“Conservatives have never been friends to the arts. These are dark days that, as an artist, one just has to wait out.”
This fatalist cry from McGill’s new Canadian Cinema professor and experimental filmmaker Michael Crochetière rings uncomfortably true.
This summer, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government relayed an infuriatingly backwards message to the Canadian public. Comfortably nestled in their seats atop Parliament Hill – which lies next door to Ottawa’s National Art Gallery and close to the National Art Centre, both of which bring thousands of tourists to the capital each year – the Tories announced plans to cut almost $50-million in federal funding for the arts.
This act will eliminate several overseas touring programs and seriously harm institutions like Telefilm. Digitization groups are also being hit hard, while similar organizations dedicated to the digitization of national content have recently received heavy increases in funding across the European Union and even the United States. The Canadian government is already far behind many European countries in terms of artistic and cultural promotion.
Representatives of Stephen Harper argue that these cuts are necessary, that money is being placed in the wrong hands. According to the CBC, Anne Howland – a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs – went as far as citing Toronto experimental rockers Holy Fuck as a prime example of wasted funding. Is it really a question of quality, or is the government imposing their own subjective moral standards?
Much like the complicated relationship between censorship and federal money, thriving artistic communities are intrinsically linked to the growth of the national economy. If the Tories cannot understand the importance of the arts in creating a national identity and voice, surely they aren’t blind to the billions of dollars generated by jobs in the arts sector each year, and the tourism promised by a booming cultural scene?
Crochetière admits that playing the “economic card” is often the only way to convince the government that funding for the arts is a nation’s life support, not wasted pennies. As a low-budget filmmaker, Crochetière has dealt with his fair share of art grants and funding committees. “You can speak to a bureaucrat forever about how great culture is, but inevitably their eyes glaze over until the moment you say it creates jobs,” says Crochetière.
With the looming likelihood of an election, it seems Harper has been too busy to consider the fact that the culture industry employs millions of Canadians, not to mention that it cultivates a quintessentially Canadian audience and allows Canada to interact culturally at a world level.
Two of the groups most affected by the cuts, PromArt and Trade Routes, allow Canadian artists to travel abroad. From musicians to dancers to puppeteers, nearly every Canadian that tours overseas relies on organizations like this for funding.
FLAK – a dance company based in Montreal – has benefitted from PromArt funding in the past and, as FLAK’s Valerie Buddle laments, would have continued to apply for PromArt grants. For Conservative ideologues, Holy Fuck’s seemingly obscene band name might be too raunchy to handle, but is there any plausible excuse for cutting the funds of a dance troupe, opera, or symphony orchestra?
“Overseas tours are important if we want to take our place on the world stage of culture,” argues Buddle. Although Canada’s funding for the arts compares unfavourably to nations with similar economies and population sizes, Canadians are generally well-respected overseas. Admittedly, until a few years ago no one outside the country seemed to have heard of any Canadian artists other than Rush and Bryan Adams.
This has changed, partially thanks to the soon-to-be-defunct PromArt and Trade Routes programs, which helped groups like Arcade Fire successfully export their music.
Andre Guerette, the co-manager for acts such as Patrick Watson and Miracle Fortress, touring manager for Montreal-based label Blue Skies Turn Black, and a member of Montreal band AIDS Wolf, argues that public funding is an essential part of any overseas tour.
“Thankfully,” Guerette says, “none of the bands I work with have been directly affected by the cuts. The problem is that this doesn’t bode well for what the Conservative party will try in the future.”
Prepared to fight against a future sans arts councils and public funding, 2,500 enraged artists and activists convened at Montreal’s Société des Arts Téchnologiques on August 27 to show the Tories that they won’t let the arts be pushed even further onto the back burner of government policy.
But what about those that weren’t roused out of their daily routines by the news?
Perhaps the most frightening thing about the Tories’ unabashed dismissal of the arts is that far too many Canadians seem to accept or even endorse the funding cuts. In the chain of reader comments that follow related articles on the CBC’s web site, about half of them sided with the government’s actions.
Yet, as Crochetière argues, even those who support the policy changes are ironically interacting with a news source that certainly wouldn’t exist without public funding. “We’d be left with American Fox News, with the lowest common denominator – is that what the public really wants?” Crochetière demands.
No one deserves to have Fox News at the epicenter of their cultural existence. Clearly, it’s high time for Canadians to protest a government whose public policy simultaneously censors artists and stifles creative culture and economy.