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: LittÃ©ratures
et Cultures d'AmÃ©rique 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
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
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
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 musÃ©es
d'art du Canada (ODMAC)
280 Metcalfe, #400
Ottawa ONÂ K2P 1R7
Tel/TÃ©l :Â Â 613.862.5035
Janet M. Brooke, Director
Agnes Etherington Art Centre
CANADA K7L 3N6
phone: (613) 533-6000 ext. 77055
fax: (613) 533-6765
e-mail: [email protected]