As a performer once called a “theatrical rabble-rouser” by The Globe and Mail, I’m used to causing and confronting offence, but I was nonetheless appalled to hear that my work was censored by our own public broadcaster, the CBC, last week, apparently because of a fear that broadcasting the title of one of my shows, Fucking Stephen Harper, would offend our prime minister.
“Is this still Canada?” I wondered. “Is this the same CBC that we’re supposed to trust with reporting the news and casting a critical eye to our government?”
It seems speech is no longer free when it comes to Stephen Harper.
Some background: I’ve been touring my one-man show, Fucking Stephen Harper: How I Sexually Assaulted the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada and Saved Democracy, since 2009. It’s a fictionalized account of my actual work covering the 2008 federal election for Xtra, a satirical look at politics and the media in Canada, and a call to action for queer rights in Canada.
I’ve performed the show in 11 cities across Canada to sold-out houses, several awards and critical acclaim. I’ve also used the show to raise money for HIV/AIDS-related charities that lost federal funding in the 2008 Harper budget.
I’d been invited to take the show to the Atlantic Fringe Festival and I leapt at the opportunity. Halifax is a wonderful town with a surprisingly active and engaged queer community. I thought the show would be a perfect fit – and since I was planning to retire it this year, I was happy to get out east with it.
Fringe theatre festivals typically assign performers to non-traditional theatre spaces as a way to contain costs. The Atlantic Fringe assigned me to the Bronfman Theatre in the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.
The morning after a warm opening, my first indication of trouble arrived. I was called by a CBC Nova Scotia journalist who wanted to know if I’d had any trouble because I’m performing a show that’s critical of the government in a federally owned building. She thought it was “ironic.”
I told her it was a bizarre line of questioning. Not only did I have nothing to do with the booking, but, by her own admission, no one had been raising any questions about my performance there. I was left with the impression she was trying to create a controversy.
Moreover, the show is critical of Stephen Harper. Harper doesn’t own the museum. The Canadian people do.
And isn’t it especially absurd coming from the CBC, which has a long tradition of lampooning government officials on its shows The Rick Mercer Report and This Hour Has 22 Minutes?
No story ever came of her digging, but when I alerted the Fringe that they may have to put out a fire, one of the festival’s directors told me a more disturbing story. A week earlier, he’d gone to the CBC radio station to do a live interview about the Fringe and was told that CBC Nova Scotia staff members had decided they couldn’t even say the name of my show on the air lest they offend the prime minister.
“He signs our cheques,” the festival director was told.
(I note that another show at the festival, Problems with Authority, an autobiographical tale from the man who tossed a pie at former PM Jean Chrétien, was not similarly censored by the CBC.)
Never mind the inaccuracy of that statement. How absurd is it that a journalist – even an arts reporter – would be afraid of offending the government? Are we in communist China?
Maybe we are.
Last week, depending on whom you believe, either the RCMP and/or NAV Canada ordered a plane grounded either because it was carrying a banner for a group protesting the Harper government or because they inaccurately believed it was flying in restricted airspace.
Do we now have both a state broadcaster that restricts messages critical of the government and a police force that silences and intimidates critics? We already have a prime minister who’s rebranded the government as “The Harper Government.” Is the CBC now trying to turn the whole of the federal infrastructure, from museums to our airspace, into Harper’s personal possessions?
And how complicit have the arts become in this encroaching cult of personality? Earlier this year, playwright Michael Healey claimed he’d had a play pulled from consideration at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre over fears it would insult the prime minister and put the theatre’s federal funding at risk. That play, Proud, is now being produced independently in Toronto and opens Sept 20.
It strikes me that I can’t think of much Canadian art that is critical of our federal government. Despite Harper’s six-year reign, he’s inspired very little artistic expression in any discipline. Even the CBC’s satirists handle the government with kid gloves, perhaps knowing that he ultimately controls the flow of funds into the CBC’s annual subsidy.
I believe the arts community should be leaders in critical thought and speech when the government commits absurdities. The answer to threats, intimidation and censorship should never be to cower away from controversy. It can only be more speech, more criticism and more engagement with our communities of support.
Otherwise, our cowardice consigns us to irrelevance.
Rob Salerno is a former staff reporter at Xtra and a writer and actor who has created five original award-winning shows.