If you came to the Old Fire Hall expecting a highbrow discussion on artistic expression among the Yukon’s four federal candidates on Tuesday, you would have been disappointed.
Instead, artists expressed concerns about the survival of the fragile Yukon arts scene during the Arts, Heritage and Culture debate. And politicians doled out talking points.
In May, Ottawa cut funding for the Exhibition Transport Services program, said Canadian Artists Representation/Le front des artistes canadiens vice-president Mario Villeneuve.
The transportation program moved any visual art deemed to be significant to Canadian heritage across the country, bringing it to geographically remote yet artistically vibrant cities, like Whitehorse.
“It’s not as sexy as international trade or having a band go play in London for the embassy,” said Villeneuve, whose organization represents visual artists across the country.
“We’re just a little Yukon Arts Centre, but it really matters. We can’t afford to go see Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto’s shows every month, but we should be entitled to see them here.”
Whitehorse houses the only qualified gallery in the North, which benefited from the program.
“It can only be shown in galleries like the one we have here, which is a level A gallery, but it needs this special equipment, these special trucks, these special drivers who are also handlers,” said Villeneuve.
“There is no way to get it up here. The private companies that exist will come as far as Vancouver, but they will not come as far as the Yukon,” he said.
At least three shows a year came north from a major gallery, he said.
“We had some Chagall, some Emily Carr and a few Group of Seven pieces recently. Basically your big names, your art stars from the past, which, basically, we won’t have access to those shows anymore.”
Bringing Canadian art across the country is part of nation building, he said.
“I see it, as a Yukoner, that (the federal government) is saying, Yukon is not part of Canada.”
The program was scrapped because of a contractual issue, he said.
When new contracts were drawn up a year ago, there was no category for driver-handler in the government’s employee classification and there was no political will to solve the problem.
“They don’t say that is what it is,” he said. “But they didn’t come up with any good alternative to replace it, even when it was a valuable and financially viable project.”
“This government just cut it because it was too problematic and thought there aren’t enough people in the North and arts are not important.”
The arts debate marked the first time Liberal Larry Bagnell, Conservative Darrell Pasloski, New Democrat Ken Bolton and the Green Party’s John Streicker squared off this election.
It was less debate than polite discussion.
For the most part, the candidates talked about how politics should affect the arts scene and to what degree.
One constituent asked whether the candidates agreed with Bill C-10, which allows the heritage minister to cut a tax credit to a arts project if it runs against vaguely defined public policy, such as pornography or violence.
“There is a responsibility for the people you elect to go to Ottawa to make decisions for all of us,” said Conservative candidate Darrell Pasloski.
“There are times when the people you elect make those decisions, and then you have an opportunity at a later date to reassess the performance of that person,” he said.
Pasloski was the only candidate who did not receive cheers or vocal support from the crowd.
“What I’m hearing is that, basically, we’re going to fund films as long as they’re made by Disney,” said NDP candidate Ken Bolton.
Bill C-10 is thought control, he said, suggesting a slow and gradual slide into government censorship.
There should be a peer-review process to evaluate federal funding priorities, said Bagnell and Streicker.
However, the debate failed to delve deeper into the issue. Instead, the discussion moved away from philosophic musings on censorship to the everyday concerns of the arts community.
Yukon youth need art to stay safe and healthy, said Ashley Camara, events co-ordinator for Bringing Youth Toward Equality, which depends on government arts grants.
“We’re about youth empowerment and engaging youth. We run workshops around the issues facing youth, but a lot of it can be very dry,” she said.
“So, if you’re taking to youth about racism or anti-bullying it can be very dry. How art fits into it is that it gets creative.”
The Liberal, New Democrat and Green Party candidates said they would reverse funding cuts made by the Conservatives, while Pasloski insisted his government had actually increased funding to the arts.