Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Politics of Culture Cuts

September 21, 2008

“To be quite candid,” said the Danish professor, “we in the Scandinavian countries always considered your country as an uninteresting shadow of the United States. But now recently everyone wants to know about Canada, because we all want to know, where is this extraordinary writing coming from??

In 1988, I was speaking at schools and universities in Denmark and Sweden, sponsored by the Nordic Association for Canadian Studies. Canadian writers were suddenly emerging on the world stage -- Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler, Robertson Davies, Alice Munro and many others. Everywhere I went, people wanted to know about Canada -- its cities, its ethnic complexity, its geography, all the realities that are reflected in its literature.

Culture is the face that Canada presents to the world. It is also an extraordinarily attractive industry. With a ball-point pen and a notebook, Alistair MacLeod composes stories that echo around the world. Celine Dion takes over Las Vegas, while Diana Krall conquers Paris. Alex Colville paints an image onto a scrap of canvas, and sells it to a German collector for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

That's “value-added” and “export-oriented” beyond the dreams of Bombardier. In the information age, culture is the very content of the economy. In 2002, culture was a $40 billion industry in Canada. It was bigger than Mining and Oil and Gas ($35.4 billion) and nearly double the size of Agriculture and Forestry ($21 billion). Culture is huge. That's why American governments relentlessly promote their own cultural industries, running interference world-wide on behalf of American publishing, recording, film and broadcasting.

Culture is design, music, architecture, images, film, story. It is also quilting, folk sculpture, video games and festivals. It is what Cape Bretoners do in their kitchens. It's jazz on the waterfront, buskers on the Grand Parade, Shaun Majumder and Cathy Jones “goofin' around” on TV. Culture tells us what it means to be Nova Scotians, and Canadians, and sentient human beings. It creates no pollution, uses few materials, employs hordes of people, and travels almost free.

And the Harper government hates it.

Every 20 years or so, a new Conservative government guts Canada's cultural programs. The Harper crowd has chopped about $60 million since 2006, axing everything from the $2.5 million National Training Program in the Film and Video Sector to the tiny $300,000 Audio-Visual Preservation Trust of Canada, which supported the archiving of important film, television and musical recordings.

Why? Gary Schellenberger, the Tory MP who chaired the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, brays that arts support programs are fundamentally insulting to Canadian artists, indicating “that Canadian artists cannot compete globally” and that “Canadian talent is not as viable as American or European talent and that without government assistance, arts and culture in Canada could not survive.”

Horse pucky. Insert the words “aircraft” or “nuclear reactors” or “softwood lumber” in this passage, and see how it plays. Consider, for instance, Prom-Art, the $4.7-million program of the Department of Foreign Affairs which supported the foreign travel of artists promoting Canadian culture abroad. Yes, the Canadian cultural industry does need such programs -- just as the forest industry, the aerospace industry and the power industry need government support in selling their products abroad. Hello? Hello? Isn't that what government trade and industry departments were created for?

The programs under attack are largely industrial support programs -- training programs for cultural workers, research and development programs, seed money and venture capital programs. Stephen Harper says that the cuts are not anti-culture, but simply represent prudent financial management and then says that there's no point in “funding things that people actually don't want.”

Really? Who, exactly, was objecting to the industrial support programs he's been cutting? Some voters dislike the Canada Council, admittedly, but who dislikes Prom-Art? Who even knows about it? And if we're killing loser programs, when will Harper garrot Atomic Energy of Canada, which has sopped up $20 billion in public money building reactors that nobody will buy? Talk about “funding things that people actually don't want.”

The truth about the arts cuts is buried in a recent Globe and Mail story on the Conservatives' unprecedented use of data mining and micro-targetted marketing. One key to victory, the party believes, is appealing to “battlers,” blue-collar workers and low-paid white-collar workers who feel ignored by the country's elites, including government. The battlers really like tax reductions and cuts to government-supported programs -- particularly in the arts.

And that's why the latest cuts were made just as the government ramped up for an election. These cuts were designed to cause controversy, and to send a message to the “battlers.” They damage a major industry, and they shrink Canada's presence in the world. But they may give the Conservatives an electoral edge in a few ridings -- and that's the only thing that matters.

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