Monday, January 16, 2006

Today's Toronto Star Editorial

Political actors overlook culture

Federal funding for the arts over the decades has been rightly credited with nurturing Canadian cultural superstars from ballerina Karen Kain to filmmaker Atom Egoyan. At the same time, federal policies have protected Canada's culture from being overwhelmed by the deluge of American programming that spills over the border.

Despite that, culture is not a priority in this election campaign.

Clearly, Ottawa's role in promoting and protecting Canada's arts community has taken a back seat to promises of tax cuts and questions about corruption. But with voters set to go to the polls a week today, Canada's culture deserves a closer look.

Last week, concerned Canadian artists took to the public stage in a bid to shine the spotlight on the culture sector. Their priorities included full and stable funding for major cultural institutions, such as the CBC and Telefilm Canada, continued limits on foreign ownership of Canadian broadcasters, and higher quotas for Canadian content. By Friday, the three major federal parties had finally disclosed their platforms, but none of them gave prominence to a strong cultural agenda.

The Liberals are running chiefly on their record, which includes a commitment to spend $860 million over five years supporting community theatres, museums and other endeavours under the Tomorrow Starts Today initiative. The Liberals also committed last November to double the annual grant to the Canada Council for the Arts to $306 million by 2008. That move was praised by performers, including Kain, who is now chair of the Canada Council and artistic director of the National Ballet. The council backs more than 2,000 groups, from such venerable institutions as the Canadian Opera Company to new aboriginal dance troupes.

In their official platform, the Conservatives make only vague promises that they will preserve the role of the CBC and National Film Board. But Bev Oda (Durham), the party's heritage critic, said last Friday the Tories will respect the Liberals' promise of $306 million for the Canada Council.

The New Democrats have the most comprehensive platform for the arts, highlighted by a promise that they will spend $600 million over four years to support Canadian artists. The NDP would increase funding to the Canada Council, provide sustained funding to the CBC and Telefilm Canada and require more Canadian programming.

Some Canadians will ask why Ottawa should spend any tax dollars promoting and protecting the arts when so many other causes seem more urgent, from reducing hospital wait times to improving child care.

But the arts fulfill many important roles in society. They help give us our national identity, enliven our cities and enrich our children's education. And, if that's not convincing, consider this: Canada's culture industries generate $26 billion in economic activity each year and employ 700,000 Canadians directly, much of it based in the Greater Toronto Area.

Taxpayers reap far more than they sow. For example, the Stratford Festival, Canada's best-known summer theatre, generates $66 million in annual tax revenues yet various levels of government give the festival just $1.5 million in grants. Not a bad return.

Canada's current level of public spending on the arts is paltry by international standards. It ranks second last in the G-7. Only the United States spends less. Large performing companies, such as the National Ballet, derive just 25 per cent of their budget from government grants. In France, that figure is 80 per cent.

Canada requires a strong cultural industry. It needs our support. And regardless of which party wins this election, all parties should push for continuing, stable funding for all the arts in the coming years.

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