Community members alarmed at the Conservative government’s cuts to the arts and particularly its move to pass Bill C-10 — legislation that would have given the heritage minister discretionary power to deny tax credits to films deemed “contrary to public policy” — will have a chance to question area candidates Oct 8 at a community town hall.
C-10 is what’s known as an omnibus bill, a piece of legislation used to push a variety of amendments to various acts through Parliament as one bill. The contentious “contrary to public policy” clause appears in the middle of hundreds of pages of income tax amendments.
During questioning before the Senate banking committee Apr 2, Liberal Senator Pierrette Ringuette pressed heritage minister Josée Verner about the vagueness of the provision. Canadian filmmakers warned that if the tax credits are uncertain, financing for films could evaporate.
“The policy rationale for the ‘contrary to public policy’ provision is quite simple,” Verner told the committee. “It would ensure that the government has the ability, in exceptional circumstances, to exclude from public support certain material — material that is potentially illegal under the Criminal Code, such as indecent material, hate propaganda and child pornography.”
In the end, the controversial bill died on the Senate floor when Prime Minister Stephen called an election for Oct 14.
In Vancouver’s gay and lesbian community, C-10 touched off a storm of protest. Film and TV is a billion dollar industry in Vancouver, according to the city — representing about one-fifth of all film and TV revenue generated in Canada.
Michael Harper, a longtime member of Vancouver’s queer community, told Xtra West back in April that legislation like Bill C-10 tends to strike a chord in the gay community nationally.
“I think we’re more sensitive to issues of censorship because we’ve been censored since we’ve reached an age of knowing,” he says. “We’re used to surviving with it. Now we’re trying to move beyond it.”
Moreover, thanks to Little Sister’s more than 20-year battle with Canada Customs (now the Canada Border Services Agency), the city has seen the effect of government censorship first hand.
“As we learned in Little Sister’s, it’s not violent pornography that gets censored,” says Mark Macdonald, a former book buyer for Little Sister’s. “It’s comic books, it’s women’s material that gets misinterpreted by government bureaucrats.”
Little Sister’s manager Janine Fuller says the government’s inclusion of the clause in an omnibus bill was underhanded — and she’s not so sure such tactics wouldn’t be used again if the Tories return to government.
Like Macdonald, she finds the concept of funding the arts based on “public policy” decisions by bureaucrats scary.
“I’m far too familiar with civil servants making those kinds of decisions,” she says. “The queer community is at the floodgates backed by this kind of censorship.
“If you want to see queer art in this country, you cannot vote for the Conservatives. Artists are the most important people in our country,” Fuller says.
At the recent Out on Screen film festival re-screening of Little Sister’s vs Big Brother about the bookstore’s battle with Canada Customs, director Aerlyn Weissman said the bill had the capacity to prevent the queer community from telling its stories, the stories which allow a community to grow and move forward.
Vancouver Centre Green candidate Adriane Carr says communities such as the queer or environmental ones have always been on the cutting fringe of culture. She says it’s that fringe that is perceived as objectionable by small-c conservatives.
It’s that controversial leading edge that moves us out of staid and conservative old-line values, Carr says, adding, “I’m aghast at the idea of a (Conservative) majority government.”
“Bill C-10 is a canary in a coalmine,” Carr adds. “It’s an indication of how repressive and controlling this government wants to be.”
The NDP’s Michael Byers sees it as a human rights issue.
He says social change has invariably been driven by artists who have challenged the existing order. To have someone with a political agenda deciding who gets funding is censorship, plain and simple,” he says.
“The funding shouldn’t be determined by a cabinet minister who may have other interests at heart, other than the promotion of an energetic, avant-garde industry,” Byers adds. He says the manner in which the bill was presented indicates the Harper government was more interested in re-shaping Canadian society than in a fiscal issue.
“As a human rights advocate in the House of Commons, I will stand up to this or any government that tries anything like this,” Byers says.
Vancouver Centre Conservative Lorne Mayencourt points to his MLA record in interceding with the BC Film Classification Office in making sure Little Sister’s vs Big Brother was screened when an official tried to shut it down during the queer film festival in 2002.
Mayencourt says he’s not heard many complaints about C-10 on the campaign trail, but as far as arts funding goes, he adds, sometimes hard choices have to be made.
“There’s limited dollars to go into the arts, and sometimes those choices aren’t easy to make,” he says.
Mayencourt notes that while there has been much public debate about the bill, he says much of it is fear mongering about Harper.
“It’s been overblown,” he says.
Incumbent Liberal MP Hedy Fry disagrees.
She says any community that values freedom of expression as enshrined in the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms should be concerned about the bill.
“It gives me the minister power to decide what is public policy,” she says. “It is contrary to freedom of expression.”
Further, she says, allowing that kind of power ignores the will of Parliament and of Canadians.
It would mean filmmakers could wind up in the same kind of fight Little Sister’s has waged, she warns.
Moreover, says Fry, anything that is contrary to public policy is already in the Criminal Code of Canada.
Despite the bill’s death with the election call, she says it indicates the Conservatives want to rule on an ideological basis — something she says she’ll fight.
Vancouver East NDP incumbent Libby Davies says she’ll be on the front lines of that battle as well.
“We have to be very vigilant on what happens with this bill,” she says. “This is about fostering the Canadian community, and that includes the queer community.”
Davies says the manner in which the bill was introduced shows how far the Conservatives will go to politically interfere in issues where it is not needed.
She says the queer community produces cutting-edge artists who do not represent the mainstream where the Conservatives position themselves morally and socially.
“What it tells us is when it comes to upholding human rights and equality, you’ve always got to be on the ball,” Davies warns.
And that, she says, is at risk with legislation like C-10.
Davies’ challengers for the Vancouver East seat — Liberal Ken Low, the Green Party’s Mike Carr and Conservative Ryan Warawa — could not be reached for comment on this issue despite repeated attempts to contact them up to press time.
But in an email dated Sep 22, Shaun Webb, Warawa’s campaign manager, indicated that the candidate will not be able to attend the community town hall on C-10 carded for Oct 8.
“Our understanding is that Lorne Mayencourt will be in attendance however,” Webb stated in the email.
In the run-up to the Oct 14 election, Xtra West takes this opportunity to invite the queer community to come out Oct 8 to make your perspective on Bill C-10 heard, and to question candidates on where they and their respective parties stand on the issues the bill raises.
Housing and community displacement will also be topics for discussion at the town hall.