With the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his majority government in 2015, arts advocacy changed in this country. My work talking to the federal government, as the national spokesperson for dance and co-chair of the Canadian Arts Coalition, changed overnight from occasional nag to valuable advisor.
To be fair, the Harper government had supported the arts periodically, especially under James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages between 2008 and 2013. But the lack of a national cultural policy, and the disinterest in the file, made it difficult to secure meetings and therefore to make change happen. As a result, there was a sense of frustration on the part of arts advocates.
Then the Trudeau government arrived with a long list of election promises. Advocates got to work immediately. We were encouraged by the mandate letters given to each Minister, especially the one given to the Department of Canadian Heritage. Remarkably, those election promises became $1.87 billion dollar budgetary commitments in Budget 2016. Most notably, the Canadian Arts Coalition had been requesting that the budget of the Canada Council double since 2006. Asking for a significant increase of the Canada Council’s budget, $550 million over five years, was the reason the coalition came into existence. Granted in the budget, it was a revelation to see it in print. After the celebrations, came the question, “What is next?”
The answer has been complex, but infrastructure, a ten-year investment into the Cultural Spaces program specifically, was at the top of the list. Now is the time when the arts sector has to strike the fine balance between asking for more, in light of a decade’s worth of austerity, or being grateful for what we have already received; in others words, we have to continue to be reasonable. We are very lucky to have Minister Mélanie Joly in the portfolio. As cochair of the Canadian Arts Coalition, I have established a close working relationship with the Minister’s office. Joly has a vision for cultural policy in the twenty-first century. She has put the Canadian artist front and centre and has travelled internationally singing the praises of Canadian artists.
Arts advocates now have access to government like never before. This means more meetings and more opportunities to convince the powers that be about our value. Access to government has also meant an increased expectation of participation in the democratic process – I have lost track of how many surveys and public consultations I have participated in. The Canadian Arts Coalition is active on many files and, as a result, is reaching out beyond the Department of Canadian Heritage to include issues such as access to international touring opportunities (Global Affairs), fair taxation of artists and presenters (CRA), understanding cultural spaces as community hubs (Infrastructure) and support of digital culture (Innovation). Arts advocates must have statistics in their back pockets in order to speak knowledgably about a myriad of files at a reception when you “casually” bump into a Minister (or in my case, chase one across the lobby of the Sony Centre.)
As we move forward, the general public’s honeymoon period with the federal government is clearly over. I want to take this opportunity to remind artists and arts managers that we are in an unprecedented time of federal funding. (Cultural policy scholars are going to look back at this period with awe.) Remember where we were and how much we have gained already.
Learn more in our Summer 2007 issue featuring “Coping with the Conservatives: CDA reflects on a year of cultural policy under Canada’s new government” by Shannon Litzenberger.