Control freak Conservatives take on the arts

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I didnâe(TM)t need a deep understanding of politics to know Bill C-10 was a really bad sign of things to come.

Introduced this February, the amendment to the Income Tax Act gives the Minister of Canadian Heritage power to pull financial aid from any film or television show it deems offensive; a reallocation of responsibilities that seems dangerous at best. After all, a bill such as this renders the peer review process meaningless, legalizing an inane Conservative policy decision that operates as if the arts community doesnâe(TM)t possess enough expertise to recognize and award outstanding contributions in their own field.

The fact that the Tories tried to sneak the bill through, however, reveals a surprising acknowledgment of power within art, at least to the degree that the cultural product is not only deemed valuable enough to be worth controlling, but that the employment of underhanded methods to achieve that end are worth the reelection risks.

Those art supporters wondering whatâe(TM)s going on with that bill will be disheartened to learn that the Liberal strategy has been to stall the vote on it until after the election âe" a real miscalculation if the Conservatives win a majority.

As if the desire to have greater control of cultural practices werenâe(TM)t made clearly enough in February, the Conservatives went on this summer to surreptitiously cut more than $60 million that will take effect over the next two years. Amongst the first and most controversial has been the cancellation of the $4.5 million ProMart program providing travel grants to artists.

The Conservative government defended its choice rather predictably, citing budgets concerns (a point that can be wholly dismissed given 2007-2008 total program expenses totaled $201.2 billion, a .02 per cent reduction of their total costs) and pointing to examples they felt were unworthy of international promotion, amongst them, the Juno award winning band Holy Fuck. Naturally, they left out the ballet and symphonies no longer receiving funding. Also controversial was the $9 million cut from Trade Routes, a trade development program that âeoehelps profit and not-for-profit organizations in the arts and cultural sector prepare to export and sell in international markets.âe

Given this, I suppose I shouldnâe(TM)t have been overly surprised when I couldnâe(TM)t get even the most basic answers from government officials about these and other arts program cuts. Certainly, my blog Art Fag City wasnâe(TM)t operating as much of a credential, despite the fact that itâe(TM)s a well known website in the New York emerging artist community. Frankly, I donâe(TM)t think the name was helping any.

After a week and a half of having my calls unreturned, I finally received a statement via email from Dominique Collin, the media relations specialist for the Heritage Department. âeoeThe Trade Routes program will deliver all planned activities for New York this fiscal year,âe she wrote. âeoeThe reallocation of the contributions program takes effect as of April 1, 2009. Through the Department of Canadian Heritage and its portfolio partners, the Government of Canada continues to provide $2.31B a year to arts and culture for activities both at home and abroad.âe

To be clear, the quoted text was a response to my question about how many Canadian artists and organizations reaching out to New York would be affected. I can only assume I would be considered a fairly receptive press target to these people, so I wanted to figure out how much of my own coverage would potentially be lost.

Maybe I was barking up the wrong tree for those answers, but nobody in my three weeks of not talking to officials referred me to anyone who could help. In fact, ProMart referred me to the Department of Canadian Heritage for a more complete statement, so it was rather surprising that Dominique Collin did not, in her second response to these same queries, at least point me back to them.

âeoeThe Trade Routes contributions program does not provide funding for travel for performances,âe she began, before going on to answer questions I never asked, âeoeThe reallocation under Strategic Review affects Trade Routes' contributions program, not specific activities. We cannot speculate whether or how many Canadian entrepreneurs might have sought funding under the program had it been maintained.âe

Collin also graciously pointed me to the Heritage Department website Plans and Priority reports, a fountain of knowledge no one can get through without a degree in excel tables. It too answers no question I asked.

Now, like a lot of people I donâe(TM)t have pre-existing knowledge on how and where all this funding is directed, so itâe(TM)s more than a little disturbing that you basically have to be an investigative reporter to get information the government could give you by running a basic search query. Meanwhile, officials are talking to you as though they are operating with complete transparency. More than being insulting, this kind of behavior is really dangerous.

The arts itself may not prove to be an election issue âe" as far as priorities go, it seems reasonable to assume most Canadians will concern themselves with health care and the economy first âe" though surely everyone can agree attempting to reallocate funds without consultation sets a very hazardous precedent. Certainly, we've seen enough examples from our American neighbours demonstrating the devastating economic effects of governments run amok not to repeat these same mistakes.

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