Monday, August 11, 2008

Harper and His Crew Strike Again

There is an interesting article in today’s Globe and Mail by Simon Houpt which, in my view, exemplifies the repressive nature of the Canadian Federal Government, led by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. A very secretive administration that came to office promising greater accountability and access to information, the Harperites have done everything in their power to ‘control the message,’ tending to ridicule and punish those that don’t share its ideological bent.

Houpt’s article, which I am reproducing below, looks at two recent cuts in arts funding in that context:

New York Diary: Whither Brand Canada?
Without the arts, our image grows dim abroad

From Monday's Globe and Mail
August 11, 2008 at 2:16 AM EDT

Last month, for the first time in almost a decade, Central Park was eerily quiet on Canada Day.

Every year since 1999, the federal government has sponsored a New York City satellite of its July 1 party on Parliament Hill, importing a handful of Canadian bands as part of the park's free SummerStage concert series. There have been delicate tribute shows to Joni Mitchell, fuse-blowing rock from the Tragically Hip, a resplendent Rufus Wainwright, rain-soaked sets from the Cowboy Junkies and Natalie MacMaster, and musicians making in-jokes about hockey and the CBC that the expats in the audience would then politely explain to the locals.

And at the end of every show, the Upper West and Upper East Sides of Manhattan would suddenly blossom with thousands of tiny Canadian flags worn in the hair or thrust into the back pockets or temporarily tattooed onto the sun-kissed arms of concertgoers, most of whom were merely honorary Canucks for a day.

No more. This year the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) killed the concerts. When I asked a spokesperson in Ottawa last month for an explanation, she refused to comment. Last Friday, it all became depressingly clear when DFAIT announced it was cutting all ties to culture by axing its PromArt program, a $4.7-million annual fund that sent artists into the world to speak for Canada.

The program's death notice was revealed in exquisitely cynical fashion. On Thursday, a government official leaked the story to a reporter by explaining the program had funded mainly political radicals and others it deemed naughty: the former CBC pundit and current Al-Jazeera contributor Avi Lewis, the journalist Gwynne Dyer, and a Toronto rock band known as Holy Fuck. Talk radio and conservative bloggers lapped up the talking points like so much cream, outraged that millions of dollars of tax money had been used to support speech with which they disagreed.

Did they care that they'd been spun? In fact, the vast majority of the funds sent abroad artists and companies that Stephen Harper would enjoy with his wife and kids: $8,000 to send Newfoundland's Duo Concertante dance company to China; $30,000 for the acclaimed experimental circus troupe Les 7 doigts de la main to give 42 performances in Mexico and Germany; $15,000 to The Nickle Arts Museum of Alberta to present an exhibition for six months in Poland.

There are the dozens of $500, $750 and $1,000 grants that paid the airfare for award-winning authors to go forth as independent representatives of Canada. Last year, more than 300 grants were awarded.

The program was not, as its critics are barking, a wasteful socialist/Liberal boondoggle. Its greatest champion was in fact Joe Clark, who as the secretary of state for External Affairs (now DFAIT) from 1984-91 oversaw a major expansion in the cultural diplomacy budget because he recognized the importance of increasing Canada's presence abroad as the country embraced free trade with the U.S. and made its way in a globalized world.

And killing PromArt was never really about silencing radicals; that was just a red herring that paid political dividends. Late on Friday, while attention was focused on the DFAIT cut, the government quietly said it was also ending Trade Routes, a $9-million program run by Heritage Canada to help artists take their work abroad.
It's hard to overstate how low a profile Canada has abroad. If that's the way the government wants it, that's their decision. But if we want our voice to have influence in the rest of the world, to be the moral beacon we believe it is, that requires marketing Brand Canada. Sending artists and writers abroad is an integral part of that marketing that happens to be extremely cost-effective.

A little while ago Pamela Wallin told me that when she served within DFAIT as the consul-general of New York, culture was an indispensable tool to create a broader understanding of Canada within the United States. “It's all about presence; it's all about being top of mind. The more stages we continue to take ourselves off of, the more difficult the overall mission becomes,” she said.

“In order to be more than the Great White North, or more than just a trading partner like others, I think we have to show how interwoven the connections are, and how broad that cultural mix really is.”

She noted that the consulate also often used Canadian artists visiting New York to soften potential trading partners.

“It's an entrée point, it's a way to deal with people other than at the office, nine-to-five, about economic matters.”

That's why it was smart foreign policy to have Feist headline the Canada Day show in Central Park back in 2006, shortly before she became the iPod girl and a four-time Grammy nominee.

Even the United States, which invented the globalized free market in culture, has a long tradition of spending government money on so-called cultural diplomacy. During the Cold War, the U.S. State Department sent jazz musicians Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and others to the Middle East, Asia and Europe to spread American values. The U.S. is spending more than half a billion dollars a year on TV and radio broadcasts that bring American music, comedy, and drama to the Arab world and other territories.

This is lost on DFAIT, where PromArt and its antecedent programs were never really understood. One long-time bureaucrat in the department told me recently: “Anyone caught doing culture, it was a career killer.”

DFAIT, being stocked with diplomats used to reading scripts written at head office, was always uncomfortable with the voices of artists who weren't direct government employees.

This might, in fact, be the core reason the feds have just cut a small but effective program that didn't really mean much to the overall budget. Since taking office, Stephen Harper has tightened communications coming out of Ottawa, putting choke collars on his cabinet ministers and spokespeople. He wants to be the only one who speaks for Canada abroad, too. From the government's perspective, artists especially are suspect: they don't tend to stay on message; sometimes, they even voice independent thoughts. Worst of all, they're more interesting to listen to than a droning politician. Maybe Harper is jealous.

I'm only half kidding.

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