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Kevin Loring, the new artistic director of Indigenous Theatre at the National Arts Centre.National Arts Centre via The Canadian Press

The National Arts Centre has been touting its new Indigenous Theatre department as an important artistic act of reconciliation. But, with its first shows hitting the stage this fall, the Ottawa-based Crown corporation won’t receive the additional money it asked for from the federal government to fund the program.

For a second straight year, the Department of Canadian Heritage denied the NAC’s request for $3.5-million annually to fund the Indigenous Theatre department. With no alternative plan to fund the department, the already cash-strapped arts centre will have to find other ways to pay for the expanded programming.

It’s a serious setback for the department that has led its artistic director to warn of scaled-back operations and question the federal government’s support for reconciliation.

“The Liberals have made this their rallying cry – they’ve been trumpeting reconciliation since they came into power, and that really sounds good, but I don’t know how deeply their hearts are in it,” said Kevin Loring, a Nlaka’pamux actor and Governor General’s Award-winning playwright who was appointed the Indigenous Theatre’s inaugural artistic director to much fanfare a year and a half ago.

“By not supporting the Indigenous theatre at the NAC, they’re sending a message. … That Indigenous artists in this country are not a priority for Canadian Heritage.”

Canadian Heritage spokeswoman Martine Courage did not respond directly to questions about why the NAC’s request for extra funding for the Indigenous Theatre was denied in 2018 and again in 2019. But she said in an e-mail that, “The Government has made historic investments in the art industry, our creators and artists” and “has never invested so much in the reconciliation process.” Ms. Courage noted the government had recently invested $225-million in the NAC’s architectural and production renewal project.

Originally opened in Ottawa in 1969, the NAC has long had two theatre departments – one English, one French – representing the bicultural, bilingual and colonial view of the country at the time of its founding.

In the fall of 2015, however, under the leadership of former CEO Peter Herrndorf, the NAC’s board of trustees approved a plan to create a third theatre department devoted to Indigenous performing arts. The NAC described it as a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action that would offer a national platform to preserve, promote and revitalize Indigenous languages. Loring’s first season is set to include interdisciplinary performances in nine different Indigenous languages.

The Crown corporation’s annual operating budget is about $70-million, with roughly $35-million of that coming from parliamentary appropriations each year – an amount, the NAC says, has not been increased for the last 15 years. (The rest of its revenue comes from its foundation, ticket sales, rentals of its space, catering and parking.)

Ahead of the last two federal budgets, the arts institution has approached the Department of Canadian Heritage to request a boost of $3.5-million a year to specifically support the new Indigenous Theatre department, so that it would be able operate on the same level as the English and French theatres without cutting into any other department’s budget.

Loring had hoped to create a decentralized department that would invest and present work across the country and in remote Indigenous communities from coast to coast to coast, not just in Ottawa.

The Indigenous Theatre’s first season set for 2019-20 – which has been programmed, but will not be announced until April 30 – will go ahead mostly as planned thanks to $2-million that has been raised from private donors and corporations to help launch the department. But that’s only a short-term solution after which, Loring said, “We have to go back and re-examine what we’ve planned and scale back what we had hoped to do.”

“We’re continuing to talk to government officials at Canadian Heritage to look at long-term solutions,” said Annabelle Cloutier, executive director of communications for the NAC. The NAC’s new CEO Christopher Deacon and former CEO Herrndorf declined to comment on Tuesday.

Since he revealed that there was no new money in the 2019 federal budget for the Indigenous theatre in a passionate Facebook post on Monday, Loring has received reactions of, “Shock, upset, disappointment, outrage” from theatre artists, Indigenous or not, across the country.

“I am taking this personally,” Kenneth T. Williams, a Cree playwright who was part of an advisory committee that worked to develop the new department at the NAC, said in a Facebook post. “While it’s not dead and Kevin will stay on and fight, this is a betrayal from Trudeau’s government.”​