By Frank Moher
Two weeks ago in this space I wrote about the Conservative government’s politically-motivated decision to withdraw funding from the Toronto theatre and arts festival, SummerWorks. To recap: Last year, the company presented a play, Homegrown, that the Prime Minister’s Office decided (in advance, without seeing it), glorified terrorism. So this year, after five years, SummerWorks’ funding from James Moore’s Department of Canadian Heritage not-so-mysteriously disappeared.
As I was writing the piece, I realized that I could do something more about this act of censorship and intimidation than just kvetch. It is a curious thing, but I maintain lives in both journalism and theatre — in the latter instance, running a theatre company in Nanaimo, BC called Western Edge Theatre. So I paused from writing my article long enough to send an e-mail to the author of Homegrown, Catherine Frid, asking if Western Edge might have permission to present a reading of her play, as a sort of equal and opposite reaction to the Conservatives’ vindictiveness.
That reading will happen this Friday, July 15th. When we announced it, we said that we hoped it would lead to other companies doing the same thing. As it has. Thanks in large part to a Globe and Mail article and the subsequent efforts of Toronto playwright Michael Healey, over 50 theatres across Canada will also present readings of Homegrown this coming Friday. (See the complete list here.)
While the box-office from our reading, as well as that of most others, will go to SummerWorks, it seems important to reiterate that, for our company at least, this is a political action. While we are happy to help SummerWorks recover some of the $45,000 it lost, our chief motive is to let the Conservative government know that any attempt to suppress art they don’t like will only cause it to spread more widely. I’d suggest that, with 50+ theatres participating, including many of Canada’s most prominent ones, our colleagues and we have succeeded in spades.
The question remains, however: Where is James Moore? The Minister of Canadian Heritage has been conspicuously silent as all the good work he’s done to build trust between his government and Canadian cultural industries is dismantled.
Or perhaps we should ask: is Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty now Canada’s de facto Culture minister? It was Flaherty, after all, who, a day after SummerWorks revealed its federal funding had been pulled, was in Toronto announcing $500,000 for Canada’s Walk of Fame, a breathtakingly mediocre decision nicely dismantled by The Globe’s John Doyle here.
Flaherty refused to comment on the SummerWorks decision, but did allow as how “We actually don’t believe in festivals and cultural institutions assuming that year after year after year they’ll receive government funding . . . They ought not to assume entitlement to grants” — another policy flip that also appropriately sent the cultural community into a spin. After all, Minister Moore had claimed just three weeks earlier that “Our Government continues to show its commitment to culture by providing long-term stability for arts organizations.” Between the Conservatives’ talking out of both ends, and their insistence that the arts should be run in a business-like way while also proposing to remove the sort of funding security necessary to do so, Canada’s artists might well conclude that they are trapped in a particularly bad absurdist play.
So, has James Moore stepped forward into this confusion and explained the SummerWorks decision, or tried to defend it, or distanced himself from it? Or offered a clarification of Flaherty’s remarks, or a gentle repudiation of them, or cried “Dammit, Jim, keep your grimy hands off my portfolio”? No times six. Minister Moore has offered only . . . silence. Granted, he’s had to squire the Royal couple around lately, but that’s all over now. And still we hear only . . . silence.
So, what may we conclude from his silence? Simply this: That the minister responsible for culture in Canada agrees with what has happened. That he thinks it’s all right for government to punish artistic organizations whose work, for ideological reasons, it doesn’t like, and to intimidate those who might produce such work in future. That when he talks about long-term stability for arts organizations, he doesn’t mean it; he’s really just making pleasant noises. That he talks a good game, but has no intention of executing it, and that even if he did, he doesn’t have the clout in cabinet to pull it off. That for the next four years it will be Messrs. Harper and Flaherty, not he, who will steer Conservative cultural policy, such as it is.
If all or any of this is true — and, as I say, how are we to conclude otherwise? — James Moore might as well resign his portfolio now. For all his good works in the past, he’s a spent force. When push came to shove, he was shoved overboard. Or rather, he jumped.
On the other hand, he could do his job, which would be to step forward and address the mess his government has created in the last two weeks. Perhaps he could do so at one of those many readings of Homegrown this Friday. Certainly he will find an eager audience.