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Canada’s Federal Election: Who Should Get the Art Vote?

The longest-running Canadian federal election campaign in more than a century is wrapping up, and arts and cultural issues have barely registered a peep on the campaign trail. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has successfully framed the election around the economy and national security, and divided the population through the insidious ways these topics have played out on the national stage.

But while cultural policy won’t polarize the public in the same way as the coldly calculated niqab debate, elections are ultimately about what kind of country we want to be, and the arts are a critical ingredient. So before we cast our ballots, let’s take a moment to review where our four major national federal parties stand on issues of arts and culture.

A Lost Decade

During the 2008 federal election campaign, Harper controversially quipped that “ordinary people” don’t care about arts funding. Despite a lack of evidence to back up his claim, several rounds of funding cuts to our cultural institutions made it clear that the Conservatives had thoroughly embraced the sentiment of their leader.

Harper’s 2012 austerity budget, his first upon winning a majority government, inflicted the majority of the damage. The Conservatives cut 10% from the budget of the CBC, the National Film Board and Telefilm Canada; 8.2% from Library and Archives Canada; and 7.4% from the Department of Canadian Heritage.

While the Canada Council for the Arts was spared from the chopping block, on a per capita basis their funding has declined by 8.3% under Harper’s watch, leading the Council to ask many groups receiving funding to plan for reductions between 5 and 10%.

And while the Conservatives may not be the unmitigated cultural disaster that many predicted when they first came to power, their current election platform does little to instil confidence for the future.

The Tory platform promises to “continue to support Canada’s arts and cultural communities and their immeasurable contributions to our country,” yet offers no specific policies or promises. Tellingly, the CBC is entirely absent from the 159-page document.

Efforts to ask the party for details have proved futile. The Conservatives were the only party to ignore the Canadian Arts Coalition’s questions about their positions on arts and culture. And in an October 7 debate on the screen-based industries held at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox, Conservative MP Rick Dykstra simply failed to show up, leaving NDP MP Andrew Cash and former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion alone to discuss the merits of their respective platforms. 

Three of a Kind

When it comes to the opposition parties duking it out among themselves, however, the fight really isn’t worth watching. While the platforms of the three parties differ somewhat on specifics, the broad picture they paint is the same: they’ll undo the damage the Conservatives have inflicted and increase government support of arts and culture.

“As your prime minister, you know I’ll be sincerely committed to supporting our artists, creative workers and cultural innovators,” NDP leader Tom Mulcair announced on October 5, the day the party announced their arts and culture platform. The NDP pledges to reverse the Conservatives’ $115 million in cuts to the CBC and provide “stable, predictable, multi-year financing to the public broadcaster,” while instituting an independent appointment process for the CBC board.

The NDP platform also promises to invest an extra $60 million in Telefilm Canada, the NFB and the Canada Council for the Arts; implement tax averaging for artists and cultural workers; provide embassies with appropriate cultural personnel and funding; and restore the National Archival Development Program.

The promises made by Elizabeth May’s Green Party have much overlap with those of the NDP, although they are a bit sparser on specifics. Their platform promises to reverse the CBC cuts and increase the public broadcaster’s budget in future years; review the taxation of art professionals; increase funding to other cultural institutions by an unspecified amount; and ensure cultural institutions are run at arm’s length from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Meanwhile, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are offering more of the same. They promise to increase Canada Council for the Arts funding to $360 million; add another $25 million to Telefilm and the NFB; and restore international cultural promotion programs that were cut by the Conservatives. And, in lockstep with the others, the Liberals promise to reverse Harper’s cuts to the CBC and invest $150 million in new annual funding.

The Broken Red Record

But here is where the significant differences between the Liberals and their competition on the left side of the political spectrum finally start to appear. Unlike the NDP and the Greens, the Liberals have a recent track record in office that we can look back upon, and the picture isn’t rosy.

It was only a decade ago that Canadian voters ended their 12-year relationship with the federal Liberal party. After complaining in their 1993 electoral platform that Brian Mulroney’s “Conservative regime has deliberately undermined our national cultural institutions,” the Chrétien Liberals went on to cut more than $400 million from the CBC—roughly 33% of their budget.

Altogether, Chrétien slashed funding to heritage and cultural programs by more than 23% during his first four years in office—cuts that have had lasting repercussions. For example, the Canada Council for the Arts was forced to make drastic internal changes, reducing their staff by 50% and eliminating a number of programs. Contrary to what Justin Trudeau would have us believe, the federal Liberals have hardly been willing patrons of Canadian arts and culture.

Beyond Institutional Funding

Institutional funding tends to receive the most attention when discussing cultural policy, although it’s hardly the only electoral issue that affects artists and cultural workers. On economic matters alone, there are policies that can and will have more direct impact than the dollars distributed through our institutions.

There are 671,100 cultural workers in Canada, who make up 3.82% of the total labour force—greater than the automotive manufacturing, utilities and telecommunications sectors combined. The economic impact of these workers is significant, with the cultural sector contributing $46 billion to the economy each year, representing 3.8% of the total GDP. By comparison, the share of our GDP attributed to oil extraction in Alberta’s tar sands stands at 2%.

Despite their importance to the economy, however, Canadians working in arts and culture are underpaid. The average artist in Canada earns around $33,000 per year—32% less than the typical Canadian. Cultural workers fare a bit better but are still well below the national average. Given these income levels, progressive policies designed to address inequality can have a significant positive impact on Canadians working in the arts.

For example, the NDP’s proposed $15-a-day national childcare program would save an artist living in Ontario with one child nearly $10,000 a year. If data from a similar scheme in Quebec is any indication, the program will also lead to increased working hours, particularly for women, who comprise 63% of artists in Canada.

(The Green Party says they are committed to universal childcare, but do not have an explicit costed program. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives propose a childcare program.)

In a similar vein, a national pharmacare strategy would go a long way towards providing security for artists and cultural workers who are more likely than the average worker to be self-employed or lack extended healthcare benefits. The NDP and Green platforms include a costed pharmacare plan. The Liberals simply say it can’t be done.

The Digital Divide

Beyond matters that directly affect our pocketbooks, there is a spate of other contemporary issues that are of particular concern to those of us who care about art and culture. On almost every measure the Conservatives have betrayed the public, and are promising more of the same.

OpenMedia, a nonpartisan advocacy organization, released a Party Report Card assessing the four federal parties on three major areas of digital policy: privacy, access and free expression. The NDP earned an overall grade of A-, trailing only the Green Party who came away with straight As. The Liberals fared poorly, with their C average just one letter up from the Conservatives, who earned an overall grade of D—including an F on key privacy issues.

Meanwhile, more than 200 Canadian artists—including the likes of Margaret Atwood, Thomas King and Dan Mangan—signed an open letter opposing Bill C-51, Canada’s new national-security law that “directly attacks the creative arts and free expression in this country.” The Conservatives passed the bill earlier this year—with the support of Justin Trudeau and the Liberals—despite widespread public opposition.

The vaguely worded law criminalizes “advocating or promoting the commission of terrorism offences in general,” which can be broadly interpreted to place art and creativity in the same legal category as ISIS recruitment videos. “Through its ‘chill’ effect,” the letter reads, “C-51 undermines one of the chief freedoms of a democratic society: the right of every Canadian to free speech and free expression, including free artistic expression.”

The Morning After

As election day approaches, a few things have become clear. Stephen Harper’s record on arts and culture has been abysmal. And the Liberal government that preceded him was arguably worse. Together they’ve inflicted more than 20 years of damage and lost opportunity upon Canada’s cultural sector.

But no matter which party forms the next government, the work of arts advocates doesn’t end on October 19. Rather, the act of casting our ballots signals a new beginning. A change in government may present a new opportunity, but as we’ve seen throughout this election campaign and with federal governments stretching back to the 1980s, political parties will not champion arts and culture without conscious, concerted and sustained public pressure.

So, this Monday, we head to the polls. Then, on Tuesday, we get back to work.

Rob Maguire is a founding editor of Art Threat, a publication about political art and cultural policy, and an arts-marketing consultant based in Vancouver. He tweets as @RobMaguire.

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