Peter Herrndorf came to Winnipeg when he was seven and learned about his new home through local choirs and theatre, eventually leading him to one of the top arts jobs in the country.

Herrndorf will be stepping down as president of the National Arts Centre in June after 18 years shaping arts across the country.

"The arts allowed me to discover my adopted country and it made me, and you can tell all these years later, it made me a passionate, passionate Canadian," he said on CBC Radio's Up To Speed on Thursday afternoon.

Born in the Netherlands, Herrndorf came to Winnipeg with his family in the late 1940s and eventually went to the University of Manitoba, and much later received an honorary degree from the University of Winnipeg. Growing up in the city gave him a taste of the arts, and he quickly understood how important they are. 

"The arts were really instructive in terms of feeding my curiosity," he said.

He joined the CBC in 1965 in Winnipeg, then moved to CBC Edmonton as a current affairs producer, and then to Toronto in 1967 to be a producer of a current affairs show. From 1974 to 1983, Herrndorf held a variety of roles at CBC, including head of TV current affairs programming, vice-president of corporate planning, and vice-president and general manager of CBC's English-language radio and television networks.

He became president of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in 1999, with the goal to make it reflect the entire country.

"I wanted to make sure that it was an organization that had an impact in Winnipeg, in Edmonton, in Calgary, in Vancouver, in Charlottetown," he said.

"And the good news is that's happened to a considerable degree."

He said the centre also has an important role in reconciliation.

One year ago, the centre presented Gord Downie's live show of Secret Path, an album and accompanying graphic novel telling the story of Chanie Wenjack. Wenjack was 12 years old when he died in 1966 trying to escape from residential school near Kenora, Ont.

The National Arts Centre Orchestra is performing I Lost My Talk in Winnipeg this week at the Centennial Concert Hall. The work is based on the poem by the late Mi'kmaq elder Rita Joe where she explains the pain of being forbidden to speak her own language in residential school in Nova Scotia.

"For about 10 years the National Arts Centre has step by step expanded the work it does around Indigenous themes, not only for reasons of reconciliation but also because there are extraordinary Indigenous artists in every part of the country," Herrndorf said.