Former prime minister Joe Clark is calling the federal government’s decision to cut a prominent arts program “a big mistake.”
In August, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government announced it would cut funding to PromArt, a $4.5-million program that offers grants to help Canadian artists take their work overseas.
“Part of the reason that Canada’s international reputation has been so strong is that it has so many rich strands — trade, culture, military strength, skilled diplomacy, peacekeeping, humanitarian action,” Clark told Fast Forward. “And for some reason the Harper government keeps narrowing that broad image down to the military and trade.”
The decision to cut PromArt was motivated in part by the Conservatives’ assertion that the program was funding too many artists outside of the mainstream, such as filmmaker Avi Lewis and experimental rock band Holy Fuck. Artists across the country have slammed the government for cutting off a much-needed source of funding.
Clark’s rebuke, however, is particularly stinging because the former prime minister was himself a Conservative. While the current Tory government has tried to paint PromArt as a waste of money by previous Liberal administrations, Clark was actually the program’s greatest promoter.
The former prime minister oversaw and built up the program during his tenure as foreign minister from 1984 to 1991. During that time, Clark was known for promoting Canada’s reputation abroad — he led the international community in aiding famine-plagued Ethiopia, slapped tough sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid government and took in refugees fleeing Latin American political violence — and used PromArt as a tool for promoting Canadian culture overseas.
“It adds a dimension to Canada’s international reputation that is both true — because we are a country of creativity and cultural excellence — and a dimension that is necessary, because it helps define Canada’s difference,” he says. “Even on a purely economic basis, [cutting PromArt] makes no sense — those programs helped Canadians abroad draw attention to our country and our products, and helped economies at home where artists were based.”
For its part, Harper’s government says cutting PromArt was primarily a budgetary decision. Anne Howland, a spokesperson for current Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson, says the government felt arts programs belong under the aegis of the Department of Canadian Heritage, and not Foreign Affairs.The Harper government reportedly plans to cut another arts fund in addition to the $45 million worth of cuts previously announced. The Canada New Media Fund, a $14.5 million Telefilm Canada grant program, will be also axed next year, according to The Globe and Mail. Telefilm says the fund “supports the creation and the distribution of interactive digital cultural content products.” Phone calls to Telefilm and federal Heritage Minister Josée Verner’s office weren’t returned by press time.