Or, La complainte du phoque en Alaska

On August 27, 2008, Le Devoir published an open letter from Wajdi Mouawad to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Mouawad – a playwright, director, Quebec theatre star and the recently appointed artistic director of the National Arts Centre’s French Theatre – told his “colleague”:

Last week, your government reaffirmed its manner of governing unilaterally, this time on a domestic issue, in bringing about reductions in granting programs destined for the cultural sector. A mere matter of budgeting, you say, but one which sends shock waves throughout the cultural milieu … You have just declared war on the artists … I believe, my dear colleague, that you yourself have just planted the grain of sand that could derail the entire machine of your electoral campaign.1

A bit grandiose, I thought at the time. But a few weeks later, when Conservative fortunes began to fade, I reconsidered.

What could have prevailed upon the Prime Minister to attack artists in the weeks leading up to the election? Who goes out of their way to create enemies, even enemies as powerless as North American artists?

It must have been his version of the Sarah Palin strategy. John McCain needed something to mobilize the Christian Right: Ms. Palin did the trick. Presumably Mr. Harper wanted to shore up his base, and demonstrate that he had not sold out to latte drinkers in his pursuit of power, that something of the Reform Party heart was beating still in the Conservative Party breast. He could have attacked the CBC, but that would have antagonized too many people. The same goes for extending military action in Afghanistan, or restricting abortion.

And cutting arts funding would kill two birds with one stone: it would please not only social conservatives, for whom art and artists are decadent and anti-Christian, but also libertarians, who have no trouble with art but don’t like government subsidies. Best of all, there’s no downside: sure, he wouldn’t get artists’ votes, but they weren’t going to vote for him anyway; and no one else would care!

Turns out he was hoist with his own petard (Hamlet, act 3, scene 4). It’s common knowledge that no North American politician ever came to grief for ignoring artists. But attacking them, it turns out, is something else – at least au Québec.

In Quebec, artists, even stars (they have quite a few) are gens du pays rather than Martians. Quebec culture is, of course, all wrapped up with identity and nationalism. But more to the point, Quebecers are closer in their attitudes to continental Europe, where art is life, than to Britain, where art is thought to be a little smelly.

So Quebec artists ganged up, and they had many allies. Michel Rivard of Beau Dommage, the legendary Quebec folk-rock group, and several other well-known Quebec artists released and performed in a YouTube video. “Culture en peril” (Culture in danger) mocked the inability of a commission’s English-speaking members to distinguish between the homonyms phoque (seal) and fuck (fuck), and scored, according to its YouTube site, more than 600,000 hits.2

In a desperate effort to hold back the tide of laughter, Mr. Harper told his audience (as reported by Canadian Press), “When ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people … all subsidized by the taxpayers, claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough when they know those subsidies have actually gone up, I’m not sure that’s something that resonates.”

That went poorly in Quebec. And the outrage even reached English Canada – or Canada, as they call it in Quebec. In the Globe and Mail on September 20, James Bradshaw challenged the Prime Minister’s contention that “subsidies have actually gone up”:

A close look at federal budget documents suggests that nearly $45-million in recent federal funding cuts are symptomatic of a larger trend under the Conservatives that has seen dollars gradually shifted away from arts and culture, and funnelled instead into other branches of the Department of Canadian Heritage that focus on the department’s social mandate … branches devoted to sport, youth, citizenship and identity, and diversity and multiculturalism.

Organizations such as the Canadian Conference of the Arts and the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres had been fighting the cuts, and the “Department of Culture,” a collection of Toronto artists, had been fighting the Conservatives,3 but now newspapers were publishing statements by English Canadian “stars” like Margaret Atwood, Gordon Pinsent and Art Hindle. Even the National Post pitched in with a column by John Moore, host of the drive home show on NewsTalk 1010 CFRB(!). “Arts funding isn’t elitist,” he wrote. “But denigrating the arts as the preserve of the upper crust about the most patronizing cliché there is.”

By now, polls in Quebec were showing a significant shift in support from the Conservatives to the Bloc. It began to look as if we had finally awoken from Harper’s dream of a majority.

And maybe it was bigger than that, we thought. What if the trend crossed the border into English Canada, and the Conservatives lost the election entirely – and all because of artists! Phoque! Wouldn’t that be amazing? That’s a wonderful things about the arts. They help us imagine a better world.

Then the election: no majority, but a stronger Conservative government, and a divided and dispirited opposition.

That’s another thing about the arts. They console us in our time of woe.


1 Translated by John van Burek, retrieved October 25, 2008, from: www.rabble.ca/arts_media.shtml?x=76074

2 Retrieved October 25, 2008, from: www.fr.youtube.com/watch?v=UrATQeLLKX0

3 Retrieved October 25, 2008, from: www.departmentofculture.ca