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The Shifting Landscape of Canadian Politics

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2011 by KarenElizabeth

So as most of you are probably aware, there was a national election here in Canada yesterday.  The votes have been tallied, and the results are in — and in many ways, they’re surprising, but not as much as it might seem on the surface.

The Conservative majority is, sadly, not one of those surprises.  Despite the fact that Stephen Harper’s minority government over the past few years has been by turns ineffectual and out of touch with reality, the official opposition (the Liberal party) have been even more so.  While in 2008 the rallying cry in many areas was “anything but Conservative”, it seems that in 2011 most people have completely lost faith in Ignatieff’s Liberals, and would prefer to go with “anything but Liberal”.  And from my perspective, it seems a logical conclusion:  just what, exactly, have the Liberals done in the last few years?  They couldn’t even manage to successfully arrange for an election to be called — it took months, and a proroguing of parliament (one conveniently arranged to put things off to a more convenient time for the Tories, by the way), before they could finally get Harper to go to the Governor General and get the ball rolling.

Taken in that context, the biggest surprise of the day — the unprecedented number of seats gained by the NDP and the mantle of Official Opposition falling to Layton’s party — is less of a surprise.  For many years in this country, politics has been a 2-party game.  Vote for the puppet on the left, or the puppet on the right, or throw your vote away on one of those pathetic little smiley-faces-drawn-on-fingers in the back.  It has only been very recently that this familiar game has started to change, as the NDP under Layton’s leadership has gained strength and, slowly but surely, become a serious force to be reckoned with.  Long-time Grits who no longer wanted to vote red were faced with the choice of going Tory or going elsewhere, and a lot of them went orange instead.

Another factor here has been, undeniably, the backbiting nature of Tory and Grit campaigning in the post-Chretien years.  With Jean Chretien’s departure, the last vestiges of the Pierre Elliot Trudeau mystique were pretty much stripped away from a party that had gone largely unchallenged for a good solid decade, and thus had little practice in the art of serious campaigning.  Followed up by Martin, Dion, and Ignatieff, the party has struggled to find a new identity in the changing social climate of the 21st century.  In the absence of a solid party line, most Grits have gone to simply attacking the Tories, relying on the illusion of a two-party system and assuming that if people can be convinced not to vote Conservative, they’ll by extension have to vote Liberal.  The Tories have, of course, been more than happy to respond in kind, launching concerted smear campaigns against each of the Liberal leaders in turn and, one by one, forcing their resignation (and thus assuring that the party’s confused, directionless state is continued for as long as possible).  Liberal support has slipped, their party coffers have emptied, and by the time this election was finally called, they lacked the drive or the money to put up a decent fight.  Meanwhile, of course, the Conservative juggernaut was able to grab a larger slice of the media-control pie, spreading anti-Liberal (and, specifically, anti-Ignatieff) sentiment rampantly across the country.

Of course, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Quebec politics has had a huge part to play this year, as well.  Almost 16 years after the second Quebec referendum ended in a nail-bitingly close 50.56% “no”, the world has changed drastically.  Post 9/11, with ongoing conflict in the middle east and a major economic collapse that we are still recovering from, Quebec is much less eager to declare itself separate from the rest of Canada.  Striking out on your own is, after all, a lot harder when you’ve got no money and there are scary people with guns and bombs out there.  The tendency, in unsure times, is to hunker down and protect what you’ve got.  This added up to major losses for the Bloc, and in most cases those seats were grabbed up by the up-and-coming NDP.

The economic crisis has, of course, been one of the major factors in determining where people’s shifting alignments have landed.  Traditionally, the Tories have been seen as the party of the rich — the upper classes, as well as private industry and business, tend to be well-served by Tory policy.  The Liberals, on the other hand, have traditionally been the party of the middle class, pushing for family-friendly policies, health care, education and the like.  To continue this, the NDP could be argued to be the party of the working class, and especially of the working poor, as their policies tend to fall further to the left on the political spectrum, favoring social assistance programs, workers’ rights, equity for women and minorities, and advocating higher taxes for the rich and for corporations in order to pay for increased social programs.  The economic crisis of the past few years has served to severely sharpen the rich/poor divide in this country (and around the world), and so it’s not surprising that the party of the middle class has lost some support:  the middle class itself is shrinking as more and more people fall below that invisible “poverty line”, while corporations and the rich are raking in cash from tax breaks and ill-advised “economic stimulus” programs.

Overall, I’d have to say I’m saddened by the results (I was sincerely hoping that the Tories wouldn’t gain a majority), but still somewhat hopeful (the NDP got my vote this year, and has been my personal party of choice since I became old enough to vote, so I’m glad to see them gaining so much ground across the nation).  While the prospect of Stephen Harper’s policies going unchecked is quite scary to me (as a non-heterosexual, twenty-something female working in an arts field and living below the povery line, there’s nothing about the Conservative party that supports my life or interests), I’m hoping that Layton’s NDP will manage to be a strong, balancing voice, keeping the most vehemently right-wing of Harper’s policies from gaining enough support to make it into law and reality.  While I would have been happier to see more red instead of blue on that political map, I can’t help but acknowledge the fact that the Liberals have been no help whatsoever in their role as Official Opposition during the last parliament, and I couldn’t have hoped for them to be any more effective during this one.  Until their internal struggles get sorted out, the Grits are pretty much impotent, and the need for a strong Opposition party has been a factor in many of the Tory follies of the past couple of years.  And, of course, I’m even more hopeful that four years from now (or sooner, should Harper truly fuck up and cause a non-confidence vote to occur) the NDP will gain even more strength, now that they’ve proven themselves to be a viable alternative to voting red or blue.

Expect to see some “stupid Harper!” rants in the coming months, though — I fully anticipate that this majority government will be a major barrier to finding stable, paid work in the arts, and will probably result in some steps backwards for womans equality, gay rights, and environmental policy in this country.  Sigh.  Guess I’ll be doing shitty contract work for a while longer, now.

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Why Arts Funding is So Important

Posted in Ramblings, Rants with tags , , , , , on June 6, 2010 by KarenElizabeth

I got into a discussion earlier today on the Etsy forums about arts funding, and it’s rattled around in my head for a few hours and turned into a bit of a monologue.

As those of you in Canada are probably aware, there have been major cuts to arts funding in this country during the past half-decade.  Stephen Harper’s conservatives don’t even make a pretense of providing arts grants and funding, and have slashed budgets left right and center, all under the guise of cutting frivolous spending during an economic downturn.  Never mind that art can pull a society out of depression by providing a forum for the free exchange of ideas and encouraging the out-of-the-box thinking that is needed to spur change … apparently Canadians “don’t care about the arts” and so funding them is not important.

The result of this is, of course, that arts organizations are becoming smaller, more limited, and in some cases shutting down all together.  Obviously I myself am most familiar with theatres, and the amount of paid work available to new professionals like myself has dwindled to almost nothing in recent years … I’m sure it’s a trend that’s being seen in arts across the board.

Of course, even completely devoid of funding, the arts will never disappear entirely.  Even in repressive societies ruled over by vicious dictators, with the threat of death hanging over the heads of the creators, outsider art continues to happen on the fringes and in the shadows.  People will risk their livelihoods and even their lives to protect precious manuscripts and paintings from destruction under oppressive regimes, and will quietly create their own masterpieces in places where they can’t be seen or stopped … or sometimes out in the open, right under the noses of the autocrats (I’m so in awe of the people in Soviet Russia who turned publicly funded propaganda works to their own subversive meanings, and that’s by no means the only place where it happened).  Art is a huge part of what makes us a society and gives us a culture, and it’s something that many of us simply need to do.  When it comes right down to it, I know for a fact that I’ll never stop creating until the day I die.  I love it too much, and see too much importance in the artistic process, to ever let it go.

But just because art will never go away, doesn’t mean there’s any reason not to fund it.  Art brings us together.  It holds the mirror up to life, exposing both the good and the bad in the world (hopefully with the effect of increasing the good and weakening or destroying entirely the bad).  It defines us as people and peoples.  And when the funding goes away, the quantity and quality of the art being created will suffer.  After all, it’s hard to be creative and expressive when you’re working a crappy day job (or two) to pay the bills, numbing your brain and expending your energy on something that you have no passion for.  Would Da Vinci have managed to be such a genius if he’d been spending his days working retail or waiting tables?  Would iconic artists of modern times like Warhol and Pollock have had time to step so far out of the paradigms of society if they’d been worrying about where the next rent cheque was coming from?  How many paintings go unpainted, plays go unproduced, and masterpieces of literature go unwritten just because the artists simply don’t have the time?

Now, some artists hold the opinion that government or corporate funding cheapens the art being produced, making it commercial and propagandistic.  When money comes into question, ugly words like “artistic control” and “censorship” start to get bandied around an awful lot.  But really, what’s the worst that can happen?  If you truly offend the sensibilities of your donors or refuse to create something that you don’t artistically believe in, you might possibly lose your funding, but isn’t that the worst threat that they can possibly offer?  Is refusing funding because you might possibly one day lose it really a logical course of action?  That would be like never taking a job you’d love to try because you’re worried that you might one day in the future get fired.  And hey, even if you do lose your funding, you can always hunt for another source.  At worst you wind up working on your own dime, which is where you would have been anyway if you refused the funding in the first place.

The lack of arts funding out there is especially painful when held up against the other spending and splurging that the government is doing.  Money is being shelled out for corporate bailouts, government and industry conferences and retreats, sports events, promoting the Alberta tar sands, helping clearcutters in B.C., and TV and radio commercials reminding us all about how the government cares so much about our needs (hah).  Drama and music programs are being cut from schools, but god forbid the football team can’t get new uniforms.  Local television stations are disappearing so that we can all get more reality TV and celebrity bullshit.

What’s worst in all of this is that even we artists have come to accept our fate.  The stereotype of the “starving artist” is so ingrained in our collective consciousness that we can’t envision a well-funded artistic lifestyle.  Struggling and suffering is considered to be “just part of the process”.  But why?  Wouldn’t we be more effective as critical thinkers, critical observers of society, if we weren’t spending so much of our time worrying about making rent, or getting enough to eat this month?  Wouldn’t we be more productive if we weren’t spending 40 to 60 hours a week in meaningless toil, just trying to “get by”?  I’m not saying that all artists should be getting a free ride, here, but the value of creation should be such that it can pay for itself, or at least make a significant contribution towards its own cost.  We undervalue artists, and we undervalue art.  We equate creation with suffering, and thus creation suffers.  Blinding brilliance is being buried under an avalanche of poverty, and we are all made poorer for it.