3 min

The fragile fall lineup

Stories like these give me the heebie jeebies

The now-ubiquitous cuts to cultural funding — in which artists’ subsidies were squeezed to make room in the federal budget for the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver — have vastly overshadowed two much creepier cultural battles.

And of these, the least well understood is the federal government’s decision to cease returning economic spin-off dollars to events that aren’t family friendly.

The program in question works like this: you throw a big party. People come to your party from out of town, and especially from out of the country. Folks, in town for your party, spend money at gas stations, hotels, even Wal-Mart. The government collects taxes on all that spending.

Now, it’s in the government’s interest that you do it again next year  — it’s good for the public coffers and good for all the businesses in the area — so the government returns some of the taxes to you.

It’s intended to remedy the fact that they guy who throws the party pays all the bills, but doesn’t receive all the revenue the party generates. It’s intended to be content-neutral: you’re rewarded for the size of the economic whirlwind you create — not for the hotness of the shindig at the eye of the storm.

That’s one program. The other is the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit, which, as the program’s title suggests, exempts movie productions from paying some tax. Again, it’s intended to reward economic activity, and it’s not awarded on the basis of the film’s content or message. It’s the program at the heart of the Senate hearings over the (now-dead) C-10, which included a clause allowing politicians to yank the credit if they didn’t like the content of the film.
In both cases, the philosophy: if it kicks up an economic cloud, it gets incentives to keep kicking up those clouds.

The problem is, those aren’t the rules anymore.

Montreal’s Black and Blue festival used to receive federal spin-off cash to the tune of $50,000 a year. It hasn’t since 2006, because, according to the organizers, it isn’t family friendly. Is that because it’s a gay party or because it has BDSM inflections? Or because it has sexual content at all?

I find policy shifts like this far more sinister than content-neutral trimming of federal arts programming. Through these kinds of program alterations Stephen Harper and the Conservatives can fulfill their stated objective: to quietly make Canada a more small-c conservative place.

Indeed, the gay folks in Ottawa may not realize just how precarious our packed fall cultural agenda is.

Could the sexual content and gender-transgressions of books like Ivan E Coyote’s The Slow Fix and Daniel Allen Cox’s Shuck make them unpublishable? After all, Arsenal Pulp Press — a national treasure and publisher of both books — receives subsidies through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program as well as funding through the Canada Council for the Arts.

(If you missed Daniel’s launch Sep 28, you can still find a few copies of Shuck at After Stonewall bookstore. Catch Ivan’s book launches Oct 22 at the Ottawa International Writer’s Festival or Nov 22 at Venus Envy.)

And what about the Canada Council? And what about the offensive, contrary-to-public-policy, sex-positive romps that it pays for? The Inside Out film festival has received Canada Council cash (this year, the Ottawa satellite fest can thank the Ontario Arts Council and the City of Ottawa among its sponsors — catch it Oct 30-Nov 2). Transgress (Oct 24) also receives Canada Council money.

The difficult, brilliantly-curated Radical Drag exhibit at Saw Gallery is another great example, with cash coming from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and the city. (Take in the show between now and Nov 22.)

Canada Council’s funding decisions are — at least at the moment — peer-assessed, but that’s not written in stone.  And how would the definition of “peer assessment” change, if the next head of the Council were, say, a Robert Bateman-like figure rather than Karen Kain?

I shudder to think.