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Arts Mélanie Joly uses symbolism to help ease perceived Tory slights in Quebec

In Of Montreal, Robert Everett-Green writes weekly about the people, places and events that make Montreal a distinctive cultural capital.

When Mélanie Joly was first named Canadian Heritage Minister, she liked to say that her portfolio was the Ministry of Symbols. The ways in which that symbolism plays out can be subtle, as shown by her recent announcement that she would let her bureaucrats sign more cheques.

Canadian Heritage sends about $1-billion worth of cheques to cultural organizations each year, most of them made out for less than $75,000. By tradition, the Minister's office had signing rights over all that paper, most of which Joly will now leave to the specialist civil servants who rate the applications and deal with recipients.

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The official statement about this change was a masterpiece of dry understatement. Ending the cash bottleneck in the Minister's office, it said, would make the granting process speedier and more efficient. A new online application and more opportunities for multiyear funding would further oil the machinery that delivers state funds to arts and culture groups.

When Joly met with reporters, however, she pointed out that by yielding signing power over 90 per cent of the cheques – everything less than $75,000 – she was also making the process less partisan. She might have illustrated the point by saying: No longer will a minister of Canadian Heritage have so many chances to veto a grant to artists whose activities don't please the ruling party.

But what she actually said was: "It's not normal for some ridings not to receive any funding, when groups have a right to that money. It's normal for us to support arts groups across the country. … The idea is to lessen the potential [for a minister] to say, 'This is just for constituencies where we have a member.' "

That's a valid goal, but it has almost nothing to do with any perceived problem at Heritage. Constituencies were not being routinely punished for voting the wrong way. Under the Harper regime, the number of grants to Quebec, which elected five Conservatives in 2011, was about the same as grants to Ontario, which sent 73 Tories to Ottawa. Two of the largest grants – for $1-million each – went to a pair of festivals in Montreal, which did not add a single Conservative member to the Harper majority.

In any case, a $10,000 or $50,000 arts grant is a piddling way to dispense patronage. If you really want to reward or punish a constituency, it's more effective to do so with something made of concrete. And how would you even shift a mass of Heritage grants from Montreal to ridings in rural Alberta, which had heaps of Tory loyalty but little arts infrastructure?

The Harper government made its own trouble at Heritage by vetoing grants to groups that had received money for years on end. The system has a lot of continuity built in – call it inertia if you like – and people noticed the disruptions. Lacking official explanations, the community concluded that the government was taking revenge on arts groups that had offended it.

The thesis seemed plausible. Toronto's Rhubarb Festival lost its grant after presenting a play called Fucking Stephen Harper, Montreal's Studio 303 got the boot after hosting an artist's breast-milk tasting bar, and the Festival international de la littérature lost out after feting author Yann Martel, who had publicly badgered the Prime Minister for four years about the books he was or wasn't reading.

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The Harper government ended up buying a lot of ill will with a small amount of unspent money. The stink over a few vetoed grants made a bigger impression on some than the fact that the Harperites actually increased funds to the Canada Council, whose granting process is immune to ministerial meddling.

So why did Joly explain her new, less partisan system by proclaiming the need for equal opportunity between ridings? Because geography does play a role in people's ideas about what happened under the old regime, and about what they can expect from the new.

Many people in Quebec believe, reasonably enough, that their province was slighted by the Tories for choosing other parties in 2011. That belief permeated the arts scene as well, even though cultural grants from Heritage and the Canada Council did not discriminate geographically.

When I asked Montreal artists Annie Roy and Pierre Allard, who do social art projects related to homelessness, why they thought several years of Heritage support had ended for them suddenly in 2010, they replied: "We're left-wing francophones." They believed they were punished for belonging to a community reviled by the government. But it's at least as likely that they lost out because the minister wouldn't or couldn't sign a cheque made out to Action Terroriste Socialement Acceptable ("socially acceptable terrorist action"), which is what they call their company.

By invoking a geographic and regional standard of fairness, even when it wasn't relevant, Joly was reinforcing the Liberal message to Quebeckers – that they're back in good hands. A more correct summary of what her changes meant would have had less reach, and might have been less useful, as the minister prepares to review all aspects of a department where, as she said last week, "everything is on the table."

What Joly has really done with her cheque-signing initiative, from the point of view of governmental self-interest, is to learn from a Tory mistake. Never again, she might say, will the Canadian Heritage minister or her staff be allowed to let a petty grievance or partisan aversion tempt them into swatting away artists whose ability to make a fuss could stain the government's image on cultural policy.

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In any case, she still has plenty of room to exercise ministerial discretion, which Heritage says was historically exercised in only about 2 per cent of cases. Joly retains the last word on grants more than $75,000, and on everything to do with celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Confederation. At that level, no mechanism will be able to prevent her, if she chooses, from controlling the nature, location or extent of a project according to political calculation.

That's not a trivial outcome. As Joly well knows, government runs best when the symbolism of how you handle the small things – a $50,000 grant, for example – smooths the way toward larger goals.

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