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Stratford director Antoni Cimolino on debt (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Stratford director Antoni Cimolino on debt (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

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Stratford director Antoni Cimolino on debt Add to ...

Antoni Cimolino is artistic director of the Stratford Festival, North America’s largest classical repertory festival, which runs April through October in Stratford, Ont.

Canadians are indebted like never before. Our parents and grandparents didn’t incur such levels of debt. What has changed?

In those days, two generations ago, you’d get the biggest house you could possibly get, put as much of a mortgage as possible in place and know that, in time, inflation would take care of it all. You couldn’t lose. Sadly, we’re finding that in the stock market or the housing market, we can lose, and collectively we’re sort of bruising our shins against the old thought structures.

In the United States, more than shins were bruised: Many people lost their homes. In Canada, we are approaching the same levels of debt that preceded that calamity. Shouldn’t we heed that warning?

I’m a bit of an addict for reality shows: house shows, extreme houses and that sort of thing. When I watch these things, I’m always blown away when a young couple walk into this house and turn their nose up at the level of the granite that’s there. Levels of expectation have really gone kinda nuts. Most of us grew up in pretty simple homes in the ‘50s and ‘60s (even if they were middle-class homes) compared to what’s expected now. Compared to what’s expected now, they were modest.

I suspect that there’s some refocusing that our society needs to do on what we need and what has real value, what has enduring value as opposed to what is just nice to have or what the neighbour has.

Everyone wants a lifestyle rather than a life.

We shouldn’t be dumping on debt and specific things that make your life happier because we don’t know how long we’re going to be here, so it’s important to enjoy the day. What do you want to spend on? You may not need a bigger house. You may want to spend it on your children’s education, or travel. There may be other things that drive greater value for you. I don’t think we all should live like the Puritans and deny ourselves all pleasures, but I do think we should think [about] what it is that really provides value to our lives.

The Stratford Festival! Experiences that stay with us for years!

Many young people leave university under huge student debt and that’s their introduction to adulthood and working life. What’s wrong with this picture?

Education will open the door to a full life but it won’t necessarily pay the bills immediately, so if you’re becoming a dentist, you may not necessarily read Homer but you will be able to pay your debts. It means different things to different students.

What is the solution? Drop the arts and get real if you don’t want to start out behind the eight ball?

The solution is to realize that a university education is an elemental part of our society. Those students that want to do it should be supported. I’m not saying there isn’t a role for fundraising in education or that parents shouldn’t pay a part of it, but there was a time when kids who couldn’t afford to go to university were given grants. Those days are gone. If universities become only a place for the wealthy then that’s not going to build a strong society in the years ahead.

Are you in debt right now?

I took out a small loan years ago “on the expectation of plenty,” as Shakespeare once wrote. I thought the markets were going up. Exactly six years later, I have exactly the same amount in that investment account as I borrowed. I could easily collapse the whole thing and just pay it off. But I keep waiting for the roulette wheel to turn.

What advice do you have for Canadians about avoiding – or escaping from – debt?

Debt, in and of itself, is not a terrible thing if it is put to achieving a long-term goal in your life, what it’s given you in terms of experiences that are sustainable and important or in terms of hard assets. If it is simply buying more clothes and an extra car or maybe a house you can’t afford, it becomes a noose.

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