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Canada Quebec Liberals’ major investment in the arts catches CAQ flat-footed

Culture matters more politically in Quebec than in any other province. Still, the $509-million investment in Quebec’s cultural life in this week’s Liberal budget must have surprised even those who received a direct benefit, after years of cuts.

It also posed a stark contrast to the undeveloped cultural policies of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ), which recent polls hold up as the party to beat in the forthcoming Oct. 1 election. So far, the CAQ, which is the third party in the National Assembly, has scarcely shown its colours on the cultural file, in spite of the fact that its culture and communications critic, Claire Samson, is a former broadcast executive.

The Liberal government spread its largesse throughout the sector, boosting its Culture and Communications budget by 11 per cent, increasing funds available for artists’ grants and heritage programs by around $200-million over five years, and topping up the “business bank” of the Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC) by 60 per cent. That last move is a vote of confidence in cultural industries as an economic engine, which accounts for 4 per cent of the province’s GDP.

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Seven state-owned organizations, including the Musée d’art contemporain and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, will share a windfall of $12.1-million, and all publicly-funded museums were promised funds for free admissions one Sunday a month. Not surprisingly, this last crowd-pleaser, which will cost $1-million per year, is what got into news reports about the budget as a whole.

CAQ leader François Legault denounced the budget as a “hoax” that offers Quebeckers no tax relief, fobbing them off with “a $25 gift card.” The clear implication was that a CAQ government would cut taxes. It would no doubt also take an axe to expenditures. Legault, a businessman who cofounded CAQ in 2011 as “a new nationalist project,” sees Quebec’s increasing dependence on transfer payments as risky and humiliating.

It’s hard to imagine a first CAQ budget that would not include deep cuts to cultural funding. Mr. Legault demonstrated his low consciousness of the topic in 2015, when he said that Quebec City should renovate a couple of skating rinks instead of investing in theatre star Robert Lepage’s new Le Diamant performance and studio centre. The comment enraged Régis Labeaume, Quebec’s colourful mayor.

“He doesn’t have enough to do?” Mr. Labeaume sputtered. “Everything’s going great at the provincial level in the region of Quebec, and so he gets into municipal projects? Incredible…”

Mr. Legault seems not to have noticed that for Quebec, Le Diamant represents a crucial piece of urban revitalization, as well as a lever for raising the city’s cultural tourism to a new level. His reward was to hear the mayor say in public that he should mind his own business.

Ms. Samson’s main contribution to CAQ policy is a 22-page report she released 16 months ago in her role as critic for protection and promotion of the French language. Its whole focus is toughening Quebec’s requirements for French proficiency and cultural integration among immigrants. This is favourable political terrain for CAQ, especially after last year’s revelations about the poor results of “francisation” courses for immigrants given by the Ministry of Immigration, Diversity and Inclusion.

Part of the remedy was offered this week by Minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Joly, whose new, $500-million Action Plan for Official Languages includes robust measures for increasing francophone immigration and francisation. The problem, from CAQ’s point of view, is that the party’s “new nationalist project” involves less reliance on Ottawa, not more.

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Ms. Samson’s report discusses the French language as a functional tool for employment, education and the receipt of government services. Nowhere does it say that cultural integration is also driven by the arts. The cheapest way for immigrants to get a dose of Quebec culture is to tune into Quebec radio and TV, visit the province’s museums and theatres, and read books by Quebec authors, which are available for free by the shelf-load in every library in the province. All of those state-funded activities are bound to involve more French-language use than skating in a renovated rink.

Perhaps CAQ will unveil some substantive policy about the arts and culture before the election, but I wouldn’t count on it. Mr. Legault has other priorities. If he does form a government, however, he may soon discover that Quebeckers won’t accept a cultural stance that, so far, seems more in tune with the province during the Duplessis era than the Quebec of today.

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