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Canadian author Margaret Atwood is calling on the Harper government to replace the Understanding Canada program.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

A group of prominent Canadian authors and academics, including Margaret Atwood, Rudy Wiebe and David Staines, the University of Ottawa literature professor who helped found the Giller Prize, are calling on the Harper government to "create a system to replace" Understanding Canada, a program started in 2008 to fund international Canadian studies.

The government announced last month it was "phasing out" the program, beginning with a cut of $4-million this year and $5-million next, plus a chop of $400,000 in salaries associated with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the program's administrator. The program, which now effectively ends March 31, 2013, offered a range of grants to scholars, universities and colleges around the world to organize courses on Canada, sponsor conferences and symposia, support research and teaching and run various exchanges and "research linkages."

The 20 Canadians posted what they call their "lament" for the demise of Understanding Canada online this week at The Globe and Mail's Comment page, noting the Harper government's decision marks the end of a tradition that, under one name or another, has fostered knowledge of Canada abroad for 40 years.

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Their action follows on a letter sent June 1 to Prime Minister Stephen Harper by the International Council for Canadian Studies criticizing his government for not considering the "negative effects on how Canada is perceived internationally" and for failing to provide "a transitional arrangement to reduce funding." The ICCS has administered about $2-million annually in Understandng Canada funding through several subsidiaries such as the Association for Canadian Studies in Ireland and the Nordic Association for Canadian Studies. "This relatively small amount of money … had echo effects many years beyond [any] current fiscal year," said Patrick James on Wednesday. He's president of the ICCS and director of the Centre for International Studies, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

At the same time, James said "over the course of several years, our leadership had been anticipating significant budget cuts, the government obviously going through an austerity phase. And with the worldwide recession, only a fool would think there weren't going to be cutbacks. But did we anticipate a 100-per-cent elimination? No."

Still, the ICCS, a not-for-profit with more than 7,000 scholars under its aegis, has been thinning its budgets ("We were already pretty lean and mean already"), making overtures to philanthropies for donations and looking to secure contracts to position its experts "to help literally any department in the government of Canada." Added James: "If we are prudent and do things properly, I see no reason why we won't survive."

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