Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Federal Budget

It's been a couple of days since the Federal budget, which has given me time for some rational thought and a chance for any knee-jerk reactions to settle into hopefully reasonable discourse. With that said, Thursday was not a stellar day for the Arts.

Yes, the Canada Council was spared any cuts. This is likely due to some hard work by Minister of Canadian Heritage James Moore. The same goes for the National museums and the National Gallery. Let us give credit where credit is due. On the other hand, cuts elsewhere will have significant impact on the Arts across the country and for years to come, and this is truly disappointing from a a government that let its Minister of Canadian Heritage (a staunch defender of the arts - again, let's give credit where credit is due) declared in January of 2011 that they would ensure stable funding to the Arts for the next 5 years.

As an example, let's look at the National Arts Centre, which received a cut in Thursday's budget. While the NAC is in Ottawa and, to be realistic, that's where it's primary audience lives, we have to remember two things: first, that Ottawa is home and host to representatives of nations from all over the world, hence the NAC has become one of the few remaining ways our government supports Canadian cultural expression on a world stage, given that the Department of Foreign Affairs no longer supports this activity; less funding for the NAC means less on their stages and less Canadian cultural presence in our nation's capital for the world to see. Second, the NAC actively presents the work of Artists from across the country, either through its regular seasons or via its annual "Scene" festivals - again, less money means possibly less of these activities and/or a drop in fees to Artists. Couple this with the fact that the Canada Council cannot fund touring to the NAC within its touring programs - because both organizations receive direct parliamentary allocations and therefore Artists cannot be seen to be "double-dipping" - and the potential ripple effect reaches across the country.

The CBC also received heavy cuts - a total of $115 million beginning in 2014. What this will mean to Canadian television production, local news programming and arts coverage, and indeed for Arts programming across the network (something done primarily by the CBC as opposed to other networks) isn't clear yet. However, it seems reasonable to expect that less money means less of the programming that generates lower advertising revenues, such as Arts programming. Again, Canadian Artists lose - on a national scale.

And then there is Canadian Heritage itself, which has received an approximately 10% cut. According to the Globe and Mail, DCH will try to do this through staff reductions instead of program cuts, but we are left wondering what less administrative ability will mean for the delivery of these programs. Will assessment times get longer? Will applications be properly read and evaluated? Will applicants have appropriate access to DCH staff to have questions answered and to seek advice so that they can submit their best application? It's also hard not to think that this kind of cut will not affect funding programs at some point. After all, even if DCH is spared future cuts, expenses will rise, inflation still occurs and overall that means less real money for programs such as the Canada Cultural Investment Fund and the Canada Arts Training Fund, to name but two.

And I haven't discussed the reductions to the National Film Board (10%), Telefilm Canada (more than 10%), and the National Archives (10%).

There will also be other impacts to the Arts from other areas of the budget. Aging Artists and Arts Administrators - along with every other Canadian under 54 - will now have to wait longer before qualifying for Old Age Security. In the case of the Arts sector, much of which has no pension (or at best a very minimal one), this means a loss of tens of thousands of dollars of much needed income at a time in their lives when they are more vulnerable.

And let's not forget new requirements for charities. In the name of  "accountability" and "transparency", charities will now have even more reporting to do with regard to their so-called political activities. Let me say again that I have absolutely no problem with being accountable for public money. But these further requirements not only take time away from charities' ability to focus on actually serving their missions, but also calls into question the government's motives in terms of allowing organizations to advocate for themselves and those they serve, be they Artists, society's most vulnerable members, or our planet itself. is this accountability or an attempt to limit dialogue when it opposes government policy?

In the face of all this, it seems easy to throw up one's hands in despair and dive into a corner, waiting for better times...or to rip off the gloves and start yelling in uncontrolled anger. However, I believe that we really need frank, open and honest dialogue with anyone and everyone: politicians, audiences, patrons, the business community - everyone. In some cases, the cuts are phased in over time or are not taking effect for a year or two. There's still time to tell your government that you feel strongly about the importance of the Arts and the value of Canadians' continued access to a broad range of these experiences. The Arts continue to be a hugely vital and intrinsic part of our society. If we really care, we must have a dialogue: early, often, and always.

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