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Actor Lwam Ghebrehariat is shown in a scene from the theatre production "Homegrown." (Trevor Schwellnus/Trevor Schwellnus)
Actor Lwam Ghebrehariat is shown in a scene from the theatre production "Homegrown." (Trevor Schwellnus/Trevor Schwellnus)

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The Summerworks affair: Cheap shots, at the expense of artists Add to ...

On Friday night, Canadian theatre companies across the country are banding together in unprecedented numbers, united behind a common cause: Glorifying terrorism.

Well, that's what it might seem like if you subscribe to the outlier literary criticism of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, anyway.

From my vantage point, these theatre companies are taking a courageous stand for freedom of expression and demanding respect from a government that keeps trying to score political points on their backs.

The more than 70 participating companies - including such prominent institutions as the Shaw Festival, the Vancouver Playhouse and almost every major Toronto theatre from Canadian Stage to Soulpepper - are collaborating on readings of Catherine Frid's play Homegrown.

Taking place in, at last count, nine cities, these readings are fundraisers for the SummerWorks Festival, which recently lost the financial support of the Department of Canadian Heritage.

The choice of Homegrown, Frid's autobiographical play about her complicated relationship with convicted terrorist Shareef Abdelhaleem, is not arbitrary, of course.

Some breathless coverage of the premiere of Homegrown at SummerWorks last year led a spokesman for Mr. Harper to remark in August that "we are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism."

Mr. Harper later told reporters that he was "concerned" about Frid's play, too. "I just think most Canadians would find anything that glorifies terrorism to be abhorrent," he said, a quite reasonable statement if you ignore the fact that Homegrown did no such thing. (Toronto Star critic Richard Ouzounian, to quote someone other than myself who actually saw the play, said it was "definitely not a play that supports or romanticizes terrorism.") Flash forward 10 months and, lo and behold, the SummerWorks festival learned that the modest amount of public money it received at the federal level, about $1,000 per play presented, was no more, leaving it with a 20 per cent budgetary shortfall and little time to make it up.

However, if you think for a moment that there might be a connection between the leader of the land's publicly expressed repugnance and the sudden disappearance of its federal funds after five years of support, in conjunction with artistic and audience growth, you might also think that 9/11 was an inside job, according to Heritage Minister James Moore.

In an interview with Jian Ghomeshi on CBC Radio's Q earlier this week, Mr. Moore told listeners that SummerWorks had "nothing whatever" to do with Homegrown. "People can draw up whatever conspiracy theories they want," he added when pressed on the point.

In that interview, Mr. Moore made some rather good points about how the Conservatives have shown support for Canadian culture, but as the minister so rightly noted, government support for the arts is about more than just money.

Indeed, it's the disdainful talk that drips out of Ottawa and its trickle-down effects that irk most of all and have led to theatre artists across the country to rise up in revolt.

When Finance Minister Jim Flaherty chastises artists for assuming an "entitlement to grants," as he did in response to the SummerWorks uproar, perhaps Canadians will be led to believe that theatre artists are a bunch of whiners on the dole. In reality, however, what I see are legions of cultural entrepreneurs who have proved ingenious at wringing money out of private sources and who only wish that they could find out about possible funding before rather than after they have to commit to a budget.

And when the Heritage Minister complains about "conspiracy theories" on national radio, perhaps Canadians listening will assume that the theatre artists outraged by the withdrawal of support for SummerWorks are some sort of misguided tin-foil-hat brigade. In reality, however, what I see is a group of citizens who perhaps naively assume that when the Prime Minister publicly expresses concern about an issue, he might actually act on it.

Let us take Mr. Moore at his word, however, and assume that the folks at Canadian Heritage, without political interference, decided that the artists who participate in SummerWorks are 10 times as less in need of a leg-up than Canada's Walk of Fame, which recently received a cool half a million from Canadian Heritage.

And let us take him at his word that the Conservative government respects the arts.

Is it too much to ask, then, that they might consider respecting artists as well, instead of insulting them, mischaracterizing their work and using them as straw men to beat for the perceived bloodlust of their base?

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