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Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended $44.8-million in planned cuts to arts-and-culture programs for the first time yesterday. At the same time, the Conference Board of Canada released a report attesting to the economic benefits of investing in Canadian culture.

Harper said the government's "changes" to more than a dozen programs is the only responsible path, and echoed recent assertions by his communications director, Kory Teneycke, and Canadian Heritage Minister Josée Verner that the government has managed to walk a tightrope, trimming the fat from its culture portfolio while simultaneously increasing overall spending.

"What this government has also done in that area, as it's done across the government, is we've instituted an expenditure-management system, where over a period of five years we comprehensively review every program and we make sure that we're spending on priorities and spending on those programs that are most effective," said Harper. "Some programs in arts and culture have increased in funding, others have gone down - in total it's gone up." Federal investment in culture for the 2007-08 fiscal year was $3.4-billion, up from $3.2-billion in 2006-07.

Harper also painted promises from Liberal Heritage critic Denis Coderre to reinstate the eliminated programs, should the Liberals be elected, as irresponsible. "The opposition has a view that you can never cut any single program, ever. If that's how they want to run the country, you'll have two consequences. You'll either have out-of-control spending or you will have a flat amount of program funding that is increasingly less effective over time," he said.

Tom McSorley, executive director of the Canadian Film Institute, is frustrated with the Conservatives' stance. He believes the driving force behind the cuts is the "ideological adamant rock" that funding the arts is not the federal government's domain, something the Conservatives have repeatedly denied.

I don't think they listen with any degree of interest to the fact that the economic impact of the arts is demonstrably positive," says McSorley. "To fall into the fallacy that it's really about moving money around - well it isn't."

The Prime Minister's comments come in the wake of a recently released report from the Conference Board of Canada, in collaboration with the federal government, that confirms high economic returns on cultural investment. The report, entitled Valuing Culture: Measuring and Understanding Canada's Creative Economy, calls the cultural sector's role "as a magnet for talent, an enhancer of economic performance, and a catalyst for prosperity" a universal phenomenon.

The Conference Board estimates Canada's cultural sector generated $46-billion, or 3.8 per cent of Canada's GDP, in 2007. The sector's total impact including "indirect and induced effects" on other sectors leaves an economic footprint of $84.6-billion, or 7.4 per cent of GDP, the report states. Those revelations paint a picture of industry stability: Statistics Canada reported culture accounting for an identical 3.8 per cent of GDP in 2006.

The report put 2003 employment in the cultural sector at 616,000 jobs.

Including direct and indirect contributions to employment, the report estimates that culture accounted for 1.1 million jobs in 2007.

Canada's culture sector is being driven by growth in digital technology and expanding Internet use, the report states.