Stephen Harper: Lend Me Your Ears

uh… heil harper…???!!
A few weeks ago I had the same experience that many Canadians had when suddenly, and quite without warning, a video of Prime Minister Stephen Harper playing the piano and singing the Beatles’ classic “With a Little Help From My Friends” at a National Arts Centre gala popped across my consciousness. I am hesitant to type that I was “outraged” because that may suggest that I think Stephen Harper’s shameless publicity stunt (which received apathetic, at best, coverage in the National Media) was successful in its attempt to secure votes for this looming Canadian election of ours. I don’t think warbling one song with Yo-Yo Ma will make an ounce of difference to our country’s future, no, what infuriated me was how brazenly Mr. Harper can embrace and flaunt his hypocrisy and how he will forsake any sense of allegiance to any issue in pursuit of political power and a majority government.
In September 2008 Stephen Harper made $45 million dollars in cuts to the Arts and Culture sector of this country saying that “average Canadians” have “no sympathy” for rich artists who gather at galas to whine about their grants. A year later, Stephen Harper is the “special guest” at the National Arts Centre gala where, according to the NAC’s website, “The crowd of over 2,100 included ambassadors, cabinet ministers, senators and members of Canada’s corporate elite. A luxurious wine and canapé reception in the lavishly decorated NAC Foyer was followed by the concert which featured Yo-Yo Ma performing the Dvorák Cello Concerto with the National Arts Centre led by Pinchas Zukerman. To conclude the evening, 650 Gala guests on the transformed Southam Hall stage dined on a spectacular gourmet dinner created by the NAC’s new Executive Chef Michael Blackie.” Jayne Watson, the CEO of the National Arts Centre Foundation, referring to the fact that Mr. Harper’s wife, Laureen Harper, was the Honourary Gala Chair for the event, had the audacity to try and convince Canadians that Laureen had asked Mr. Harper to sing and that his performance was simply a “husband doing a favour for his wife.” First of all, everything that the Leader of a Country does in the public arena is a political act that has undoubtedly been thoughtfully considered, scrutinized, analyzed and meticulously rehearsed (unless the leader in question is willing to risk public scandal or disaster). When someone tries to insinuate that such an event is not political, as Jayne Watson suggests, it is my instinct to wonder what she is trying to hide.
Perhaps she does not want the Canadian public to wonder at the coincidence of Mr. Harper partaking in a “rich artists’” gala at a time when the Conservative Government is so in need of support to maintain their political tight grip on this country. Perhaps she does not want the National Arts Centre to become too politically entangled with the ideology of the Conservative Party in case this alienates the “whining artists” who patronize and work at the theatre, especially those who would like very much to remain married, bilingual or to live in a country that supports world peace and personal and artistic freedom.
My biggest problem in all of this is simple: $45 million dollars of cuts to the Arts is not going to have a devastating impact on the survival of the National Arts Centre. Margaret Atwood wrote a brilliant piece for The Globe and Mail on September 24th, 2008 in response to Mr. Harper’s ludicrous “average Canadians don’t care about the arts” speech entitled To be creative is, in fact, Canadian in which she wrote, “I can count the number of moderately rich writers who live in Canada on the fingers of one hand: I’m one of them, and I’m no Warren Buffett. I don’t whine about my grants because I don’t get any grants. I whine about other grants – grants for young people, that may help them to turn into me, and thus pay to the federal and provincial governments the kinds of taxes I pay, and cover off the salaries of such as Mr. Harper. In fact, less than 10 per cent of writers actually make a living by their writing, however modest that living may be. They have other jobs. But people write, and want to write, and pack into creative writing classes, because they love this activity – not because they think they’ll be millionaires.” Stephen Harper is perpetuating an incredibly dangerous myth, both in his initial statement about “rich artists” and also in his participation in one of the only opulent “theatre galas” that this country has to offer, the myth that artists are overindulged by tax payer’s dollars and throwing money around as if it grew on stoplights. $45 million dollars of cuts to the Arts is drastically reducing the emergence of young, creative, dynamic writers, actors, directors, painters, sculptures, dancers, singers and musicians who have a new vision of Canadian art to contribute. These cuts are affecting the production of plays that have the power to resonate across the country about issues of extreme urgency with the power to change the world. It is stunting our ability to compete with the rest of the world in the fostering and championing of Canadian film, Canadian television and Canadian theatre. $45 million dollars in Arts cuts is not going to deter ambassadors, cabinet members, senators and members of Canada’s corporate elite from patronizing the National Arts Centre.
The problem, however, is not the ambassadors, the cabinet members, the senators and the members of Canada’s corporate elite, nor is it the theatre, as Mr. Harper suggests, “being entirely cut off from public need or public demand.” The problem is that not enough members of the Canadian general public understand that Canadian Theatre is not JUST the National Arts Centre. It is not JUST the Princess of Wales and the Royal Alex. It is not JUST the Stratford Festival and the Shaw Festival or David Mirvish or DanCap. The Canadian Theatre’s beating, pulsing heart is often so overshadowed, ignored, swept aside, and it is THAT Canadian theatre, the Canadian theatre out of which has come The Farm Show, Michel Tremblay, David French, Daniel MacIvor, Robert Lepage, Brad Fraser, Sky Gilbert, Judith Thompson, The Edmonton Fringe Festival, Tomson Highway, Morris Panych, Susan Pollock, Richard Rose, Hannah Moscovitch, Mitchell Marcus, George F. Walker, Guillermo Verdecchia, George Ryga, Rick Miller, Chris Craddock, Stewart Lemoine, Ken Gass, Albert Schultz, Ted Dykstra, Eric Peterson, Martha Irving, Anthony Black, Christian Barry, One Yellow Rabbit, Ronnie Burkett, it is from these artists, and so many more, that Canada has carved her theatrical history. It is these artists for whom $45 million dollars in Arts Cuts will reverberate deep into creativity and potential.
How do we reach the millions of Canadians who think Canadian Theatre is simply The Sound of Music and Jersey Boys? How do we show them the plethora of theatrical options that this country has to offer? We advertise, of course. Yet, these companies can not afford the sort of mass advertising required to meet their targeted audience, such as commercials on television and glitzy, glossy print ads in popular magazines, huge posters at Dundas Square or on Tour Buses or Taxi Cabs. Stephen Harper sucked $45 million dollars from Canada’s Arts Budget. How can we hope to appeal to Canadians now that our voice has become increasingly stifled? Does this matter to “ordinary Canadians”?
As Margaret Atwood writes in her article, “The Conference Board estimates Canada’s cultural sector generated $46-billion, or 3.8 per cent of Canada’s GDP, in 2007. And, according to the Canada Council, in 2003-2004, the sector accounted for an “estimated 600,000 jobs (roughly the same as agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, oil & gas and utilities combined)… Mr. Harper has said quite rightly that people understand we ought to keep within a budget. But his own contribution to that budget has been to heave the Liberal-generated surplus overboard so we have nothing left for a rainy day, and now, in addition, he wants to jeopardize those 600,000 arts jobs and those billions of dollars they generate for Canadians. What’s the idea here? That arts jobs should not exist because artists are naughty and might not vote for Mr. Harper? That Canadians ought not to make money from the wicked arts, but only from virtuous oil?”

I recently had a strange experience in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Niagara-on-the-Lake is a town in Ontario of about 14,000 people which is home to the Shaw Festival. The town, it would appear, is hugely reliant on this festival to stimulate its tourism industry and to encourage people to not only patronize the theatre, but also to visit the plethora of shops, bakeries, restaurants, and bookstores, to sleep in one of many hotels and Bed & Breakfasts and even to play a round or two of golf on its golf course on the lake. It is the theatre artists who generate this revenue in the creation of the plays at the Shaw Festival which bring in tourists by the busload. And yet, the actors ride around the town on bicycles and can barely afford to eat in the town’s expensive restaurants. Someone is making money here; and I know it’s not George Bernard Shaw.
Angelina Jolie got paid $20,000,000 to do the film Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 2005. Angelina Jolie is an actor. She is an artist. Why does her work warrant $20,000,000 when there are actors at the Shaw Festival who have similar training, qualifications and talent, and who perform live for an audience, sometimes twice per day, in two or three different plays, riding around on bicycles? Well, Mr. and Mrs. Smith has grossed $468,336,279 worldwide, you say. Angelina Jolie is a celebrity. She’s a superstar. All right. But why has Mr. and Mrs. Smith grossed that kind of money? Why is Angelina Jolie a superstar? Well, Mr. and Mrs. Smith was advertised to be a box office smash in the exact same way that Angelina Jolie was advertised and constructed by the media and by the publicity moguls of Hollywood to be a superstar. The only reason that films have lured the general public out of their homes on cold, dark, winter nights instead of the theatre is because the media has invested its time and its money in fostering and championing American Cinema. There is no valid reason why we couldn’t upset the status quo and turn theatre into a force to be reckoned with, and a multimillion dollar venture, except of course, that Stephen Harper has cut $45 million dollars to the already acutely underfunded Arts and Culture sector of the Canadian government.
Yet, I believe that Stephan Harper is a clever man, and I think that he knows that his $45 million dollars in Arts cuts is not risking the development of the National Arts Centre, of which his wife is chairwoman. I think he knows that in cutting funding to the development of new Canadian art, he is cutting the funding to that which may be more experimental, more politically-minded, more persuasive and indeed passionately vehement to tackle contemporary issues– (abortion, foreign policy, religion, homophobia, racism, drugs, sex, corruption, his own government)– in a way that would not meet his approval. If his cuts do not entirely curtail the development of these projects, largely thanks to the saving grace of Canada’s Fringe Festivals and other festivals that mercifully foster, promote and stimulate new Canadian work free of censorship, cuts to Artistic funding make it more difficult for these shows to reach a large, mainstream audience. Margaret Atwood chastised Mr. Harper thus, “Every budding dictatorship begins by muzzling the artists, because they’re a mouthy lot and they don’t line up and salute very easily. Of course, you can always get some tame artists to design the uniforms and flags and the documentary about you, and so forth – the only kind of art you might need – but individual voices must be silenced, because there shall be only One Voice: Our Master’s Voice. Maybe that’s why Mr. Harper began by shutting down funding for our artists abroad. He didn’t like the competition for media space. The Conservative caucus has already learned that lesson. Rumour has it that Mr. Harper’s idea of what sort of art you should hang on your wall was signaled by his removal of all pictures of previous Conservative prime ministers from their lobby room – including John A. and Dief the Chief – and their replacement by pictures of none other than Mr. Harper himself. History, it seems, is to begin with him. In communist countries, this used to be called the Cult of Personality. Mr. Harper is a guy who – rumour has it, again – tried to disband the student union in high school and then tried the same thing in college. Destiny is calling him, the way it called Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who burnt all records of the rulers before himself. It’s an impulse that’s been repeated many times since, the list is very long. Tear it down and level it flat, is the common motto. Then build a big statue of yourself. Now that would be Art!”
It is significant to note that between 1927-1937 over 22,000 pieces of artwork created by more than 200 artists were confiscated by the Nazis and burned, sending many of these banned artists into exile or into Concentration Camps. Among the art burned were the work of Expressionists, Cubists, Dadaism, Surrealists, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, including works of Picasso, Chagall and van Gogh. The Nazis felt that “these artists led young people astray and encouraged corrupt ideas.” Of course, Mr. Harper is not Adolf Hitler, he would not be able to get away with such blatant acts of censorship within his own Conservative regime, yet, here he is, covertly trying to suppress those individuals in our country who may have similar, so called, “corrupt ideas.” Then, he thinks that by singing a Beatles song (badly) at the National Arts Centre, he can shift the Nation’s consciousness away from what he has stolen from us, and delude Canada’s corporate elite into believing that he is a sponsor for the arts.
Let’s not forget that Hitler was a painter.
John Lennon, the man who penned “With a Little Help from My Friends” with Paul McCartney was quoted as saying, “Our society is being run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends.” I think he would be irate to know that a song he wrote was being used for such corrupt, hypocritical idiocy. “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for and no religion too. Imagine all the people living life in peace.” Such is my dream. Why do I think it would be Stephen Harper’s nightmare?

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