Commentary | One step forward, two steps back

The Conservatives celebrated their fifth year in power this weekend. Throughout this time, the Harper government has consistently demonstrated a lack of respect or support for the arts in Canada.

In 2007, the Tories increased the Canada Council for the Arts’ budget from $151 million to $183 million. Despite that initial top-up, the Harper government has since cut deeply – to the tune of $45 million – from arts and culture funding, specifically targeting money allocated for travel costs and foreign exhibitions. These and other changes have put the presence of Canadian art abroad in a precarious position, making Canadian artists more vulnerable to market forces and political constraints.

Programs for artists exhibiting or touring outside of Canada – PromArt and Trade Routes – lost $13.7 million in August 2008, when  PromArt was cancelled entirely. The government argued that its funding was going to groups and individuals that “were [not] the best choices to be representing [Canadians] internationally,” according to Anne Howland, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who cited the band Holy Fuck! as one such recipient.

The axe also fell on funding to initiatives such as the Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund ($1.5 million), the Canadian Memory Fund (which digitizes federal agencies’ archives for online access; $11.7 million), the Book Publishing Industry Development Program ($1 million), and the Northern Distribution Program (distributor of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network; $2.1 million), among others.

The Conservatives’ dealings with the art community have demonstrated a near-complete lack of dialogue between government and artists. Beyond cuts, unpopular reallocations and ill-conceived plans have been the hallmarks of Harper’s culture policy. The Tories injected $100 million into cultural events in 2009 – but the recipients were, by and large, corporately funded festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the Calgary Stampede. Additionally, the money was distributed not by the Canada Council – whose decision-making bodies are made up of artists – but Industry Canada.

Quebec in particular has been hard hit by the cuts. Fifteen of the $45-million total in cuts came from Quebec’s share of arts funding and the reductions were met with large protests in Montreal. According to Le Devoir, “many think the Conservatives lost their sought-after majority in the 2008 elections because of Quebeckers’ reaction to the cuts.”

In the shadow of American culture, Canadian art – both English and French – struggles to gain a profile abroad. In Quebec, the difficulty is that much greater: French-language artists in North America face enormous obstacles in gaining recognition for their work, at home and abroad. In both cases, competing with widely exported American cultural production – backed by private U.S. capital – demands government intervention. The forces of the free market cannot, and should not, sustain Canadian art.

We need to remember that arts are not simply commodities – and that they need support. With a federal election looming, remember Harper’s record on art. Most of the damage may have already been done, but he must be held accountable.


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