The culture thing

Now that opposition to Harper’s War on Culture™ has burgeoned from mere impolitic bitching from a few choice uppity artists to a full-blown, cross-platform, two-solitudes-smashing media extravaganza (Nat Post here; Globe and Mail here; CBC here; Radio-Canada here; Montreal Gazette here; La Presse here and here and here; TVA/LCN here), you have to ask yourself, as Deux maudits anglais did a few long days ago, how Stephen Harper, the supposedly brilliant campaigner, allowed this to happen. We haven’t talked to him recently–damned if he’ll return our calls!–but I’ll take a swipe at guessing his strategy regardless.

Harper had to have known that cuts to culture would evoke certain loud noises from Quebec. What he must have gambled on, however, is that those noises would be limited to the island of Montreal–or, more specifically, the Grand Bohemian Plateau Republic of Montreal where artists have traditionally lived and cavorted–and where the Conservatives don’t have a chance anyway. Cutting the fat from government rolls, even a comparatively paltry $45-million worth, would play well in the sticks, where the Conservatives hope to win several seats from the Bloc Québécois–and where, apparently, people believe culture is something you use to make crottes de fromage. There is a huge amount of off-island resentment in the province at the haughty Plateau intelligentsia and its stranglehold on media and the arts. It’s typical urban/rural bickering, as present in Quebec as it is in Ontario, Washington State or France.

Hence Harper’s particularly harsh comments yesterday about “regular working people” turning on the TV only to see “a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren’t high enough.” It’s a crude statement, for sure, but surely not accidental: saying as much is a straight up play for the heartstrings (and vote) of Joe Lunchbox.

The trouble with this thinking, though, is that Mr. Lunchbox doesn’t only see Quebec’s culture when he turns on his TV. He also sees it in the myriad festivals that have become the lifeblood of hundreds of rural communities around the province. There’s this one, this one and this one, for example. These aren’t big gala affairs, to be sure. However, they tend to be crucial to local economies, and they tend to rely greatly on government largesse. This is pure speculation, but I wonder if Harper realized as much a little too late. Regardless, it’s fairly telling that he refused to repeat his spoiled-artist comments in French. (It seems Harper also underestimated the amount of noise Quebec artists can make, as well as the symbiotic relationship between these artists and us wretches in the press…)

The other problem for the Conservatives is that the protest to arts funding cuts has jumped the linguistic divide. As much as the producers of the above video would like to think, this isn’t a big, evil conspiracy against the French. Proof? Actual living, breathing English artists have taken up the charge in Toronto, which effectively kills the Conservative’s faint hope chance in Don Valley West, and gives the issue traction well beyond Quebec. So much for that island of Montreal thing.

Imagine: All this headache for a measly $45 million.

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