Toronto
2 min

How a Conservative government is poisoning the arts

Culture vultures

Who better speaks for Canada on the world stage: Holy Fuck, a cooler-than-cool quartet of shoegazing prog rockers, or the embarrassing health minister Tony Clement, head in the sand, denying the effectiveness of harm reduction strategies at the recent AIDS conference in Mexico; Sarah Polley and her Academy Award-nominated film Away from Her, a poignant adaptation of an Alice Munro story on love in the time of Alzheimer’s, or environment minister John “Gasbag” Baird who sabotaged attempts to create targets on harmful emissions at last year’s UN climate conference in Bali?

Swiss/Dunne-za First Nations art star Brian Jungen, Montreal’s transcendent popsters Arcade Fire, Laurie Lynd and his gay family movie Breakfast with Scot, Robert Lepage’s theatrical marvels, Clement Virgo’s unvarnished look at class and racial tension in Poor Boy’s Game, groundbreaking photographer Jeff Wall and his surreal backlit ciba-chromes… all of these artists and their works have benefited in the last two years from cultural programs just axed by the federal Tories. Don’t they better represent Canada than Prime Minster Stephen Harper and his flag-waving bluster on Afghanistan and the Arctic?

What do the federal Tories actually stand for? What’s the next election about? The Tories would have you believe they stand for sober, prudent managerial practice, where less (government) is more. With mounting cuts to cultural programs — now totalling more than $50 million and growing — the Tories have proven that less is indeed less.

The Tories never discussed the funding changes with the public or with cultural stakeholders. Nor will the Tories make public their own internal reviews of the programs. (Reported comments from Tory hacks on those reviews are astonishingly boorish and partisan.) So the Tories have broken longstanding promises to make government more responsive and transparent.

Moreover, the Tories didn’t try to make the programs more efficient nor effective — as good managers would do — they just cut them. They didn’t bother to understand the programs’ objectives; if they did, they’d realize how relatively small sums of money can pay big dividends. One example should suffice: The $23,500 Trade Routes grant to Canadian Music Week (CMW) which helped bring in international buyers and distributors to Toronto — this year CMW netted $8 million in deals according to Neill Dixon, president of the annual music trade conference. Ya, that’s real smart cutting; thanks.

Harper defends the cuts by claiming total arts funding has gone up under the Tories: He’s talking about big ticket items like the CBC and Canada Council. But arts monies get funelled through the omnibus Canadian Heritage ministry — which handles sports, too — so it’s very hard to determine what’s going on. Some critics point out that any increases will go to the Vancouver Olympics and Quebec City’s 400th anniversary celebrations — big vacuous spectacles that culture minister Josée Verner can attend in a nice outfit without getting booed.

The axed culture programs aren’t direct subsidies to create art: Some are funds to help artists and arts groups expand the market for their creations; others help make cultural products more accessible in a very 21st-century way by digitizing them or by helping new media companies develop Canadian content on the web and in the fast-growing gaming sector. You’d think these are the kinds of entrepreneurial artists and high-tech companies Tories would appreciate. But when it comes to the $85-billion cultural sector the Tories prefer to play petty, partisan politics.

(For more info check out Departmentofculture.ca, a website and action group set up by arty bigwigs like Franco Boni, Darren O’Donnell, Roy Mitchell and Naomi Campbell.)

Canada’s cultural producers showcase our dynamic and unique understanding of the world – an understanding that can be existential, multicultural, liberal, queer, un-American, irreligious or even just nice. The Tory cuts leave Canadians and the rest of world infinitely poorer.