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House of Culture & Convergence: An Interview with TOHU

TOHU sets the standard for sustainability in a cultural arena. The platform has helped Montreal ascend as the international capital for circus arts.

A Discussion with Soraya Martinez, Director, Partnerships & Philanthropy, TOHU

In the late 90s, Cirque du Soleil, En Piste and the National Circus Schoolwanted to create a platform for circus arts. As key organizations in Quebec’s circus sector, they wanted to create a cultural institution dedicated to the dissemination and discovery of circus arts.

TOHU now represents the realization of those dreams. Located in the Saint-Michel district in Montreal, it is a place where culture, environment and community converge.

NBS: Ms. Martinez, how would you describe TOHU?

Martinez: TOHU has contributed to Montreal’s accession as the international capital for circus arts, all while positioning itself as a benchmark for sustainable development in a cultural arena.

In the past, Cirque du Soleil operated based on where the needs were greatest. The decision Cirque du Soleil made to move to the outskirts of the former Miron quarry – also a former landfill site – was a highly symbolic gesture of revitalization.

Since then, TOHU has become a House of Culture. We were commissioned by the city of Montreal to provide hospitable entertainment and educational activities. TOHU also pursues economic revitalization of the area through local hiring and personalized training and skills development for its workforce.

TOHU’s environmental and social priorities are also reflected by our LEED Gold certified building, a Canadian first, built by suppliers who were either local or had similar missions.

NBS: Describe your business model

Martinez: All our activities are focused on our mission. Conducting activities that create social and environmental value is our reason for being – it’s not just a program like the circus. A show is as important to us as hiring someone from the community. And, for me, I define “success” as the ability to carry out our projects with partners – private or public – in accordance with our mission.

At our inception, it was not clear that we were a social enterprise; we just knew we were innovating. We wanted to become a cultural institution that was a partner to the community. With openness to community needs and by responding to these needs through our activities, I believe we make a difference. More broadly, I believe that we have participated in creating the collective consciousness about the social economy that emerged in Quebec over the last 10 years.

NBS: Tell us about the biggest challenges of your business model?

Martinez: The big challenge is assessing the impact of social initiatives. A researcher from Concordia University is currently working on one of our social and professional integration programs. She is examining the social return on investment for social enterprises, especially around integration of youth employment. We’re looking forward to the findings, especially if it can help address the concerns of social enterprises.

From an organizational point of view, turnover is very high. TOHU is not a means to an end, but a stepping stone to return to work or school. Training is a perpetual. During the last ten years, TOHU has trained more than 400 young people.

We also have to select our partners carefully. For example, we choose a sponsor based on the values of that partner’s corporate mission, which must be consistent with those of TOHU.

Finally, finding the right balance between promoting our integration program and avoiding stigmatization of employees is also a challenge. Thus, we are neither a social economy nor an insertion enterprise… and obtain little support from governments for our social professional integration program.

Like all organizations we also face financial constraints, but re-conceptualizing projects can help get rid of this constraint! It’s funny because when we have a project that we are convinced is relevant and coherent, we always find a way to make it a reality. I must also acknowledge the support of our partners who endorse our mission and are true facilitators rather than binding agents.

NBS: How do you your business stand out? Does your mission help?

Martinez: Yes, our mission helps; this is demonstrated by our business partnerships. Keurig Canada, a major company based in St-Michel, joined the project, The Falla, because it saw an opportunity for social action and wanted to contribute, like us, to the revitalization of the community. Other companies associate themselves with the green TOHU pavilion because their mission coincides with ours from an environmental perspective.

NBS: How do you see the future of social entrepreneurship?

Martinez: Traditional companies can learn from the social economy. For example, they could evaluate the issue of employability of the local workforce as a way to start a relationship with their community.

I don’t know if the social economy model will spread, but it should! The issue of return on investment (ROI) is always a factor in the short term; it will be difficult for enterprises to evaluate impacts that may take two, three or five years to accrue.

NBS: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs and interpreneurs?


  • Follow through on your decisions. Put the social and environmental values of your mission directly into your business’s DNA. In difficult times, this will give you a solid foundation that will allow you to stay on course.

  • Give yourself conditions for success. Now that you have made noble decisions, think about and decide how you will achieve your goals. Sometimes the answer is not in the organization, but in partnership with other organizations.

  • Give yourself time. You will surely go through trial and error. This is part of learning and is necessary to achieve your initial objectives.

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