Cries of joy could be heard from the cultural community Tuesday: The Liberals have largely fulfilled their $1.3-billion election promise to the sector.
The Canada Council, whose budget will double by 2021, called it an unprecedented, once-in-a-generation investment, while the performers union ACTRA expressed the hope this marked the beginning of a new relationship between government and creators.
At the CBC, which is slated to get an extra $675-million over the next five budgets, CEO Hubert Lacroix said in a press release: "This is great news for CBC/Radio-Canada, and for Canadians who support public broadcasting."
The heritage and museum sectors were also happy because infrastructure money will be spent on various repairs and renovations (some of them already earmarked by the departing Tories), bringing the total up to $1.8-billion.
Nobody wants to be caught looking a gift horse in the mouth, but if the optimism is to prove justified, the money will need to be accompanied by smart decisions on tough issues, both by the government and by the recipients.
Because the funds go directly to arts production, giving more to the Canada Council ($550-million over five years) is relatively uncontroversial; even the Harper Tories turned in that direction ($25-million a year for much of their mandate) when they wanted to look arts friendly. It seems pretty obvious that dollars to the Council, dispersed as grants to artists, simply buy you more art.
Yet even there, there are major and tricky changes afoot as the Council streamlines all its programs to replace multiple genres and categories with a handful of big buckets. The scheme is intended to make grants more accessible, particularly to multidisciplinary work and younger artists. Whether the plan will prove workable remains to be seen but the new money will certainly ease growing pains – or even disguise failures.
And that complexity is nothing compared to the challenges of life at the CBC where the money, only $75-million in this first year, is supposed to be used to continue the broadcaster's work reaching more Canadians by creating digital programming that can be accessed on multiple platforms. Or it may just serve as an anesthetic for the ongoing pain caused by the loss of the ad revenue from Hockey Night in Canada.
Thank goodness, the Liberal budget specifically mentions working with the CBC not only on an accountability plan but also on a new mandate: a basic system of five-year mandates tied to guaranteed levels of funding is badly needed to stabilize the organization after years of irresponsible cuts from the Tories, and the Liberals before them. The CBC also needs a new governance structure, specifically a CEO who reports to a non-politicized board instead of directly to the government.
The budget document mentions in passing the need to digitize the CBC archives. That might seem like a no-brainer – all Canadians should have easy, digital access to the library of programs built up over the years with public money – but the difficulties of securing all the rights to the various elements of historic programs have made that obvious goal elusive.
One organization that has done an exemplary job in this area is the National Film Board: Just take a look at what you can either stream for free or rent at nfb.ca. That's why the biggest head-scratcher in the budget's cultural spending is the tiny amount of new money tossed to the NFB. The Liberals had promised $95-million over five years to the NFB and the film funding agency Telefilm Canada, but have come up with only $13.5-million for the former and $22-million for the latter.
Canadians would be right to ask tough questions about investments in Telefilm, which subsidizes commercial film: The Canadian movie business still struggles to reach significant audiences. But the non-commercial NFB's reinvigoration of both its work and its accessibility in a digital era (despite ongoing cuts to its budget) is a model, and one the CBC should look to.
Beyond that specific issue of how you ensure that Canadians are seeing the CBC or NFB programming they've paid for floats the larger and more difficult question of how any Canadian content should be subsidized and distributed in the era of YouTube and Netflix. Canada doesn't just need more funding for the Canada Council and the CBC, it needs the government to modernize broadcasting regulation, to plug loopholes in the 2012 update of the Copyright Act (which contains an education exemption so large it threatens the future of Canadian books in schools), to revisit the rules governing foreign participation in Canadian publishing, and the list goes on.
At the very least, this budget recognizes that culture matters. Let's hope strong decisions flow from that conviction.