Let me offer Jim Flaherty a bit of free advice

TheStar.com – Opinion – Let me offer Jim Flaherty a bit of free advice
September 01, 2008. Martin Knelman

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has made it clear he plans to ignore my advice.

I had been presumptuous enough to suggest that in light of widespread distress in the cultural community about Ottawa’s series of shocking cuts to arts funding, he should find an excuse to be elsewhere on Thursday, rather than attend opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall.

In a letter to the editor of the Star published last week, Flaherty wrote: “I would like to inform Martin Knelman that I plan on attending the Toronto International Film Festival again this year. It is a personal highlight, but more importantly it allows us to showcase some of our best and brightest Canadian filmmakers.”

That is why, he explains, the Harper government is contributing $25 million to the building of the TIFF Group’s new home, the Bell Lightbox, currently under construction at the corner of King and John Sts.

No doubt this show of support from Flaherty, who also happens to be the minister in charge of the GTA, is gratifying. The only trouble is that is in total contradiction to the mood of fear and loathing that has engulfed the entire cultural community of this country over the past few weeks in light of more than $45 million in arbitrary and destructive funding cuts – with hints that more devastation lies ahead – made by this alleged champion of the arts.

Even more alarming, Telefilm Canada, the arm’s-length federal agency which has invested $3.5 million in TIFF’s gala opening movie, Passchendaele, is at risk of losing $15 million in funding for new media. In the circumstances, I would like to inform Flaherty that one of us is delusional – and I don’t think it’s me.

To put the dilemma into terms that film lovers will recognize, the man who controls the nation’s coffers has been giving a long-running, Oscar-worthy performance as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Dr. Jekyll takes credit for increasing the budget of the Canada Council – even though the increase fell far short of what had been put in place by the previous Liberal government, despite a Tory election pledge to honour the Liberal plan.

Dr. Jekyll takes credit for help funding the Bell Lightbox, even though the $25 million in question was committed by the previous government a year before the Harper Tories came to power.

And he waxes eloquent, assuring me: “Our government believes that culture and art are the cornerstone of Canadian society, and should be nurtured and supported.”

It’s lovely to hear such fine sentiments, but in the middle of the night, a scary Mr. Hyde emerges from an Ottawa cellar with an axe and chops millions of dollars that were doing a fine job of nurturing and supporting the arts.

All this happens with no warning, no consultation, and the flimsiest explanation about not wasting taxpayers’ dollars – along with muttering that too much money is going to leftists who presumably don’t share their wholesome family values.

Upshot: Artists across the country feel like mugging victims in a dark alley.

As Karen Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet, noted in a letter to Stephen Harper the other day, recent funding cuts will make it impossible for Canadian dance companies to perform in other countries. So much for showcasing our talent abroad.

Economically, it makes no sense. Ottawa’s $2.3 billion investment in culture brings an economic payoff of over $80 billion (according to the Conference Board of Canada). And presenting our talent abroad enhances this country’s global profile and attracts foreign dollars.

Another senseless cut hacks close to $1 million out of the budget of the Canadian Film Centre – which means less money to train and develop those talented, bright filmmakers showcased for the world at TIFF.

No wonder virtually every arts organization in Canada has condemned the cuts, and 2,500 people turned out in Montreal the other day to protest. No wonder the opposition is demanding a parliamentary review of what strikes many as a war on culture.

Not to worry, Mr. Flaherty. Ignore the fallout and enjoy the film festival.

Martin Knelman’s column on the arts appears every other Monday on this page. mknelman@thestar.ca

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