By Frank Moher
(Update below: Jim Flaherty translated)
We can now begin to see how the Conservative government intends to use its majority to chop arts funding in Canada, particularly to any artistic expression it doesn’t like or agree with. In the short term at least, it will be a death by a thousand cuts.
This became clear today when the SummerWorks Theatre Festival in Toronto announced that, after five years, Minister James Moore’s Department of Canadian Heritage had removed their funding. This comes not quite a year after Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office criticized Homegrown, a play in last year’s festival about the relationship between a Toronto woman and a member of the so-called Toronto 18, as “glorifying terrorism.” That nobody in the PMO, much less the Prime Minister, had seen the play didn’t seem to matter (as usual) — it was politically expedient to attack it, so they did.
And now they have withdrawn their $45,000 from SummerWorks, an amount which constitutes approximately 20% of its budget, and was used to bring plays in from across the country. Never underestimate the vindictiveness of the Conservatives when artists, after they’ve been ignorantly pummelled, have the temerity to stand up for themselves.
This is disappointing. The Conservatives have, historically, been much better in administering arts funding than they have been given credit for, and James Moore has been, until now, impressive in his portfolio. But times have changed, these are a different brand of Conservatives than their forebears, and James Moore will, of course, dance to our newly emboldened PM’s tune. His spokesman has already churned out some boilerplate: “Last year, the Department of Canadian Heritage received over 10,000 funding requests for local events and festivals across Canada. The total demand far exceeds available funding, and therefore choices must be made.” And no doubt Minister Moore will also tapdance as fast as he can, denying political interference, saying, my goodness, he had nothing to do with the decision, and that the Prime Minister was too busy taking his daughter to a hockey game to worry about a silly theatre grant, and etc., etc. It will all be nonsense.
This is the sort of thing one would expect to see in Putin’s Russia, or Sarkozy’s France. We may expect to see much more of it in Harper’s Canada in the days to come — unless perhaps there’s a sufficient outpouring of disgust at this first, tentative effort at artistic censorship. Meantime, I have asked Homegrown‘s author, Catherine Frid, for permission to present a reading of it at the theatre I run, and I suggest others do the same. It doesn’t have to be at a theatre even — do it at a community centre, in your living-room, on the street. Let the Conservatives’ know that repression of art will, like a blackberry bush pruned back, only cause it to spread more wildly. That’s a simile, and so you might have to explain it to them, but eventually they’ll get the idea.
Updated 6/28/11: Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty: “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.”
Translation: Don’t do anything to offend the government, or we’ll pull your grant, too.