Canada's Culture Wars

Will subsidized art survive in the Great White North?

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Sometimes Canada can seem like a paradise. There's that health care system, and there's the Canada Council, which has been a sort of NEA from heaven -- a government arts-funding body that's been relatively free of politics and genuinely loved by artists.

But the Great White North is developing an American-style mean streak, with conservative columnists in papers like the Calgary Sun denouncing the Council for 'paying illiterates to write pornographic poetry.' In the face of this sort of yahooism (and budget bean-counting in Ottawa), the Canada Council has gone from being an almost unquestioned champion of Canadian culture to a nervous defender of its turf.

Established in 1957, the Council was conceived with 'an almost evangelical sense of mission,' writes Charlotte Gray in Saturday Night magazine (July/Aug. 1995). It was to foster culture as an integral part of Canadian distinctiveness. During the Eighties, with the Conservatives in power and a bottom-line ethic in the saddle, the cultural community promoted arts spending as an investment in a highly productive 'industry' -- a strategy which turned the Council from the keeper of the flame of Canadianness into just another industry pressure group on Parliament Hill. Between 1987 and 1994, as conservative pressure mounted, Parliamentary money for the Council declined by almost a fifth.

The election of Jean Chretien's Liberals in 1993 gave the art world hope of a turnaround -- but the Liberals annoyed the artists by appointing fashion magazine publisher Donna Scott to the chairmanship of the Council. The unabashedly corporate Scott didn't even pretend to be one of the culturati. (Quebec novelist Roch Carrier, appointed as Director, was welcomed by the artists, but it soon became clear that Scott was in the driver's seat.) A hastily-called series of conferences across the country about the Council's future struck many artists as an insult, and the boardroom-style reforms Scott proposed (elimination of 'unproductive' programs, including artist training schemes) seemed like the victory of Mammon. But when budget time came around in early 1995, the Council lost less than three percent of its funding (the revered National Film Board was trimmed by 7.1 percent). By talking the talk Ottawa wanted to hear instead of digging in her heels, Scott had helped the Council come through.

Scott has won her round, but big issues remain -- such as whether she can gain the trust of the artists, and at what point an 'efficient' Canada Council ceases to be a true servant of Canadian creativity.

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