Friday, June 9, 2023

Near and Now: Hammering Home Liberal Platform Promises for the Arts

Just over two weeks ago, Justin Trudeau unveiled his new slate of cabinet ministers. The capstone to an election full of anxiety, anticipation and exhaustion on the part of many Canadians, Trudeau’s Liberal government was re-elected to a Minority Parliament that now looks strikingly similar to the previous one. Despite the similar seat count, Trudeau has made some big changes to his cabinet, perhaps to address the big promises he made on the campaign trail. 

But what do these changes mean for Hamilton, specifically the arts and culture community?

The Liberal platform has put forward some major campaign promises for the arts, specifically to address the catastrophic impact of the pandemic on the industry. Key among these supports is a new Arts and Culture Recovery Program alongside transitional support designed to provide financial support for the many out-of-work artists impacted by COVID-19. Although details on these programs is scarce, there’s no denying their necessity post-pandemic.

But even before COVID-19, the Canadian arts and culture scene was in need of further funding. Sheila Whaley, the new Executive Director of the Hamilton Arts Council, thinks this support is needed more than ever before. 

“One way the federal government can help the arts to recover,” says Whaley, “is to ensure continued – if not expanded – funding for artists and arts organizations that serve a broad range of arts genres and diverse members of the arts community.” 

While the Liberals are pledging a continued commitment of $1.9 billion in support of the arts and heritage sectors, they have also announced $200-million for the Major Festivals and Events Support Initiative. Announced in the weeks leading up to the writ being dropped, this initiative will distribute funding through federal regional development agencies in the form of grants or loans so as to help events get back up and running in this post-pandemic reality.

Another major platform plank is “Bringing Canadian Culture to the World,” an initiative to support artists in sharing their work on the world stage. Framed as an effort to increase the cultural impact of Canadian diplomacy, this cultivation of Canadian content is a particularly important marker for Jeremy Freiburger, Cultural Strategist of Hamilton’s COBALT Connects

“The Federal Government has a unique role in cultural funding and policy that we have seen shifting over the past number of years,” says Freiburger. “Their role is to spur ‘Canadian’ content – domestically and as an export, and to define, protect and promote Canadian Culture.” 

Although newly appointed as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mélanie Joly’s first role in cabinet from 2015-2018 was as Heritage Minister. This  experience might well serve Trudeau’s new initiative and mandate to showcase Canadian culture around the world. However, Frieburger adds, that alone is not enough.

“We need a new, modern and inclusive process to define ‘Canadian Cultural Values’,” says Freiburger. “This must be part of our reconciliation process with Indigenous Nations, our celebration and embracing of continued waves of immigration to our country, and the living out of the ‘cultural mosaic’ concept that we feel differentiates Canada from our neighbours to the south.”

One notable change made by Trudeau in his cabinet announcement was the shuffling of Steven Guilbeault out of the Heritage file, while putting Pablo Rodriguez back into the portfolio (he was in Heritage from 2018-2019). Guilbeault’s tenure at Heritage was rocky, so it’s not surprising Trudeau would trust Rodriguez’s experienced hand with the file.

On this appointment, Hamilton Fringe Festival Director Christopher Stanton states, “Personally, I hope Pablo Rodriguez picks up where Stephen Guilbeault left off in terms of hearing the feedback from arts workers and gigging artists, and adjusting national programs and rolling out support in a reasonably efficient way.” An important part of that support, says Stanton, is taking better care of artists, especially freelancers who survive from gig-to-gig. “A guaranteed minimum wage and a national mental health / prescription / eye-care / dental program would go a long way to retaining talent in the sector.”

In addition to all of this, the Liberal platform includes a pledge to take into account the unique circumstances of artists and culture workers when upcoming reforms to the Employment Insurance system are made. This means the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion, Carla Qualtrough, will have to hear from creators across Canada. Is this the reason the Liberals promised to hold a so-called summit in the first 100 days of re-election on their plans to restart the arts and culture industry? For now, details of such a summit are vague so, perhaps, we can expect answers once the Prime Minister issues mandate letters to his new cabinet.   

Stephen Near
Stephen Near
Stephen Near is a freelance writer and educator living in Hamilton. He is a graduate of York University (BFA), the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (B. Ed) and the MFA Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. He works at Mohawk and Humber College and is a member of the Playwright’s Guild of Canada and an alumnus of both the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the Banff Centre. Stephen's plays have been produced at the Hamilton Fringe Festival and Theatre Aquarius and he is completing his first fiction novel.

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