Accommodate this: Quebec, culture and Canada’s PM
Amid a swirl of candidate gaffes and platform shifts, this week in Canada’s federal election brought a Pandora’s box for the the Prime Minister which he opened: by seemingly denigrating the life and work of artists. Mr. Harper tied the arts to class, chiming that when “ordinary Canadians come home, they turn on the T.V.” and don’t take kindly to subsidies for writers, artists, performers, and others in the creative arts.
The issue: a 45 million dollar budget cut to arts funding programs instigated across the country by the Conservatives last summer. Michel Rivard, one of Quebec’s most prominent musicians, launched a three-minute video on the internet sending up not just the stodginess of bureaucrats but the inability of such folks to “speaka another language.” Rivard acted the hapless artist appearing before a panel of grant adjudicators, all Anglophones. His slapstick play on the French word for “seal” – “phoque,” carried a slyly embedded call to arms to Quebec nationalists – a reminder to artists in that province about how the rest of Canada, particularly Anglo-Canada, “just doesn’t get it;” The “IT” being an almost sacrosanct linkage of culture with identity – the identity of what it means to belong to a group or even a nation.
Sure enough by mid-week, Rivard’s video, “Culture en peril/Culture in danger,” earned more than 500,000 hits on YouTube. Canada’s literary icon Margaret Atwood entered the fray with an essay about the nature of culture and a country’s identity – she broadened the word “culture” to include crafts (knitting) and social recreation (not sure if “scrap-booking” was included, but why not?) as a pointed rejoinder to the PM’s jibe about rich folks attending galas. By Thursday evening, pundits pointed to a drop in the Tories’ poll numbers in la belle province.
Fascinating – the image all have evoked – from thousands of online commentators to the artists, including another Canadian Great, Gordon Pinsent, protesting Mr.Harper’s cuts, to the Prime Minister’s political rivals – that cultural activities, both “high (literary) and “low” (crafts) are processes by which identity is created. A concept worthy of discussion – it goes to the core of how we conceive of self and of nationhood.
In Europe, we have long seen this discourse. Indeed for most of the past century, the link between culture and a notion of “folk identity,” which always brings with it a shadow side, has figured prominently and appears to be on rise again, particularly in France.