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Explanation demanded for federal cut to Toronto theatre festival

Still no response from Canadian Heritage on loss of $20,000 grant for Buddies' Rhubarb Festival

Laura Nanni is the director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre's annual Rhubarb Festival. Credit: Courtesy of Buddies

Two weeks after the team at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre announced it had lost a $20,000 festival grant from Canadian Heritage, more than 1,200 supporters have signed a petition calling on the government to explain why the funding was cut.

Specifically, the change.org petition demands that Minister of Canadian Heritage Shelley Glover “publicly state the specific reasons why the Rhubarb Festival no longer meets the funding criteria for the Building Communities through Arts and Heritage program.”

“It’s amazing to see this amount of support from all different levels,” says Brendan Healy, Buddies’ artistic director. “I think the queer community is really behind us, the arts community is behind us, and we’ve got some great politicians behind us.”

With Parliament risen for the Christmas break, it’s unlikely that the federal Conservatives will face flak over the funding cut any time soon, but NDP MP Peggy Nash did ask Glover for an explanation during question period on Dec 10, the last day that the House of Commons sat.

“Canadian Heritage is responsible for actually providing funding to over 11,000 festivals across this country from coast to coast to coast. In fact, all of them go through a rigorous procedure to meet the criteria that are set, and as always I will continue to work with the very capable public servants in the Canadian Heritage department to ensure that those festivals that qualify get the funding that they require,” Glover said in response to Nash’s question.

That response doesn’t satisfy Healy.

“It wasn’t really a response. I found it very insulting,” Healy says.

Healy says the NDP approached Buddies with the idea of bringing up the funding cut in Parliament. He credits Buddies’ social media campaign with bringing it to the party’s attention.

“We got a phone call from the NDP saying that they were aware of the situation and that they wanted to table it at question period,” Healy says.

Newly elected Toronto Centre Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland says the cut to Rhubarb was first brought to her attention by a cousin who is active in Toronto’s theatre scene. She says that with the Sochi Olympics giving so much prominence to Russia’s crackdown on free expression, Canada has a responsibility to proactively celebrate queer culture through the arts.

“When it comes to the Sochi Olympics, we have had some good statements from [Foreign Affairs Minister] John Baird, and that’s great and I support those, but that becomes empty rhetoric if we aren’t supportive of our LGBT cultural institutions at home,” she says.

As for the Rhubarb Festival, which runs Feb 12 to 23 at Buddies and other queer spaces in the Church-Wellesley Village, Healy says it will go ahead as planned, although the funding cut has forced the theatre to scale back some of its plans. Buddies won’t raise ticket prices to the festival, and the company has no other revenue sources to make up the shortfall, he says.

“What it does, mostly, is that it limits the number of artists that we can hire . . . it’s about half what we usually have available to us to spend on artists.”