Art gets political in Vancouver Centre

As the October 14 federal election date draws near, cultural workers across the country are scrutinizing the arts platforms of the Conservatives, Greens, Liberals, and NDP.

Locally, the hotly contested riding of Vancouver Centre is playing a pivotal role in this debate. The riding is home to most of the city’s major arts institutions—including the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Playhouse, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Arts Club Theatre Company, and the Contemporary Art Gallery, among others—and the political race may well rest on the candidates’ appeal in the cultural sector.

Hoping to unseat the riding’s 15-year Liberal MP, Hedy Fry, are the NDP’s Michael Byers, Green party deputy leader Adriane Carr, and former Liberal MLA Lorne Mayencourt, who is running under the Conservative banner.

Since Stephen Harper’s government slashed $45 million in arts funding, people in the cultural field have been hoping to see their sector become a major election issue.

But it was a poor choice of words by Harper himself that propelled arts funding to the fore: on September 23, during a campaign stop in Saskatchewan, the prime minister insisted arts funding was a “niche issue”, and declared that “when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people at a rich gala all subsidized by the taxpayers—claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough when they know those subsidies have gone up—I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people.”

In the coming days, three arts-related political events will be taking place in Vancouver Centre. Tomorrow morning (October 3), at BCIT’s downtown campus, the Arts, Culture, and Heritage Forum of the Downtown Vancouver Association is hosting an all-candidates discussion.

Monday evening (October 6), the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage will be the site of an all-candidates forum hosted by the Alliance for Arts and Culture, followed by the Wrecking Ball—a political cabaret featuring work by Canadian playwrights and musicians hosted by Spirit of the West’s John Mann. Other Wrecking Balls will take place across the country on the same day, including in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, and Victoria.

“So often in these kinds of settings we’re trying to drag out of the candidates, ”˜What is your policy for the arts?” Katrina Dunn, artistic director of Touchstone Theatre and an organizer of Vancouver’s Wrecking Ball, told the Straight. “This is a really unique situation because these cuts have forced everybody into trying to articulate their positions. What we’re looking for is really the opportunity for the local candidates to try to articulate their parties’ positions”¦and also to be able to have the Vancouver artistic community challenge that and ask questions and try to get them to be specific about things.”

Opposition parties have all made promises regarding arts funding, with Stephane Dion pledging to reverse the $45-million cuts, double the Canada Council for the Arts budget to $360 million, provide $126 million for international arts promotion, and $16 million for museum-assistance programs, and permit income-averaging for artists.

Not to be outdone, Jack Layton also promised income-averaging for artists, and pledged tax exemptions on copyright and residual income, increased funding for the Canada Council, and the rescinding of the Tories’ $45-million culture cuts. For their part, the Greens say they will increase funding to all of Canada’s arts and culture organizations, increase support for community arts programs and facilities, extend income-tax relief to artists, and allow for income-averaging.

Fry told the Straight she was not surprised that the arts have become an election issue. “I sat in that House of Commons for 15 years with the Reform and then the Alliance and then Mr. Harper”¦bashing the arts,” she said. “I’ve heard them say that if the product is good it will sell itself and that the government subsidizing the arts is an absolute joke.”¦I am terrified of what they would do to the arts and culture.”

Byers also attacked Harper, saying: “For a relatively small country like Canada spread over such a vast space, our arts are”¦the sinews that hold the country together.”¦Mr. Harper quite clearly doesn’t believe in a role for government in fostering a sense of nationhood, and I suspect it’s because Mr. Harper ultimately doesn’t really see any need for Canadians to be different from our neighbours to the south.” While Byers said he was open to working with Liberals on this issue, Fry said that with another Harper government in power, “all we can do is stand up and scream and beat our chest and yell and do whatever we can, but that’s about it, because you have seen how this government operated as a minority government. It flouted the power of Parliament, it walked away from anything that Parliament was trying to do.”

At an August 28 press conference, Carr also took on Harper. “The arts and culture community are that sector of Canadian society that will”¦present to the people an honest appraisal of where we are headed as a society. And frankly, where we’re headed as a society under the Harper government is not where I think most Canadians want to head.”

Mayencourt’s campaign office told the Straight he was too busy to take part in a telephone interview.