What’s at stake in Canada’s culture war?

0 Posted by - August 11, 2010 - Blog, Performance, Policy

HomegrownStephen Harper said last week that he was “concerned” about Homegrown, a play running at this year’s Summerworks theatre festival in Toronto. Homegrown apparently takes a sympathetic view on one of the ‘Toronto 18’ would-be terrorists who were foiled by Canadian authorities in 2006.

Summerworks, like many artistic endeavors across Canada, receives federal funding. This year, Ottawa gave the festival $35,000. There are over 40 performances at this year’s festival, which means that Homegrown probably received somewhere in the range of $875 from the federal government.

Granted, the concern is probably not just about the money; it’s a principles thing, I guess. Why, one might ask, would Canadian taxpayers support a play that asks us to sympathize with a man who was apparently going to try to blow up federal buildings and kill Canadians?

David Akin, who reported on the story for the Sun, followed up with a commentary piece in which he wrote:

Some might think it’s a battle about government censorship of the arts in Canada. Perhaps. But I think it’s about something even more fundamental: A culture war between Conservatives and the left that was a major theme in the last general election and will almost certainly be a dominant theme in the next one.

Ah, the culture war. The thing about a Canadian culture war is that it’s probably less about a battle between conservatives and liberals per se (although that’s part of it) than it is more an exercise in continually defining our national identity.

And it’s not just about elections, either. These little flashpoints where the federal Tories push back against elements of Canadian culture, are definitely in some ways about appealing to a certain potential voter base. But just as much, there is an intention to shift the parameters of cultural debate in general, so that gradually, the discussion begins in a different place than it did before. In a way, a ‘war’ would be easily recognizable as such. This technique is a bit more subversive.

Rather than cultural conversations immediately recognizing that any material or topic can be on the table, suddenly, there are questions about the material potentially limiting funding. That’s a weird place to be, quite frankly. It’s automatically very stifling, and encourages self-censorship. And it means that art is immediately less challenging to the status quo, which in turn is damaging to society in general. If we’re less able to challenge our ideas and ourselves, then we’re in trouble.

Again, from Akin’s commentary:

You’ll remember that just before the last election, the Tories cancelled funding of an artists’ development program because, in the words of the government source who explained the decision to me, the program’s grant recipients included “a general radical,” “a left-wing and anti-globalization think-tank” and a rock band — Holy F[uck!] — that uses an expletive as part of its name.

The Tories, my source told me, would be damned before money “went to groups that would raise the eyebrows of any typical Canadian.”

If that sounds fishy, it’s because it is. The Tory line of defense is a familiar one – we saw it last month with the debate over the census: supposing ideologically-charged issues onto the population that probably never even considered there to be a problem in the first place.

When we talk about a culture war, it implies that there’s a culture at stake. If that’s true (and it is), we need to be aware of what we’re fighting for. Here’s a hint: it’s not votes.

Originally published to Yesterday’s Weirdness.

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