Kenneth Whyte is the publisher of Sutherland House Books and the author of the weekly SHuSH newsletter. He is a former editor-in-chief of Maclean’s and the former founding editor of the National Post. His books include Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times.
The common definition of a philistine is a person hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, which almost perfectly fits the Conservative Party of Canada – except that it is hostile and indifferent to culture and the arts.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper summed up the hostility in 2008 when he responded to an inquiry about his funding cuts to arts organizations by insisting that most Canadians could care less: “I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see … a bunch of people, you know, at a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough when they know those subsidies have actually gone up – I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people.”
Around that same time, the Canada Council for the Arts celebrated its 50th anniversary. It sent a delegation to the House of Commons for the occasion, including author Yann Martel. Mr. Harper neither glanced at the delegation nor offered his congratulations.
Taking Mr. Harper for a philistine, Mr. Martel set out to educate him, shipping two books a month to the prime minister’s office on Wellington Street, along with condescending and occasionally amusing comments on the texts. Mr. Harper ignored them.
Erin O’Toole seemed to be following Mr. Harper’s approach in his successful campaign for the leadership of the CPC. His only cultural policies were negative and provocative. He promised to take on Justin Trudeau’s media bailout and defund the CBC.
There is political calculus behind this hostility. Conservatives, not without reason, see Canada’s government-supported arts and culture community as a creation and client of the Liberal party. The Liberals founded the arts community’s significant public institutions and wrote its significant public policy in the 1950s, and regularly increase public funding to the sector. The community may not be uniformly attached to the Liberals, but it’s never been fond of Conservatives.
There are also genuine philosophical differences behind the hostility. Conservatives, generally speaking, do not necessarily question the legitimacy of arts and culture. They question the legitimacy of an arts-and-culture community produced and sustained by Liberal policy and public money. How can a force-fed, bureaucrat-led, “official” expression of arts and culture be anything but bogus? Being somewhat more market-oriented than Liberals, Conservatives would prefer a more organic approach to the arts, even if it results in a lot less of what’s now being expensively encouraged by Ottawa.
The indifference comes into play whenever Conservatives are in a position to bring change. Rather than remake arts and cultural policy in their own image, reforming or dismantling the apparatus the Liberals have built, the CPC treats the whole sector as Mr. Harper treated Mr. Martel. It ignores it, making no major moves or major cuts (the 2008 reduction was a pittance), and not even pretending to offer an alternative approach.
Former heritage minister James Moore told me (and other journalists) that his mandate was not to stir or empty the cultural pot, but simply to keep a lid on it. Correctly perceiving that the cultural community was not going to be won over, and loath to see a lot of unhappy actors and writers denouncing the CPC in the lead-up to an election, Mr. Harper satisfied himself with a neutralization strategy. His heritage ministers sat on the pot through 10 years in power. The party fought other battles.
One problem with this combination of hostility and indifference is that the Conservatives, by doing nothing, abet what they view as the politicization – the Liberalization – of arts and culture in Canada. They leave in place the “official” institutions, policies, programs and expressions they despise. All those things come back stronger than ever when the Liberals return to power.
Simon Brault, chief executive of the Canada Council, published a post last summer that was not only intensely political, but an enthusiastic endorsement of the core Trudeau priorities of Indigenous rights and environmental activism:
“We need to reimagine an arts sector determined to eliminate racism and discrimination in every form, and the legacy of colonialism. We need to reimagine the arts’ rightful place in the conversations that shape our future. And we need to reimagine, through the arts, a greener and more just and equitable world.”
Another problem with indifference is that it leaves a large number of Conservative-leaning Canadians alienated from the dominant expressions of Canadian arts and culture. They are inclined, and encouraged by the CPC, to see the whole Canadian cultural industry as a corrupt political project (which, judging from the Brault quote above, might not be wrong), and to look elsewhere for their cultural fixes.
Yet another problem with indifference is that the Liberal system is broken. It was founded the better part of a century ago in an entirely different cultural environment. Time and technology have left it in the dust – it doesn’t fit or serve today’s Canada. Even Liberals, led by former heritage minister Mélanie Joly, have declared the system “broken.”
One article is insufficient to enumerate the ways in which the system is broken, but here’s a start:
- It has abjectly failed in its original goal of contriving a “national Canadian consciousness” (a questionable objective in the first place).
- It is geared to protecting Canadians from global culture at a time when Canadians are hungry for global culture, fed-up with Canadian content quotas, and can easily find what they want on the internet.
- The audiences for much of what the system funds are abysmally small and shrinking.
- The system doesn’t know whether it should be populist or elitist.
- The system can’t decide if it’s a job-creating industrial strategy or a promoter of artistic excellence (and if it’s both, which has priority).
- A disproportionate share of the funding lands in Quebec, the most important province for Liberal electoral fortunes, which further suggests that the system is a partisan political project.
- The system offers few incentives to risk-taking or commercial success, and as a result generates minimums of risk-taking and commercial success.
The Conservatives have two alternatives to Mr. Harper’s philistine strategy. First, they can insist the whole system is misbegotten and attempt to dismantle it, in whole or in part.
My sense is that they don’t have the appetite for this approach, or they won’t once they do some polling and find that certain public-facing components of the system – including particular festivals, museums, TV shows and CBC programs – have broad public support, as does the more general notion of public support for arts and culture, even among Conservatives.
That leaves the second option: politicize the arts-and-culture sector differently. Reimagine it along Conservative lines. One article is also insufficient to describe a new Canadian arts and cultural policy, but we can at least articulate some principles to guide a Conservative alternative to the Liberal approach.
- Put audiences first. The default assumption must be that if Canadians aren’t responding to federally funded arts-and-cultural offerings, it’s the fault of those offerings, and they must change.
- To the same end, look for a better balance of direct funding of organizations and artists, and tax policies that encourage Canadians to spend on arts and culture (which Mr. Harper, to his credit, did in a minor way with a tax credit for arts activities for children).
- Encourage enterprise and self-sufficiency among arts-and-cultural organizations, rewarding rather than punishing commercial success (the Canada Council is continually narrowing its definition of arts so as to exclude anything with a commercial taint). Arts funding decisions shouldn’t be based entirely on markets, but linking a quarter or a third of funding eligibility to audience or commercial metrics would be a vast improvement.
- Encourage transactional funding mechanisms rather than juried grants and awards. For instance, expand something such as the Canada Book Fund, which moves money to publishers in proportion to sales, at the expense of the back-scratching conclave we call the Canada Council.
- Embrace the world. Canadians are a cosmopolitan people and should be permitted full access to the world’s cultural offerings. They should decide for themselves whether to watch Canadian television shows or listen to Canadian songs on the radio or iTunes. They will embrace Canadian culture on its merits, not in fulfilment of an outdated nation-building exercise. Refute protectionism and phase out Cancon quotas.
- End the fragmentation. Canada doesn’t need 400 theatre companies, 300 independent book publishers, 2,600 museums and more than 11,000 performing arts companies. Encourage consolidation so that more of our companies and organizations have the scale to compete against the very best. Privilege those performers trying to succeed in global markets. We have the talent – let’s organize it properly and take it to the world.
- Insist on regional equity. Quebec represents 22.6 per cent of Canada’s population, and native French-speakers are 20 per cent of the national population, yet Radio-Canada sucks up 40 per cent of the CBC’s television budget, and Quebec bags between 36 per cent and 46 per cent of the seven major Canada Council funds for dance, music, theatre, literature, etc. The Prairies and Atlantic Canada are woefully underfunded.
- De-Liberalize arts and culture. Government support of arts and culture is inherently political, but it shouldn’t serve one party. The extent to which the Canada Council has become a propaganda arm of the Liberal party, promoting job creation in Quebec along with Indigenous and environmental priorities, is a disgrace. Reclaim the sector on behalf of all Canadians.
- Insist that the Liberals’ newspaper supports, as now configured, are a temporary measure. Devise a new program that is either more transactional and/or uses tax policy to encourage individual Canadians to spend on news outlets of their choice.
- Rewrite the mandate of the CBC. Maybe it should only do what private media companies can’t or won’t do. Maybe it should continue to have a large presence in the media marketplace, but with a good portion of its funding tied to its audience levels. Make a decision, flip a coin – either route is better than a status quo where the CBC fails at trying to do everything.
There would broad public support for a set of arts and cultural policies that put Canadians (as opposed to Liberal clients) first, and a significant portion of the arts and culture community would get behind policies based on the principles above (it’s not as monolithic a sector as Conservatives seem to believe).
During Ms. Joly’s time as heritage minister, she held wide consultations with the public and the arts community and was headed away from protectionism and elitism toward a more global, commercially ambitious and audience-driven approach to arts and culture.
She and her team were doing what they thought was right and necessary. She was blown up by beneficiaries of the status quo, especially in Quebec, having failed to recognize that the current system is politically necessary to her party.
Therein lies the Conservative opportunity.
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