Commentary | Editorial: Don’t sell our artists short

Artists and politicians across the country have been up in arms about recent cuts to federal arts funding announced by the Harper government. Two programs aimed at promoting Canadian artists abroad have been scrapped entirely, with five others taking heavy cuts. Shock and outrage among the arts community has been running high – particularly in Montreal, host to a high-profile protest last week.

The Conservatives justified the cuts, reasoning that government money was being senselessly allocated to “fringe arts groups that, in many cases, would be at best, unrepresentative, and at worst, offensive.”

Surely there’s more to Canada than heritage art and culture alone. The government would do well to foster artistic innovation and progress as well – whether it’s on the fringe or not.

Cultural production gives an important boost to the Canadian economy. According to a study by the Conference Board of Canada, the arts generated $84.6-billion in 2007, or 7.4 per cent of Canada’s GDP – and culture sector employment exceeded 1.1 million jobs in 2007.

Further, Quebec stands to be particularly affected by the cuts. Francophone artists face a relatively small audience in North America, making government support even more crucial. It’s no surprise that protests have been so loud around here, given that the cuts stand to disproportionately disadvantage a province with a past of being culturally dominated from the outside.

To the federal government’s credit, they have given support to artists who exemplify the multicultural, changing face of Canada, from Hindi ghazal singer Kiran Ahluwalia to Indonesian Gamelan Orchestras. But if Canada seeks to raise its cultural reputation internationally, it needs to be spreading word on its vibrant creative community far more than it has.

The recent policy changes have especially affected how artists, filmmakers, and musicians can tour. Without helping members of Canada’s creative community make their name abroad, how can the country ever hope to be seen as innovative, exciting, and inspiring?

Asserting cultural identity is particularly important for Canada because of its close proximity – culturally as well as geographically – to the United States. With such a globally pervasive culture right next door, fostering Canadian voices in the arts is hardly just an aesthetic project; it’s an economic and social one, too.