Alberta's Culture Minister is standing by his controversial comments about film and television productions made in his province - comments that have shocked and angered some Canadian broadcasters, producers and others in the industry.
"I sit here as a government representative for film and television in the province of Alberta and I look at what we produce and if we're honest with ourselves, why do I produce so much shit? Why do I fund so much crap?," Lindsay Blackett, Minister of Culture and Community Spirit, told an industry panel at the Banff World Television Festival. "Why aren't broadcasters picking up more Canadian content? It's because Canadian content isn't what it should be."
Mr. Blackett made the comments during a symposium on Monday called "Homegrown Canadian Talent," a panel moderated by Little Mosque on the Prairie star Zaib Shaikh, and featuring actors Eric McCormack, Jason Priestley and Peter Keleghan (whom Mr. Blackett was addressing) and producer/director/writer/actor Kenny Hotz.
The panelists were discussing the success some Canadians have found in Hollywood versus what some felt have been less-than-successful efforts to achieve similar high-quality programming in Canada, when Mr. Blackett chimed in.
"I was at a loss when I heard the statement - a complete loss and quite surprised and quite taken aback for every producer and content maker in Canada, let alone Alberta," said CBC Television General Manager Kirstine Stewart, who was in the audience. "Nobody can ever question the quality of what we do here in Canada, creatively or otherwise."
The Alberta government's annual budget for film, television and digital production is $20-million. In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Wednesday, Mr. Blackett reiterated his concerns that some of that money is being spent on poor quality fare, or productions that never see the light of day.
"We've got some great stuff, but we can be better," he said. "[We need to]up our game. Because I fully believe we are more than capable of doing that."
Alberta funded more than 100 projects in 2008-09, including Heartland and The Week The Women Went. Mr. Blackett refused to be specific about which productions he felt were substandard, although he did single out Heartland as a program that makes him "very proud".
Ms. Stewart said he should clarify what she called a "concerning" blanket statement. "I don't think anyone likes to be grouped together with programming that might not be satisfying to the Minister."
Others were more blunt. Actor and director Paul Gross replied in an e-mail after being told about the comments by The Globe: "It's sad for the thousands of talented people working in Alberta to have their efforts reduced to a four-letter expletive and sad for all Albertans that this is what passes for responsible government," he wrote. Mr. Gross has worked on several projects in Alberta as an actor and director, most notably his feature film Passchendaele, which received $5.5-million in funding from the Alberta government.
Mr. Shaikh was also upset by the comments. "Minister Blackett's remarks were troubling to say the least, considering I am part of a show that is seen in 70 countries worldwide," he wrote in an e-mail. "And to have made such remarks at the Banff Television Festival, where the world comes to celebrate the international and Canadian TV industry, was even worse."
ACTRA National President Ferne Downey, who was not at the panel but heard about it repeatedly from others at Banff, also called the comments "very troubling" - especially coming from someone who's supposed to be an industry champion. "What was he thinking? The truth is we create amazing television … despite a swath of obstacles - one of the biggest being chronic underfunding. If provincial governments such as his ponied up and gave our industry the investment it deserves, it would go a long way."
Clearly feeling some heat, Mr. Blackett took to the red carpet before Tuesday night's television awards to praise Alberta's "excellent" production companies and crews. "I'll tell you there will not be a day in my life that I will not stick up for an independent film producer," he said.
Mr. Blackett, who says he is too busy to watch much television any more, counts the news, Brothers & Sisters, The Practice and The Bachelorette as shows he does manage to catch. He says he fully supports the production industry and seemed eager to smooth the waters after hearing from some groups who were upset - including the Canadian Media Production Association (formerly the CFTPA), whose new chair, Tom Cox, is an Alberta producer whose credits include Heartland and Mayerthorpe. Mr. Cox was unavailable for comment on Wednesday.
Not everyone was critical. Mr. Hotz said the Minister was only speaking the truth. "I couldn't agree with him more," Mr. Hotz said. "I think that a lot of people maybe take advantage of the system and they're not doing quality work."
Calgary Film Commissioner Luke Azevedo didn't hear the comments firsthand but said he understands the sentiment behind them. "I think what the Minister is wanting to see and what we are all wanting to see is excellence coming out of the province."
Despite the firestorm, Mr. Blackett said he does not regret making the statement, or using the expletive. "You know what? I am what I am. … If they're offended, they're offended."
He added that taxpayers, like him, demand excellence. "We need to have a national discussion. We can't be so sensitive that we can't discuss it."
With a report from Gayle MacDonald