arts in a stranglehold

Stephen Harper’s contempt for artists is worrisome. “When ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and  see a gala of a…

Stephen Harper’s contempt for artists is worrisome.

“When ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and  see a gala of a bunch of people … all subsidized by the taxpayers, claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough when they know those subsidies have actually gone up, I’m not sure that’s something that resonates,” he said while campaigning in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, this week.

He was responding to questions about a large artists’ rally in Montreal.

Throughout history, governments bent on control and secrecy have held artists in contempt.

Comedians, writers, actors, musicians, filmmakers, painters, poets have a remarkable record of speaking truth to power and of inspiring the public to stand up to repression and injustice.

That’s why Harper’s barely contained hostility to the nation’s artists is cause for concern.

Contrary to Harper’s assertions, the arts are not flourishing under the Conservative government.

He is using tax measures to censor artists.

And he has cut public support to artists.

Canadian Heritage divides its cultural support programs into two chunks, dubbed strategic outcomes.

The first, Strategic Outcome No. 1, focuses on Canadians sharing their experiences with each other and the world.

This is where painters, writers, filmmakers and other artists receive federal government support.

And in 2007-08, it dropped to $759 million from $817 million.

That’s not an increase.

Heritage also has Strategic Outcome No. 2, which supports sports, language and intercultural initiatives.

That broad category has seen more funding, going up to $632 million from $568 million. But that money doesn’t go to artists.

Every cut to Heritage’s budget has been applied to direct artist grants and support, according to Heritage officials interviewed in a recent Globe and Mail story.

That’s got people in cultural business worried.

“The analysis seems to point to a very worrisome trend, which is the federal government moving away from investing in arts and culture toward more societal aspects of the mandate of the Heritage department,” Alain Pineau, national director of the Canada Council for the Arts, told the Globe.

“I’m not against that — but it’s not new money. We’re taking away from Peter to feed Paul here, and that is really worrisome.”

In considering the Conservative government’s cuts to Canadian artists, it’s helpful to examine its support for the oil and gas industry.

In 2007, Ottawa gave the oil and gas industry $1.4 billion in annual tax breaks, according to federal figures.

Compare that to the now dwindling support for artists, down $45 million to $759 million.

This week, Harper contemptuously suggested it’s a niche issue.

The ordinary Canadians he’s supposedly championing come home and turn on the TV.

One wonders, in light of his cuts, what they’ll be watching.

It surely won’t be Canadian.