted theatre project, in contrast, argue for increased funding and more doctors and mental health workers. Interviewed in 1993 by Irit Shimrat for her luminous collective biography of the mad movement, Lanny Beckman, himself the instigator of MPA, Canada’s first survivor organization, told Irit that it was important that she understand that they didn't have to agree. Difference, and the acceptance of difference, threads through the rich history of our culture, enhancing the power of art to give voice, create community, and foster social justice.