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Accommodate this: Quebec, culture and Canada’s PM

September 26, 2008

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.

If I write a novel, pen some lyrics, throw mud on a potter’s wheel, or like the fates, sit at a loom and weave a broadcloth, how is that linked to my identity?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    September 28, 2008 9:36 pm

    In my opinion Harper’s comments about the arts were the most offensive and outrageous that have come to light so far in this campaign, well ahead of listeriosis jokes and 9/11 conspiracy theories and all the rest of it. It’s ridiculous for the prime minister to effectively accuse Canada of being a nation of Philistines – and apparently mean it as something like a compliment. I thought Atwood’s rejoinder was exactly right, too. There’s a continuum of imagination and inspiration that runs all the way from domestic crafts and children writing stories to the most rarefied conceptual art, so Harper can’t sneer at the artistic enterprise without implicitly insulting many of those “ordinary Canadians” he claims to be speaking for. He really should apologise, or at least shut the phoque up.

    I think that art can definitely contribute to the identity of a nation or culture, at least to the extent that it’s hard to imagine Scotland without Burns or Germany without Wagner and Goethe. Conversely, I would argue that the cultural identity of an artist can influence the type of art he or she is likely to produce. Different cultures have different historical reference points, different moral, ideological and aesthetic preoccupations, and even different preferred artistic media. Here in China they make some very beautiful and elaborate kites, and the intricacy of Chinese stonecarving is astonishing – they’ll render a ship, or a building, or a plant, at a level of detail that strikes me as almost superhuman.

    Of course, there will always be some individuals who break away from the artistic conventions of their culture – and perhaps, if their work catches on, contribute to the evolving identity of that culture in the process. We can all borrow now and then from other cultures, too. I think this is entirely healthy as long as we don’t lose sight of our own.

  2. Sherry Taylor permalink
    September 28, 2008 8:37 am

    It is always interesting to see how Harper believes swiping at one sector of the community will endear him to another. One would hope it would fail to work more often.

    I wonder how the cowboys poets of the Chilcotin and Alberta feel about Harper’s contention that ‘real Canadians’ aren’t interested in culture? Or painters like Sonia Cornwall, who was a close friend of several members of the Group of Seven, and lived on a ranch in the Cariboo.

    When I was in Stratford this summer, we were told (more than once – good prep on the presenters’ part) that there are about 150 actors involved with the Festival, but close to 900 jobs behind the scenes.

    Yes, definitely a sector of the economy we can cut. Maybe we should tax it heavily too – instead of a luxury tax, we could call it an “egghead tax”.

    Let’s see how that flies in the small towns in every province surviving on their music and arts festivals.

  3. Adrian permalink
    September 26, 2008 10:35 pm

    Great post. Gratuitous nastiness aside and the PM has lots of that, his comments make him an easy foil. A think-tank intellectual pretending to be a populist, in order to justify a cut to the relatively small cultural budget of the federal government.

    The issues are serious as you point out, but when on Monday, Wednesday and Friday the PM is making appeals to Quebec nationalism in French (through television ads) then on Tuesday and Thursday in English, he is appealing to the alleged sentimentts of what he call his “base” by mocking and diminishing artists, he surely isn’t acting like a politician of conviction.

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