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Harper paying political price as artists bash back

Conservative leader Stephen Harper probably thought cutting arts funding was an easy way to win the hearts and minds of “ordinary people,” by which he seems to mean people as ignorant as he is of economics.

But the backlash from bashing a $46 billion dollar industry that provides 600,000 jobs and represents about 3.8 per cent of Canada’s GDP is still being cited as the cause of the Tories’ declining popularity.

Since the Tory misstep, Nanos Research has shown a steady erosion of the Tory’s numbers in central Canada. October 8 has the Conservatives dropping to 33 per cent of the popular vote and the Liberals increasing to 29 per cent, with the NDP at 20, the Bloc at 10, and the Greens at 7 nationally. With only four points between them, the Liberals and the Conservatives are now in a neck-and-neck race for a minority government.

The telling numbers are in Quebec, where threatening the livelihood of artists also has serious political implications: the Bloc’s rise to 46 per cent of the popular vote, along with the disappearance of the Tories’ 20 per cent approval rating could see Harper shut out in la belle province.

There has also been a “softening” of enthusiasm for Tories in Ontario, no doubt due to outspoken Ontario artists like Margaret Atwood turning her sharp pen on Harper, in the Globe and Mail.

As CBC’s Michael Enright noted ruefully on the Sunday Edition: “You don’t want to be taken to the woodshed by Peggy Atwood.”

On the Ontario popular vote, Nanos research puts the Liberals 11 percentage points ahead of the Tories. Meanwhile the Conservative gains are all in the West, where they have 50 per cent of the popular vote, which won’t make a difference in how many seats they take.

But if central Canada’s artists have thwarted Harper’s majority, it’s West Coast artists that are threatening a Tory minority. The majority of them live and toil in B.C.’s urban swing ridings, including Vancouver Centre. The normally disorganized cultural workers banded together coast-to-coast for simultaneous “Wrecking Ball” cabarets last Monday and in Vancouver-Centre, the evening was combined with an all-candidates meeting that Conservative candidate Lorne Mayencourt declined to attend. At the last minute, John Cummins, the Delta-Richmond East incumbent, agreed to represent the Conservatives.

“We expected about 100 people, but the Stanley Theatre, which has about 600 seats, was packed,” said Jonathon Young, one of the organizers. “We had to turn more than 100 people away.”

Including Mayencourt, who arrived minutes before the event ended and demanded to be admitted.

“That was an interesting moment,” Young said.

Young, one of the founders of the 12-year-old Electric Company Theatre, said he’s never seen the arts community so united, thanks to the national organization The Department of Culture. The meeting attracted cultural workers from across disciplines, including high-profile artists like DaVinci’s Inquest creator Chris Haddock.

“[Harper’s remarks] became a catalyst for the community to come together,” Young said, adding that is less the funding cuts than the anti-intellectual ideology behind them that has outraged the industry.

“They are making broad cuts to the arts from a philosophical stance – it’s not about costs – they find ideas unimportant or dangerous.”

He credits Wajdi Mouawad, a playwright and the National Arts Centre’s French Theatre director, with galvanizing cultural workers with his September 9 letter to Harper that flew through e-mail boxes.

Mouawad’s witty rejoinder to Harper’s cuts addresses M. le prime ministre as “one functionary to another” noting that they are both civil servants. He advises Harper that his open contempt for artists is a declaration of war that has roused a group that has been asleep for 50 years.

“No government, in showing contempt for artists, has ever been able to survive. Not one. One can, of course, ignore them, corrupt them, seduce them, buy them, censor them, kill them, send them to camps, spy on them, but hold them in contempt, no.”

“Even if politically speaking they are marginal and negligible, one must never underestimate intellectuals, never underestimate artists; don’t underestimate their ability to do you harm,” Mouawad writes, pointing out that artists have voices. “I believe, my dear colleague, that you yourself have just planted the grain of sand that could derail the entire machine of your electoral campaign.”

(Apparently, it’s not good to be taken to the woodshed by Wajdi Mouawad, either.)

Cultural workers are adopting the ABC strategy – anyone but the Conservatives – and advising their supporters to keep an eye on Vote for Environment. The website takes running polls and advises the anti-Tory lobby on how to vote strategically to keep Harper and his fossil-fuel-loving, evolution-denying, gay and women’s rights-opposing, economy-destroying band of Philistines out.

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