If I Had a Million Dollars...

I wasn’t too upset that the Conservatives unilaterally made $40 million in cuts to arts and cultural programs this past month, without parliamentary approval (they didn’t technically need it). While the cuts themselves devastate some programs, they do represent a drop in the bucket of the government’s overall arts and culture budget, and there was every chance that they could reinvest the money elsewhere in the sector.

However, the cuts themselves were a worrying symbol, a suggestion that Harper was playing to his base and punishing artists basically for being artists. It didn’t help dispel the fears of a Harper hidden agenda, leaving people to wonder what cuts would follow should Harper get his majority government. It’s not the cuts themselves, it’s the signals that Harper is sending that he is not serious about pursuing a centrist agenda.

But recently, in responding to criticism over these cuts to arts and culture, the disciplined facade of Stephen Harper slipped somewhat, and he displayed a refreshing bout of candour. He said:

You know, I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the tv and see a gala of a bunch of people, you know, at a rich gala, all subsidized by the taxpayers, claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough when they know the subsidies have actually gone up, I’m not sure that’s something that resonates with ordinary people. Ordinary people understand we have to live within a budget. We have increased culture. We haven’t increased anybody’s budget without limit, so we’re not going to do this. I think this is a niche issue for some, but that’s my view…

A “rich gala”. Did I misplace my invitation while I was changing the Life brand diapers on my daughter Nora? Exactly who is at that rich gala, do you think? Who are these mythological rich artists complaining about the subsidies that they themselves receive, huh? Margaret Atwood? Stephen Page and the Bare Naked Ladies? Douglas Copeland and the creators behind jPod?

Well, I guarantee you that any subsidy that these artists above receive here and now is a small fraction of the income that they receive each year thanks to their hard work. These individuals pay far more into the country than they’ve taken, in the form of their taxes if nothing else. These are not the parasites that Stephen Harper would have you believe.

As for the rest of us artists that these subsidies do pay, who struggle to make ends meet, we give back to their country as well. We are the artists who have helped rescue whole neighbourhoods from poverty, from Parkdale in Toronto to Alberta Avenue in Edmonton and beyond. We are the people who have helped foster the economic wellbeing of their communities (1.1 million jobs and $85-billion annually, according to the Conference Board of Canada) through added tourism, through increased business investment, from the Stratford Festival’s contribution to diverse economy of its host city to the Jazz and Comedy Festivals of Montreal. Harper would have Canadians believe that they receive no benefit from these individuals who have worked their fingers to the bone, often for less than $23,000 in total annual income? Shame!

And it’s not about accountability, either. You’d be amazed at the amount of paperwork one has to go through to apply for these grants. The process is at least as carefully vetted as a number of other programs the Conservative government operates, without these sorts of questions, giving grants to support small business. To suggest otherwise is a lie.

But perhaps the saddest part of Stephen Harper’s comment is the phrase “ordinary working people”. As if ordinary working people can’t appreciate Shakespeare or a painting by the Group of Seven. As though Atwood’s Oryx and Crake was not a bestseller, or the works of Kenneth Oppel. Harper sells Canadians short, because in my experience, ordinary Canadians are really quite extraordinary people. They turn out in droves to the Eden Mills Writers Festival and Word on the Street to hear their favourite authors speak. They’ve turned the Stratford Festival into a profitable success. Millions visit the Art Gallery of Ontario and the national museums in Ottawa. These ordinary Canadians respect authors and they respect artists. I’m confident they don’t buy Harper’s suggestion that the ordinary Canadians who are artists are out of touch from the ordinary Canadians who aren’t.

A Tory reader recently e-mailed me, noting the fact that I’d called myself a Red Tory in the past, and asking whether I thought that there was a place in the Conservative Party for me. At present, I have to say, not while Stephen Harper is leader. I realize that some of the more partisan Tories may dismiss this rant as coming from an individual who was never a friend to the Conservative Party; that’s not true (if I were a kilometre north, I’d have happily voted for Elizabeth Witmer), but ultimately that’s a delusion they’ll just have to live with.

Yes, Harper has tried to move to the centre on some policies, but I simply hate the fact that he responds to criticism and dissent in the most cynical, partisan way. You saw this angry face of Mr. Harper during the Linda Keen affair, and you see it now. At the core, Stephen Harper has expressed contempt for me personally, and my friends, based on the profession we’ve chosen to pursue. Never mind that I haven’t received a government grant all year; according to him, I’m still out of touch from the people he sees as defining ordinary Canada.

There’s no way I can ever vote for that, and I don’t see how anybody can think I can do anything different.

Ontario Oil: Did You Know We’re Still Pumping?

Did you know that Ontario is where the North American petroleum industry began 150 years ago? Did you know that we’re still pumping? While our output is miniscule compared to Alberta, there’s still over a hundred million dollars of business being conducted, and there’s still exploration going on (in and around the Lake Erie shore).

That was among my findings as I researched this article which has appeared in the most recent edition of Business Edge. One thing I love about journalism is how much I get to learn in writing it.

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