Artist's Open Letter to Party Leaders Calls for National Vision for the Arts

Fannina Waubert de Puiseau is a dramaturge, director, and performance creator who divides her time between Germany and Canada. Fannina writes extensively about theatre, exploring its intersections with techniques and notions of adaptation, contemporary culture, and democracy. She has recently penned an open letter to federal party leaders on the state of arts policy in Canada. The letter reads:

To:

  • Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada
  • Elizabeth May and the Green Party of Canada
  • Thomas Mulcair and the New Democratic Party
  • Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada  

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

We are writing to you out of concern for Canadian arts and culture. A significant discussion of the importance, development, and direction of arts and culture in Canada, along with appropriate funding measures for the sector, has been absent from the federal election campaigns of all parties. By all accounts, the role of the arts in Canadian society seems bound to remain undefined past the election. This is disconcerting, particularly in consideration of current discussions about the state of Canadian democracy. 

As has been widely acknowledged, Stephen Harper’s tenure as Prime Minister has seen controversial measures in relation to Canadian democracy, including the Fair Elections Act, the legacy of the G20,electoral fraudcuts to the CBC, loss of the long-form censustreatment of First NationsSenate scandals, muzzling of Canadian scientists, the end of the Canada Health Accord, etc. These measures have left Canadian democracy injured and vulnerable. (1)  

Historically, the arts have functioned as a means of reflecting these circumstances — of engaging with, questioning, and criticizing the state of society. Consider, for example, the many works of Leonard Cohen or Margaret Atwood. Consider Michel Tremblay’s play Les Belles-soeurs, Sky Gilbert’s Drag Queens on Trial, Tomson Highway’s The Rez Sisters, Hannah Moscovitch’s This is War, Brad Fraser’s Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love — the list goes on. These works have been instrumental in the social, moral, and democratic education of Canadians, allowing their readers and audiences to employ their intellects and imaginations independently, to construct and negotiate possible versions of the world, to explore, ponder, and deliberate. “The kind of problem that literature raises,” is crucial, because, as Northrop Frye points out, it “is not the kind that you ever solve.” (2) In other words, the arts comprise an essential component of Canadians’ intellectual and political self-determination. 

And yet, for decades — more specifically since the 1990s, when Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution spread through Toronto, Ontario, and to Ottawa — Canadian arts and culture have been increasingly devalued, marginalized from daily life, and bereft of social function and purpose. They are now deemed a luxury — or an economic driver at best — instead of a societal necessity. As playwright Michael Healey recently put it, “Culture, it was decided, is not central to this society. It’s of use, it connotes a degree of civilization, but it’s not central. Culture is great, but it’s not worthy of a place in our collective life like, say, the economy is. The economy, so easy to measure and parse and fight over and politicize, dominates our discussions about society, about what we mean to each other.” (3) 

Without a central purpose — that is, without being able to lay claim to societal and democratic function — the arts have become radically vulnerable. In conjunction with Canadian democracy at large, they are endangered. In recent years, a number of artists and their works have been muzzled, if not censored. What likely comprises the most severe case occurred in 2011, when Toronto’s SummerWorks Festival lost 20% of its budget mere weeks before its opening, because the Department of Canadian Heritage unexpectedly cut the festival’s annual grant of approximately $47,000. Notably, one year prior, SummerWorks had premiered Catherine Frid and Shareef Abdelhaleem’s controversial play Homegrown, which is about the friendship between a terror suspect and a writer. According to theatre critic Richard Ouzounian, the Prime Minister’s Office had warned the public that Homegrown presented a sympathetic portrayal of a terrorist — prior to the opening of the show. Similarly, “a spokesman for Prime Minister Harper criticized the use of public funds to help SummerWorks stage Homegrown,” the Globe and Mail ’s J. Kelly Nestruck reported. (4)  

In the same vein, in 2012, Michael Healey resigned from Tarragon Theatre after an 11-year residency as the institution’s playwright, when concerns arose about his play Proud, the third in a trilogy of dramas about “Canadian societal virtues,” featuring an unnamed character called “the Prime Minister”. (5) And just this week, the National Post caused controversy by first posting, then pulling, and then reposting a satirical critique of Stephen Harper by Margaret Atwood. (6) The list goes on. (7) These instances are the direct result of a lack of protection of the arts, which, in turn, implies a lack of protection of free speech. If not shielded by a clear vision for their democratic purpose, art becomes vulnerable to state interference. Moreover, without the ability to leverage a politically and publicly recognized role in Canadian society, arts and culture become disposable, flagged for possible removal at any point. 

This is why our letter to you is not primarily about funding. Rather, it is about the necessity of funding aconcerted vision for Canadian arts and culture. The very lack of a clearly articulated concept for the arts in Canada has allowed Stephen Harper to dismantle essential cultural institutions under the guise of keeping other constituents’ monies seemingly stable. When the federal budget was announced in 2012, many artists breathed a sigh of relief as the Canada Council for the Arts saw its funding maintained. (8) At the same time, however, budget cuts debilitated the Canadian Conference of the Arts, the very organization that created the Canada Council in 1957. After 67 years of operation, the CCA, known for “taking the government to task” was forced to shut down. (9) Moreover, the 2012 budget outlined cuts of $1.9 million over three years for the National Arts Centre. (10) Then, paradoxically, in December 2014, Stephen Harper’s government announced an investment of $110.5 million for the architectural renewal of the National Arts Centre, “to transform it into a world-class facility” — presumably in preparation for Canada’s 150th anniversary, which will shine a global spotlight on the country. (11) 

The lack of a clear vision and democratic function for Canadian arts and culture, which has pervaded Canada since the mid-90s, allows for political opacity, a lack of transparency, and arbitrary decisions in dealings with arts budgets and funding. It creates false, illusory gratefulness for the scraps Canadian artists receive. It plays us against each other instead of glueing us together. It has conjured artistic lives led in isolation, at the mercy of political whims, and in fear of sudden cuts. Under such circumstances, bereft of agency and purpose, it has become nearly impossible for Canadian artists to create thoughtful, meaningful, and — above all — socially critical and challenging artworks. Artistic proliferation in Canada, and therefore one of the country’s crucial democratic constituents, is in danger of drying up. 

In order for Canada’s democracy to truly prosper — that is, for Canada to tap into its local, national, and international cultural potential — Canadian politics must develop and invest in a clear, focused vision for the role of arts and culture in Canadian society. What is now needed is a long-term concept created by government in conjunction with Canadian artists. We thus ask you to begin a conversation. Where do you see the arts in relation to society, democracy, and daily life? How do you propose for government to reinvigorate arts and culture, to protect them, and to return to them their essential democratic function? What concrete measures do you propose to take? Where do you see the cultural sector in ten, twenty years? 

We look forward to receiving your responses in writing, by phone, or in person at your earliest convenience. 

Sincerely, 

(Click here to be a signatory to this letter) 

NOTES

(1) I’m drawing directly from Aislinn Rose’s list, which can be found here:http://spiderwebshow.ca/article/why-the-canadian-arts-coalition-doesnt-speak-for-me 
(2) In Northrop Frye: The Educated Imagination
(3) I’m drawing from Michael Healey, “Why So Hostile” at http://spiderwebshow.ca/article/why-so-hostile 
(4) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/ottawa-cancels-funding-for-toronto-theatre-festival-that-presented-terrorist-play/article584814/
(5) http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/michael-healey-and-his-play-proud/article534494/
(6) http://canadalandshow.com/article/hairgate-what-really-happened 
(7) Such as this one: http://www.vancouverobserver.com/politics/harper-government-targeted-artist-her-green-conscience-internal-documents-reveal
(8) Again, Aislinn Rose: http://spiderwebshow.ca/article/why-the-canadian-arts-coalition-doesnt-speak-for-me 
(9) http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/canadian-conference-of-the-arts-winds-down-after-67-years-1.1237560 
(10) http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/national-museums-canada-council-spared-cuts-1.1236064 
(11) http://actionplan.gc.ca/sites/eap/files/budget2015-eng.pdf

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