...the first Arts Council in Ontario

Margaret Atwood

And no flowers bloomed.

Why did the Conservatives take the weed whacker to Canadian arts promotion abroad? asks Margaret Atwood?

During the last days of September, I was at a trilingual literary festival in Vincennes, near Paris. It's called Festival America: Littératures et Cultures d'Amérique du Nord. It was Canada's year of honour, so there were 26 Canadian writers there, as opposed to two Cubans, four Mexicans, and 24 Americans. The festival was attended by 23,000 people over three days, and generated a million mentions of Canada in the French press.

The Canadian Embassy staff in Paris did a lot of work for the festival but the embassy didn't spend much money. It couldn't even afford to throw its own reception. Thus it was while attending the U.S. Embassy's reception for its own authors that I first heard an astonishing fact: The Canadian government had just cut every penny once budgeted for the promotion of Canadian artists abroad.

That's it -- every penny, for everything cultural and Canadian, around the world. Some of those pennies have now been "unfrozen" but they're not enough to save the programs and networks that have been built up over the past 40 years (in part by art-savvy Tory cabinet ministers such as Flora MacDonald, Marcel Masse and Barbara McDougall). Staff remain in place, but they can't do much. It's like a dance floor with no more dancers.

Not that there were that many pennies to begin with. The amounts of money removed were minute -- a fraction of a fraction of a per cent of Canada's federal budget. And the Harper government had just posted a $13-billion surplus. So why had they taken this bizarre step?

The axing of culture abroad is even stranger when you consider the following facts: The money generated by Canadian-based artists' works that sell abroad flows into the country and is taxed here, a net gain to the economy. The arts and creative industries in Europe now earn "more than double the cash produced by European car-makers and contribute more to the economy than the chemical industry, property or the food and drink business," according to The Independent of Dec. 26. There are comparable statistics for Canada -- some say $40-billion, but even if it were half that it wouldn't be a number to blow off easily. Or so you'd think.

So why had the Conservatives taken the weed whacker to Canadian arts promotion abroad? Was it just part of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's shoot-first, ask-afterwards habit -- familiar now to anyone with money in an income trust -- of slicing the heads off anything in sight, leaving the mangled stems to be dealt with by later regimes?

Due to the impenetrability of Fortress Harper -- colder than the Kremlin, more secret than the Inquisition -- it was unlikely we'd get any answers. But we are still free to speculate, so here's what I came up with to explain why they did it:

1) Ignorance. The Harperites have no idea how much money the arts generate.

2) Willed ignorance. They've seen the figures, but have labelled them "junk economics" in the same way they once labelled global-warming statistics as "junk science."

3) Hatred. The Harper Conservatives think artists are a bunch of whiners who don't have real jobs, and that any money spent on the arts is a degenerate frill.

4) Frugality. There's lots of arts around. We can get them cheaper from across the border than it costs to make them here, and if you've seen one art, you've seen them all.

5) Stupidity. They thought they were gassing a hornet's nest, not poking it with a stick.

6) More hatred. They tried to slash local museums, until too many people screamed. They've cut the Canada Council top-up proposed by the Liberals down to a sixth of its size. They've stuck the knife into the National Literacy Program, perhaps on the theory that they won't be able to set up a working dictatorship if too many people can read. And that's just for starters. If these things can be done in a minority government, lo, I say unto you, what things shall be done in a majority?

The banner under which the Conservatives have been ditching stuff that displeases them has been "waste." They're trashing programs that "don't work." They want things that "get results." (That went for the environmental plans they once binned, and have now hastily revivified.) Arts promotion is like supporting entrepreneurs, or local hockey teams, or school systems. But how do we define "results" in relation to the arts? And what exactly does "work" mean? Does it mean that money must flow back in the same year it's invested? If so, the Conservatives should get rid of all primary education, since no 10-year-old marches right out of Grade Five and gets an executive job.

Typically, cultural money is arranged so that younger artists who need to build their audiences can piggyback on old poops like me who have already done that. That's how you support the next generation, and the one after that. Not to do so is truly wasteful. Yes, you might save a lot of money by killing all the children: You'd cancel those pesky education expenses. But you wouldn't survive long as a society.

But maybe the Harper Conservatives don't want a society in which the arts and the creative industries are important. Maybe they don't want the jobs in those fields to exist. Maybe, as in so many other areas of their thinking, they want to turn back the clock to the good old days -- some time back in the golden fifties, when there wasn't all this bilingualism and multiculturalism, or indeed any lingualism or culturalism at all, and most Canadian artists left the country, and those who remained could be referred to jokingly in Parliament as a bunch of fruits jumping around in long underwear.

That's a lot of maybes. But maybes are all we have in the absence of any coherent cultural policy or even any explanation for the lack of one. Who was it said that there's more culture in a cup of yoghurt than in the Harper Conservatives? Let's hope that person was wrong.

Margaret Atwood is the author of more than 40 volumes of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Her latest is a collection of short stories, Moral Disord

Shawn Van Sluys

Canadian Art Museum Directors' Organization (CAMDO)
Organisation des directeurs des musées d'art du Canada (ODMAC)

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Janet M. Brooke, Director
Agnes Etherington Art Centre
Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
phone: (613) 533-6000 ext. 77055
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