CULTURE IN CRISIS
CAN MARCEL MASSE REASSURE AN ARTS COMMUNITY SUFFERING FROM FEDERAL FUNDING CUTBACKS?
Encompassing everything from experimental video to classical ballet, from radio announcers to native carvers, Canada’s cultural sector is an immense and crowded canvas. With about 105,000 people earning all or part of their income from artistic activity, it is the nation’s fourth-largest employer. But the financial picture for most artists is a study in bleakness. According to research by the federal department of communications, dancers averaged $16,800 in annual earnings from their profession, and writers, $15,200. Said Joyce Zemans, director of the nation’s flagship funding body, the Canada Council: “What artists earn is so minimal—as a group, self-employed artists are second only to old-age pensioners.” Cultural institutions and industries, too, have been suffering in the era of federal belt tightening. And last week’s budget spelled out more bad news for some of them.
Hardest hit may have been the CBC, whose allocation will be cut by $140 million over the next five years on an annual budget of $1.3 billion. Network president Pierre Juneau described the measure as a “catastrophe” that will lead to a serious curtailment of services and make it difficult for the corporation to pursue its top priority—95-per-cent Canadian programming in prime time by 1992. But the entire cultural sector will be affected by the nine-per-cent retail goods and service tax to come into play in 1991—the first time that many arts organizations and cultural industries' will be taxed so heavily on their overhead, materials, services and products. Indeed, Ha-
mish Cameron, executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers, said that the tax will have a “devastating effect” on the book and magazine industries.
Both of those industries will suffer from another provision in the budget—a reduction of the $220-million postal subsidy that allows books and periodicals to be mailed at a special low rate. The annual subsidy, paid to Canada Post, is to be cut by $10 million this year and by
a further $35 million in 1990-1991—for a total reduction of $45 million. The department of communications has until July 1 to decide how to implement the cut. Said Catherine Keachie of the Canadian Periodical Publishers’ Association: “We were assured by the government last April that the postal subsidy would be maintained at current levels for at least five more years. To cut the subsidy at the same time that we will be hit with taxes from which we traditionally have been exempted is disastrous.”
Those measures came at a time of intense upheaval in many spheres of Canadian culture.
Marcel Masse, who was reappointed minister of communications in January after two years heading the department of energy, mines and resources, says that he will introduce several pieces of legislation affecting culture by the end of the year. And Masse has a number of high-level appointments to make to cultural bodies. At the same time, artists in a number of cultural industries say that they are anxious about the future. While film-makers grapple with the effects of changes to federal tax provisions that came into play on Jan. 1, nationalists have attacked the government’s failure to enforce policies which were to have stemmed foreign ownership of Canadian publishing houses. And in most cultural areas there is apprehension about the potential long-range impact of the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the United States that went into effect this year. Despite an exemption of cultural industries in the pact, some observers believe that other clauses contradict that protection.
One of the first top-level Conservatives who argued for excluding the arts from the free trade deal was Masse, whose return to Communications was enthusiastically received by the arts community. A native of St-Jean-deMatha, Que., Masse attended the University of Montreal and the Sorbonne, and had been a high school history teacher, a Quebec Union Nationale cabinet minister and a Lavalin Inc. executive. Shortly after he was first named communications minister in 1984, Masse cut a total of $90 million in government funding to the CBC, the Canada Council and the National Film Board, in compliance with a government austerity directive. But in the following months, he managed to establish himself as a strong-willed and outspoken arts advocate, before moving to the energy portfolio in 1986.
A former board member of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra—and a man who prefaces printed copies of his speeches with quotations from Euripides, Marcel Proust and other, more obscure, writers and thinkers—he quickly demonstrated a genuine commitment to culture. He commissioned an ambitious array of task forces and secured funding increases for the arts. One former member of the Prime Minister’s Office describes Masse as “a cultured individual who understands the importance of the arts in the life of a community.” He added, “It is always a bit humbling to speak to Marcel because no matter how busy he is, he has always just seen this or that film or read this or that book.”
Indeed, many cultural observers interpret Masse’s return to the Communications portfolio as a Tory peace-offering to the arts community, which largely opposes free trade. Another apparently conciliatory gesture is the establishment of the government’s new cabinet committee on cultural affairs and national identity, which is chaired by Masse. The minister, now 52, told Maclean’s: “We have to have policies that will re-establish some equilibrium with other countries in our own market.” Despite Masse’s obvious interest in the arts, Ottawa insiders say that an imperious manner weakens his influence in cabinet. Said a senior Tory: “Marcel has to realize that it is important to be a team player. You can make the case for extra money as many times as you want, but if you don’t have allies around the cabinet table you might as well forget it—your requests are going to be dismissed as a mark of selfishness.” Masse says that one of his first priorities is to introduce a revised broadcasting bill—probably in the next few months. It was Masse who, in 1985, commissioned the Task Force on Broadcasting Policy, which was cochaired by Gerald Caplan and Florian Sauvageau. The resulting report laid the groundwork for the bill that Flora MacDonald, Masse’s immediate predecessor, tabled in 1988 to replace the 1968 Broadcasting Act. The old law had come into
effect before the rise of cable TV and the advent of the satellite dish and other technologies.
One of the chief aims of the new bill was to increase the amount of Canadian content, especially drama, shown on television. That was to be accomplished through a system of quotas, penalties and rewards. Those measures sparked controversy in the industry, as did the bill’s proposal to strengthen the federal government’s authority over the national broadcast regulator, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). But the bill was stranded without Senate approval when Parliament was dissolved in October. Masse will not disclose whether he intends to make major revisions to MacDonald’s bill or merely to fine-tune it. Said the minister: “I have asked my department to make a review of what was said pro and con on each article of the bill, and we are trying to find a more balanced approach.”
Masse also has some key appointments to make in the broadcasting sector. He says that he is almost ready to name a successor to former CRTC chairman André Bureau, who resigned in February, IV2 years before his term had expired. And he must appoint a replacement for Juneau as president of the CBC. Observers have cited CBC candidates ranging from Telefilm Canada executive director
Pierre DesRoches to broadcaster Patrick Watson. But the minister says that he may delay his decision until the government has implemented a new broadcasting act. The bill drafted by MacDonald called for dividing the position of CBC president into two posts, president and chairman, a provision that Masse is considering retaining.
In the film sector Masse also has important decisions to make. One of the first is to appoint a successor to former National Film Board chairman François Maceróla, whose term expired last December. And he must keep a careful eye on Telefilm, the main investment funding organization for films and television drama, which in each of the past two years has committed all of its funds for financing productions well before the end of the year.
A more serious problem for the industry involves tax changes that took effect this year. Investors, who used to be able to write off 100 per cent of their investment in a Canadian film against taxes, are now entitled to claim only 30 per cent. Said Samuel Jephcott, president of the Canadian Film and Television Association: “We lost a device that was crucial to us.” As well, for a variety of reasons—including the increased value of the Canadian dollar against the American—the number of U.S. productions filmed on location in Canada has fallen. According to Jephcott’s estimate, film production in Canada has dropped by between 25 and 40 per cent since last year.
In order to combat the federal tax change, Quebec and Ontario have taken initiatives of their own. Quebec has implemented a 166-per-cent tax credit for its taxpayers who invest in films that are made in the province, and Ontario has recently announced an incentive program of its own. But some industry spokesmen are concerned that such initiatives will fragment the nation’s film community. Said Peter Mortimer, executive director of the Association of Canadian Film and Television Producers: “Prior to this point, there was a great deal of co-operation between producers across the country.” He added, “The ripple effect of the changes to the capital cost allowance is quite serious—it’s causing the balkanization of the country.”
Film distribution was another field in which MacDonald tried—and failed—to introduce legislation during her tenure as communications minister. Her original 1987 draft proposal, which was designed to double Canadian-owned distributors’ 10 per cent of the Canadian market, clearly raised the ire of the American film industry. Powerful lobbyists, including Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, claimed that the proposal was contrary to the spirit of the free trade negotiations between the two nations.
MacDonald introduced a watered-down
version of the film products importation bill in 1988—and softened the blow with $200 million in support programs to a film distribution fund and other sectors of the film community. Even in its weakened form, the bill would have established Canada as a film distribution market separate from the United States for the first time (traditionally, U.S. distributors have automatically obtained rights for the entire North American market). But the bill died in Parliament after its first reading. For his part, Masse claims that he intends to establish Canada as a separate film distribution market. He added that the nation should be a distinct entity “for all rights—not just for film.”
But an earlier nationalist initiative of Masse’s has proven ineffective. His 1985 Baie Comeau book publishing policy was intended to increase Canadian control of the domestic publishing industry. Named for the Quebec birthplace of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, where the policy was announced, it stipulates that purchasers of foreign-owned Canadian subsidiaries must divest 51-per-cent control to Canadian investors within two years.
But several foreign-based publishers have been able to circumvent the legislation through complex restructuring arrangements, or have simply failed to comply with it. Masse acknowledges that the system is far from perfect. Said the minister: “We are reviewing it—we have to clarify some definitions in the policy.”
In the performing and visual arts, the most pressing problem is simply making ends meet. In 1987-1988, more than 2,500 individual artists and writers applied for Canada Council funding, but fewer than one quarter of them
received grants because of insufficient funds. And the new federal budget has increased the council’s allotment for 1989-1990 by only $221,000, an effective freeze of the organization’s annual government grant. Tom BentleyFisher, artistic director of Saskatoon’s Twenty Fifth Street Theatre, recalls that his company
came close to being “a writeoff” when the Canada Council cut its funding in half a few years ago. The theatre has pulled through the crisis, largely because its funding from the Saskatchewan Arts Board has tripled since then. Still, he added, “we’re honing down our operation rather than expanding.” Due to economic constraints, the theatre is presenting
five plays this season, one less than it mounted in the previous year.
Meanwhile, Kim McCaw, artistic director of the Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg, noted that subsidies are crucial to the overall health of theatre. Said McCaw: “We desperately need progressive, risk-taking theatre, and that is the sort of work that doesn’t survive when left to market forces.” While Masse is quick to point out that demands for increased arts funding must be weighed against Canada’s tight fiscal situation, he remains an ardent supporter of artists’ rights. In 1988, MacDonald tabled the first round of amendments to Canada’s then-64-year-old Copyright Act. The changes, which went on to receive formal approval last February, will benefit the creators of original material. It established a system that will enable them to collect rights fees for photocopies and other reproductions of their works, including computer disks.
Masse has announced his intention of phasing in a second round of amendments, which would entitle performing artists—and not just creators—to copyright payments for broadcast of their work. “I think s our society has been unjust toward I our creators,” said Masse. “The nation will not be stronger if the creators are poor, and I think we should not be afraid to say that those who
succeed should be rewarded.” Still,
in the current economic climate, many creative people have to wait for their rewards— and content themselves with art for art’s sake.
A PERSONAL COMMITMENT
In his years as communications minister, Marcel Masse has demonstrated a passionate personal commitment to culture. Indeed, some members of the arts community have expressed concerns that Masse is too much of a hands-on steward. When the National Film Board received an Oscar honoring its 50th anniversary at the Academy Awards on March 29, Masse accepted the award on behalf of Canada while two NFB producers stood silently beside him. It was the latest bold gesture of a man who is not afraid of controversy. Last week, Masse discussed his opinions on a variety of cultural issues during an interview with Maclean’s.
• On his acceptance of the NFB’s Oscar at the Academy Awards: Regrets?
None at all. The award was not about the filmmakers, it was about the institution, which is part of my department. It was a totally normal gesture on behalf of Canadians, who are proud of the NFB. I would not have changed a single line of the scenario: Canadians have to realize that they are involved with the cultural affairs of the nation.
• On maintaining an arm’s-length relationship between government and cultural funding bodies: The principle is settled. Nobody is threatening it—it’s in concrete cement. But there has to be harmony between policies developed in Ottawa and policies developed in the provinces. And that has to be the government’s responsibility: to govern. We have to make sure that what Quebec or Ontario is doing is not exactly the opposite of what Telefilm, the Canada Council or the National Film Board is doing. Dialogue, communication have nothing to do with intervention.
•On the policy to increase Canadian ownership in book publishing: We’re re-
viewing it to determine whether it should be applied to all cultural industries or just to publishing. We not only have a very small market in Canada, we have a small market share. If you take the position that it’s never possible to improve your share of your own market, then you will always have to compensate by more public money.
• On free trade and cultural identity: It’s not just free trade between Canada and the United States: it’s a larger world approach. The isolation of Canada alone in the north is something of the past. Borders will matter less and less in the exchange of goods. Technology, perhaps more than treaties, will change the way things will be delivered—computers, fibre optics, satellite systems. The question for us in Canada is, should we stay in the past or should we accept the immense changes of technology and the world without borders? If we accept that, we’ll be ready for the 21st century.