The Prime Minister's Office was misguided in condemning a new play about a convicted "Toronto 18" terrorist, says the head of the festival presenting it.
SummerWorks artistic producer Michael Rubenfeld shot back at PMO spokesman Andrew MacDougall, who was quoted in a Toronto newspaper this week as saying, "We are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism."
In response to the PMO's criticism, and to comments in a series of recent newspaper stories from critics yet to see the show, Mr. Rubenfeld said: "They're quoting on something they clearly know nothing about because the play in no way glorifies terrorism."
Reached on Wednesday, Mr. MacDougall stood by his comment.
"Had [the Toronto 18]succeeded, there would have been literally thousands of people dead. Let's not forget, they wanted to behead the Prime Minister, too," he told The Globe and Mail.
SummerWorks received nearly $90,000 in funding from three levels of government.
Catherine Frid's play, Homegrown, is based on prison interviews she conducted with Shareef Abdelhaleem, a man convicted of participating in a terrorist group and intending to cause an explosion. A written description calls it "a true story" of a lawyer who "becomes obsessed with separating fact from hype in the face of the uncertainty, delays and secrecy in his case."
Having read the script, Mr. Rubenfeld said it is not a "sympathetic portrayal" - rather, he thinks the character based on Mr. Abdelhaleem "comes off as a human," a description echoed by the playwright.
"He has as many flaws as he does not. And the focus is on the human story. It doesn't have an agenda," Mr. Rubenfeld said.
Ms. Frid said she does not condone terrorism or violence, and is "very pro-Canadian," but also does not believe Mr. Abdelhaleem is a terrorist. She does not ever remember calling her play a "sympathetic portrayal," as the Toronto Sun has reported, but hopes it will "generate discussion" and a variety of sentiments, either for or against Mr. Abdelhaleem. Even for her, he continues to provoke a mixture of feelings.
"I feel angry at him. I feel frustrated. I feel sympathy, especially after the amount of time he's spent in jail and some of the things he's undergone in there," she said.
A spokesman for Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore said, "We provide funding for festivals and events, not for specific elements of their programming. SummerWorks is responsible for its programming decisions."
But the broader arts community has begun weighing in. Actor and playwright Rick Miller said the PMO's statements "palpably demonstrate our government's hostility towards the arts and paranoia towards dissenting voices," while fellow playwright Michael Healey dismissed the comments as "intentionally designed for [the Conservative]base."
Robin Sokoloski, executive director of the Playwrights Guild of Canada, said "limiting funding to plays that deal with only acceptable material is a form of censorship that would lead to only a limited perspective."
But Mr. MacDougall said he was "not making any comments on funding or anything."
"The government's expressing its opinion, I think, as the people who control the money from the taxpayers of Canada," he said. "We're the ones that have to spend it wisely in any area."