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Beware politicians who slight culture

Canada’s artists help to define who we are and what matters to us, both in Canada and around the world.

Canada’s artists help to define who we are and what matters to us, both in Canada and around the world.

They nourish our collective imagination.

They enrich our lives.

Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

So why has arts and culture received so little attention in this election campaign?

Yukoners ought to be particularly concerned about this issue, given the high percentage of its labour force in the cultural sector.

At 1.38 per cent of all Yukon workers, this is the second highest ratio in Canada (after Nunavut), and almost double the national average of 0.8 per cent.

The Yukon cultural workforce has also grown exceptionally fast in the last decade — by 50 per cent, compared to a growth rate in all occupations of 33 per cent.

Yukoners regularly demonstrate that they value the arts, with 50,500 people attending over 400 arts events in 2004-05.

And those events contribute in excess of $2 million to the territorial economy, thanks to the assistance of base funding from Yukon arts programs.

Nationally, the cultural sector in Canada provides jobs to nearly 600,000 Canadians and generates more than $40 billion — yes, billion — per year.

So maybe it’s time to take a closer look at how the platforms of the three main parties address this issue.

The Liberal Party platform states that Canada’s “authors, filmmakers, and musicians demonstrate the vitality, creativity and innovation that set Canada apart.”

And they back up this recognition with specific promises, including the doubling of Canada Council funding by 2008, as well as $860 million over five years to provide stable funding to the arts and culture sector (a commitment spelled out in the government’s last budget).

The NDP platform also addresses specific cultural issues, though in different areas.

More than the Liberals, the NDP recognize the role that individual artists play and, therefore, the need to support them as cultural workers.

They promise to introduce a system of tax averaging so that artists’ income (often a feast-or-famine situation) can be averaged over a number of years.

(The average Yukon artist makes $15,597 per year, half the average Yukon wage of $31,526).

They also plan to allow an exemption for the first $30,000 earned on copyright and royalty income (a model that already exists in Quebec).

Furthermore, they offer specific provisions for Canada’s film and television industry, including sustained funding for the Canadian Television Fund and Telefilm Canada, enhancing federal film incentives, and revamping the CRTC to clarify its mandate.

What do the Conservatives have to offer?

They devote a grand total of 132 words (I counted) to a cultural policy that includes no specific dollar amounts at all, though they do promise $140 million annually to amateur sport.

By all means let’s support the excellence of our athletes, but don’t we value excellence in our artists as well?

There’s a complete lack of recognition of the reality of artists’ incomes — an odd omission from a party that prides itself on supporting entrepreneurialism.

“Innovation has never come through bureaucracy and hierarchy,” says the former head of Apple Computer, John Scully, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal. “It has always come from individuals.”

Isn’t that something the Conservatives should be supporting?

The Conservatives also promise to “ensure” that the CBC “continues to perform its vital role” and to “preserve the role of the NFB, the Canada Council, and other federal arts and culture agencies.”

But they don’t tell us how this “ensuring” and “preserving” is going to be achieved.

Post-election, they could easily argue that cutting funding would create greater effectiveness in these institutions.

As for some of the other major issues facing the cultural sector — for example, copyright and cultural sovereignty — the Conservatives have nothing to say.

The new Copyright Act that the Liberals introduced during the last session — and which died on the order paper when the election was called — offered significant new protection to artists in an age of digital technology, while also providing for licensed public and educational access to creative works.

Considering that about seven per cent of Canadian economic activity is now affected by copyright, this is a vital issue affecting not only creators but also users of copyrighted materials.

As for cultural sovereignty, Conservative leader Stephen Harper seems to believe that not only is this not important, but that Canada has no real culture to protect.

In a 1997 interview on CBC, when asked, “Is there a Canadian culture?”, he stated that it “consists of regional cultures within Canada … that cross borders with the US. And there is a continental culture.”

Harper’s partly right — there is a continental culture, but it’s not a two-way street. In an era when American culture threatens to erode national cultural expression around the world, governments need tools with which to help foster their own cultural identity.

That concept is enshrined in the new UNESCO convention on the protection and promotion of cultural diversity.

Canada not only spearheaded this initiative, but was the first country, last fall, to ratify this convention.

Even Harper’s commitment to established public institutions, such as the CBC, is in question.

As reported in Straight Goods, a Canadian independent online newsmagazine, Harper spoke of commercializing the CBC’s English TV network and Radio Two as recently as May 2005.

He said, “And I think when you look at things like main English-language television and probably to a lesser degree Radio Two, you could look there at putting those on a commercial basis.”

Despite the new, improved Stephen Harper that the media and a carefully managed campaign are selling us, there’s not a shred of evidence that Harper’s fundamental attitudes, on culture and a range of other important issues, have changed.

Remember that this is the man who, from 1998 to 2001, was president of the National Citizens’ Coalition, a right wing organization that has consistently opposed the Canada Health Act, universal social programs, and other government-funded programs (such as the CBC) that Canadians now take for granted.

It’s shameful that, in the 21st century, a national party now leading in the polls shows so little understanding of the importance of culture to a nation’s identity, self-confidence, and achievement.

If Canadians want to protect and foster their own vibrant culture, they’d do well to think about what choices we’re being offered in this election.