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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 21, No. 2

2015 Federal General Election: Public debate on Arts and Culture

by Hassan Laghcha / October 1, 2015

Version française...

(L-R) Jici Lauzon from the Green Party, Sophie Stanké from the Parti Québécois, Pierre Nantel from the NDP, and Stéphane Dion of the Liberal Party.

On 21 September, in anticipation of the 42nd federal general election, La Scena Musicale in co-ordination with the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur, organised and hosted a national bilingual debate on Arts and Culture. Representatives from four of the five main parties participated: Stéphane Dion from the Liberal Party, Pierre Nantel with the NDP, Sophie Stanké of the Bloc Québécois, and Jici Lauzon from the Green Party. We invited the Conservative Party of Canada, however, they declined to participate. Rebecca Anne Clark and Romy-Léa Faustin, of La Scena Musicale, served as our moderators for the evening.

Over the course of the debate, the participants vociferously addressed the Conservative government and its record on Arts and Culture. In this regard, Stéphane Dion affirmed that, “The cultural record of the past decade has been marked by cuts, akin to amputations, to the budget of CBC/Radio-Canada, in the deterioration of the national archives; there have also been severe cuts to museums, substantial damage to Statistics Canada, the undermining of the autonomy of crown corporations, and a lack of investment in cultural infrastructure.”

According to the former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, “The first thing to do would be to abolish these decisions and give Canada a new impetus for advancing Arts and Culture.” Dion, however, apologised for being unable to provide specific commitments or figures as his party had yet to unveil their Arts and Culture policy. The Liberal platform was released the day after the debate.

Pierre Nantel, the NDP culture and heritage critic, expressed his regret that the debate on Arts and Culture had failed to take a more prominent place in the election campaign, in spite of “Serious issues that threaten to undermine the cultural sector.”

Aches and (budgetary) pains

The Bloc Québécois representative, Sophie Stanké, opted from the start of the debate to use the language of solid figures, notably proposing an increase in the budget of the Canada Council for the Arts, from $182 million to $300 million. She also asserted that her party supports maintaining the 65% quota for French language content on the radio.

“To reduce this quota to 35% would be a mortal blow to our artists and artisans,” she warned, in anticipation of the November 16 CRTC hearings that will review the regulatory framework for French language content. Another cause for concern, according to Stanké, is the publishing sector.

“Something is seriously wrong,” she noted. “The sector has recorded a 9% loss.” She also cited two Bloc proposals: the first, “to abolish the GST on books,” which will “save consumers $100 million annually,” as well as a plan to devote $85 million to new media.

Presenting himself as an industry insider, Jici Lauzon, was quick to come to the defence of small but key players on the art scene, whilst also affirming the need to maintain funding for large cultural institutions such as Heritage Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts, CBC/Radio-Canada and the National Film Board. He elaborated on the serious difficulties encountered by small cultural enterprises, particularly in smaller communities. “It is often the case that these larger institutions collect the bulk of the allocated funds for Arts and Culture” he noted, pleading for funding programs designed to “foster a culture of proximity.” “Arts and Culture suffers a grave injustice due to the fact that it does not receive funding that is on par with other investment sectors,” Lauzon said, claiming that his party advocates “investment parity in all portfolios.”

Free(market) culture questioned

The vast inequality in financial support between small and large festivals was a major point of contention during the debate. In response to a question on the balance sheet in the 2009 stimulus package, which gave an unfair advantage to major festivals and large institutions, to the detriment of smaller cultural stakeholders, the debaters singled out the adverse effects of the alleged “free culture” promoted by the large shows. “The smaller shows are thus penalised,” much to the chagrin of Jici Lauzon, who invoked his own experiences as the proprietor of a small suburban nightclub, asserting that, “Free access hurts small business.”

Sophie Stanké, in turn, confirmed this observation, based on her experience in arts administration, upholding that, “The large free festivals, particularly during the summer months, cause serious damage, especially to the theatre industry.” Keeping on point, Pierre Nantel, contributed nuance to the issue by stressing “the advantages of free shows and the socioeconomic benefits that are generated.” He elaborated, “That is why the NDP promotes better support for municipalities to have the capacity to sponsor local festivals,” citing the inspiring example of the Festival Classica de Saint-Lambert, which “boasts great success as a signature event due to the support of the municipality.”

The CBC & the Council for the Arts

During the debate, the financial solvency of CBC/Radio-Canada and the Canada Council for the Arts, as well as the future prospects thereof, were up for discussion by the participants. In this regard, staunch sovereignist Sophie Stanké denounced what she called the “cultural destruction” that is plaguing the public broadcaster under the Harper government, affirming that her party would “reinstate the $115 million which had been cut from the budget of the CBC.”

Echoing a similar sentiment, Stéphane Dion, father of the Clarity Act, announced that under a Liberal government, “The Tory cuts to the CBC would be cancelled.” He elaborated,“These cuts are, in fact, driven by reasons of ideology” and moreover that “this stems from a barely-concealed fixed determination to privatise the CBC.” He argued, “It is necessary to return self-governance to the Crown corporation and ensure that its chairperson and Board of Directors are appointed on the basis of competence and autonomy.”

Finally, in response to a question concerning the underfunding of the Canada Council for the Arts, Stéphane Dion reiterated, “The Conservative government has added $30 million in ten years, barely equivalent to the rate of inflation.” He affirmed that his party “will double Canada Council funding to $300 million,” and went on to praise the ability of this institution to “resist all Tory attempts to politicise.”

Pierre Nantel focused on the restructuring that the Council for the Arts is currently facing, which helps artists through various grants and scholarships as well as providing substantial financial support for cultural organisations. He anxiously noted that there have been sweeping cuts to numerous programs and initiatives.

Artists appeal for job security

One of the essential questions of the debate focused on the precarious financial situation, which the vast majority of artists come to know only too well. The annual median income of these artists is $21,000, 43% less than the median income of Canadian workers as a whole. Conversely, the Arts and Culture sector, according to the Conference Board of Canada, generates over $84 billion in revenues and economic benefits, and employs more than a million people across the country.

Sophie Stanké questioned the lack of employment insurance for artists in Canada, pointing out that artists in France do benefit from such a program. “We must keep working towards the ideal goal of improving the status of artists in our society,” she argued. Keeping on point, Jici Lauzon highlighted the benefits of a proposed universal guaranteed annual income, which would drastically improve conditions for working artists. He also referred to a proposal from the Green Party that aims to introduce a multiannual fiscal average to account for any year-to-year income fluctuations that may occur.

Stéphane Dion emphasised his position on intellectual property and the federal copyright law, which expires and is scheduled for revision in 2017. “If we win this election, the Liberal government is committed to spearhead the debate on this legislation, without delay, in order to develop the best regulatory framework to safeguard the interests of all relevant parties” he said, acknowledging that much more remains to be done if the status of artists is to be improved.

Translation: R. K. Basdeo

See the whole debate online in HD at the following link: bit.ly/LSM_Debate2015

What are they promising for arts and culture?
At press time, the Conservative Party and the NDP still had not released their platforms regarding arts and culture. Here are the main proposals from the platforms of the Liberal Party, the Bloc Québécois, and the Green Party. 

Liberal Party

The LPC would dedicate $150M annually to the CBC/Radio-Canada, effectively cancelling the Conservative budget cuts. The party also believes that the procedure of nomination to the CBC/Radio-Canada advisory committee needs to be revised in order to ensure that the selection process is independent and merit-based. The Liberal party announced that it would double annual funding to the Canada Council for the Arts, from $180M to $360M. With regards to Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board, the LPC would commit to new investments totalling $25M per year. Furthermore, they announce that a Liberal government would reestablish funding to the Promart and Trade Routes programs, which help promote Canadian arts and culture abroad, to the tune of $25M per year.

Bloc Québécois 

The Bloc Québecois calls for the Canada Council for the Arts budget to be increased from $182M to $300M annually. They also want to increase Telefilm Canada’s budget to $150M over three years. (Telefilm Canda currently has a budget of $100M, down from $125M in 2004.)

To support Québécois music, the sovereignist party wants to preserve the francophone music quota of 65% for French-language radio stations. They are opposed to the demands from commercial radio stations calling for a reduction to 35% during the day in order to deal with fierce competition from streaming websites.

Furthermore, the Bloc Québécois believes that it’s necessary to modernize the copyright system. One change they suggest is subjecting MP3 and other digital music players to modest royalty fees that would be redistributed to artists.

Green Party

The Green Party would cancel budget cuts to the CBC/Radio-Canada, saying that they would invest “an additional $285 million in the first year of our new Green Parliament and $315 million in every subsequent year to protect our national broadcaster,” and that they wish to “work to rebuild the arm’s length governance of our arts and cultural institutions to prevent political interference.”

The Greens propose increasing funding to all federal arts and culture organizations, including the Canada Council for the Arts and Telefilm Canada. The party is in favour of the principal of net neutrality being enshrined in Canadian law, in order to “defend the freedom and integrity of the internet.”

In its platform, the Green Party also evokes the threat of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, saying that, “If adopted, it could undermine our ability to maintain many public services provided through Crown corporations, including to our cultural industries.”

New Democratic Party

The New Democratic Party (NDP) has just released its platform with regards to arts and culture. Party leader Thomas Mulcair announced that he would “Ensure stable, predictable, multi-year funding to help protect the CBC,” by canceling Stephen Harper’s $115M budget reductions.

“The CBC connects Canadians from coast to coast and is at the heart of our Canadian identity,” said Mulcair. “After years of Liberal cuts, continued by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, the NDP will strengthen our national broadcaster and invest in Canadian content.” The NDP also promises to “Support Canadian filmmakers and artists with a $60 million investment in Telefilm Canada, the NFB and Canada Council for the Arts.” With regards to self-employed artists, Mulcair said that he supported “introducing an income averaging system that brings more predictability and fairness to their taxes.”

The NDP leader also promises to create a $10M fund dedicated to “Encourag[ing] new and innovative digital content to support Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations.”

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