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Culture, as Industry and Foreign Policy Instrument

August 14, 2008

On Friday, the Canadian government released back-to-back announcements that they would be cancelling two programs – one under Canadian Heritage, the other under Foreign Affairs & International Trade – which covered foreign travel expenses for Canadian artists, performers, writers and filmmakers. The announcements were met with howls of outrage from the arts community and some newspaper columnists, but deafening silence on the 6 o’clock news.

The reasons given for axing these programs were both economic and ideological. The ideological arguments over dirty band names and Cuban conferences have been dissected elsewhere, so I think I’ll step over that particular third rail for the moment.

The economic arguments play on widespread public misunderstanding of the role of the arts in the Canadian economy. In fact, the arts and culture sector employs about 600,000 Canadians and generates approximately $40 billion a year, about 25% of which is returned to the government in taxes. By comparison, the two programs in question cost a combined total of $13.7 million, which works out to about a dollar for every person in Ontario.

Not a bad investment.

Another misunderstood aspect of this story is the role of culture in foreign relations. In fact, some have expressed bafflement as to why, exactly, an arts program would be funded through DFAIT. Simon Houpt of the Globe & Mail provides some answers.

It’s hard to overstate how low a profile Canada has abroad. If that’s the way the government wants it, that’s their decision. But if we want our voice to have influence in the rest of the world, to be the moral beacon we believe it is, that requires marketing Brand Canada. Sending artists and writers abroad is an integral part of that marketing that happens to be extremely cost-effective.

A little while ago Pamela Wallin told me that when she served within DFAIT as the consul-general of New York, culture was an indispensable tool to create a broader understanding of Canada within the United States. “It’s all about presence; it’s all about being top of mind. The more stages we continue to take ourselves off of, the more difficult the overall mission becomes,” she said.

“In order to be more than the Great White North, or more than just a trading partner like others, I think we have to show how interwoven the connections are, and how broad that cultural mix really is.”

Canadian television writer Denis McGrath puts it a little more bluntly.

It’s when we look outward, as Canadians, that we find the best in ourselves…

We live at a time when the key to our continued economic strength is going to be yoked not to manufacturing or commodities but to the kinds of people and thinkers Richard Florida talks about in The Rise of the Creative Class.

The programs that were just killed encouraged this kind of thinking, travel, exploration and development of artists. And in return, it helped Brand Canada. That’s a huge payoff for something that was a very small line item in the overall Canadian budget.

Branding. That’s something the economists and Bay Street boys should be able to understand.


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