Cutting off your nose to spite your face

Why the Tories’ assault on the arts makes bad economic sense.

Imagine for a moment that you are the Prime Minister of
Canada. The economy is tanking, jobs are going south (literally), and you’re in the middle of an election campaign.

In response, you subsidize a foreign-owned company (in this
case, Ford) and you cut subsidies for a domestic industry whose rate of return
to the country’s economy outstrips that of most other sectors. And you do this during an election campaign. That doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Well, that’s exactly what Stephen Harper’s Tories have done.
According to the Canadian Conference of the Arts, they’ve now cut just over $60 million from the cultural industry and given it to Olympic sports – an industry that doesn’t give nearly the rate of return as the arts industry does.

Let’s be hard-nosed for a few minutes and look at the arts
as products for domestic consumption and foreign export. Look at the figures from the Conference Board of Canada (a think tank with conservative leanings):

  • Arts and culture directly employed 616,000 people
    in 2003. Add to that, those indirectly employed in the arts industry, and
    you get 1.1 million jobs in 2007.
  • The economic impact of the arts and culture
    industry in 2007 was $84.6 billion or 7.4% of the GDP.
  • Consumer spending on cultural goods and services
    was $21 billion in 2007.
  • Exports were worth almost $5 billion or 1% of all
  • The industry contributed nearly $25 billion
    directly to federal and regional government coffers in 2007 in various
    forms of taxes.

There are “Can Lit” courses in universities all over the world. Canadian writers are consistently shortlisted for major international awards. Our visual artists present in the prestigious Venice festival. The film industry is finally gaining some traction and international recognition. And yet, one of the funds the Tories cut helps to export Canada’s artistic products.

So why did the Tories target arts and culture funding? Perhaps, it’s because they think artists are all rich snobs who won’t vote for them anyway. Well, I can’t speak for their voting habits, but I can speak for their incomes.

When I was writing in the film and television industry I was anything but rich. When I was on the board of the Alliance of Television and Radio Artists in the 1980s, the average income of actors was $5,000 a year. Today, the average income of artists is $23,000 a year (Conference Board of Canada).

Government doesn’t subsidize the arts. Artists subsidize the arts.

Government funding for local festivals is not support for the arts. Like it or not, the arts industry is housed in cities, because that’s where the largest talent pool is and because that’s where most of its customers are.

Government funding for renovations at the Art Gallery of Ontario or to graft a carbuncle onto the Royal Ontario Museum doesn’t count either. Splashy buildings might attract a crowd for a while, but if you want people to come back, you need more than pretty bricks and mortar. The auto industry doesn’t invest in buildings; it invests in research and development and more efficient ways to make its product.

Art is created by people not buildings. So you invest in film companies and theatre companies and in direct funding of artists so they can keep producing product.

We in Ontario have seen this dogmatic approach to vital aspects of our economy and culture before. For nearly a decade, Mike Harris’ Tories cut funding for theatre and other arts programs, hamstringing the industry’s development in Ontario for years. Do we really need that kind of Common Sense for Canada? With the economy going to hell, I don’t think we can afford it.

October 2008
© David McLaren

David McLaren has worked in many sectors of the economy: the arts, private business, government and social justice.


About David McLaren

David McLaren is an award-winning writer. He has worked in government and the private sector, with NGOs and First Nations in Ontario. He is currently writing from Neyaashiinigamiing on the shore of Georgian Bay and can be reached at In February 2015, he won the nomination for the NDP to represent the riding of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2015 federal election. See that page for writings during the campaign.
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