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The Art of Politics

By Clare Cameron

Federal elections in Canada have seldom hinged on matters of arts and culture, apart perhaps from the 1957 campaign, when the Social Credit Party vehemently protested funding the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

In Niagara however, arts and culture has been a significant theme in recent years for many politicians involved with Niagara Region’s Culture Plan, the Cultural Capital of Canada designation, War of 1812 Bicentennial, and funding for the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts.

Given that The Sound is focused on arts and culture in Niagara, we recently reached out to all local candidates in the top polling federal parties, to learn more about the role of arts and culture in their personal and political lives. The responses below are all from individuals who Niagara residents have the power to elect or re-elect to the House of Commons on October 19.

Niagara West: Grimsby, Lincoln, West Lincoln, Pelham, Wainfleet

Phil Rose is the Liberal candidate for Niagara West. A self-described educator and musician, Rose holds a PhD and has recently authored books on Radiohead’s pragmatism and Pink Floyd’s concept albums. He has delivered a TEDx Talk on innovation at the margins of society and is the President of the Media Ecology Association, devoted to “the idea that technology and techniques, modes of information and codes of communication play a leading role in human affairs.”

Rose has been a performing musician in the Niagara area for decades, and regularly attends productions at the Shaw Festival and Niagara Symphony Orchestra. Disappointed that the annual Grimsby Festival of Art was cancelled this year, Rose believes there is a serious opportunity in Niagara West to create new events that will parallel the extremely successful ‘art crawls’ now occurring in downtown Hamilton.

He is also deeply concerned about “the erosion of support for art and culture under successive Conservative governments,” and sees this as “an attack on creative, critical work.” If elected, Rose would like to establish a citizen focus group in Niagara West to cultivate and support a vibrant cultural scene in the area.

In economic terms, Rose believes that investments in arts and culture can offer unique opportunities to young people, and encourage them to stay in the Niagara area. “I know how important work in arts and culture can be to youth employment,” he says. “Keeping young people in our communities means giving them great things to do and making sure they have great jobs. The creative industries are vital to achieving both of these goals.” Rose also relates arts and culture to international relations, given the unique ability of these sectors to achieve mutual understanding between diverse people.

Dean Allison is running for re-election in Niagara West with the Conservative Party of Canada, and did not provide a response to our request for comment. The new NDP candidate Naheem Rahman also did not provide a response.

St. Catharines: North of Glendale Ave.

Rick Dykstra has been the Conservative MP for St. Catharines since 2006 and is now the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, supporting a portfolio that includes heritage, arts, culture and sport.

In a telephone interview, Dykstra described the opportunities he has had in Ottawa to meet artists from across the country and understand their challenges, particularly with regards to strengthening copyright legislation and protecting intellectual property against piracy.
Locally, Dykstra feels a significant connection to the Niagara Artists Centre, describing it as “an amazing organization” along with the Brock Centre for the Arts. He also emphasized the almost $18 million federal investment that was recently poured in to construction of the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre, describing this as the second largest federal investment in a performing arts centre ever made in Canada.

Dykstra believes that “as Parliamentary Secretary [to the Minister of Heritage], the ability to bring issues to Ottawa has paid off for us in terms of the amount of investment that we have in St. Catharines.” Renewal and growth for the Folk Arts Festival is one of Dykstra’s future interests, “to make sure that it meets current needs and also advances the cultural changes we’ve seen in the Niagara Region.”

He also sees a definite economic value to arts and culture, describing both as an industry “that is going to help us a lot, in terms of the jobs it will create.” While small business owners downtown are looking forward to an increase in economic activity surrounding the new Performing Arts Centre, Dykstra also cites Crabtree Publishing as an example of how the arts and culture sector has benefited other areas of the city.

And Dykstra has observed a sea change in St. Catharines, as traditional manufacturing continues to decline from GM’s halcyon days. “General Motors was a huge part of what the community was all about, and I think we’re making this transition from not just being a blue collar community to being a community that is as much about the arts as anything else.” New developments downtown now appear to be proving him right.

Chris Bittle is challenging Dykstra for St. Catharines with the Liberal Party, currently working as a civil litigator at Lancaster, Brooks and Welch LLP. Bittle has a goal “to combat unemployment and income inequality” and has volunteered with Courts in the Classroom, educating local youth about the Canadian justice system.

Bittle is a music lover and says he has always had a “strong interest” in the arts, enjoying theatre productions at the Shaw Festival, Shakespeare in the Vineyard and Shakespeare in the Park. Bittle also views the Folk Arts Festival as an important cultural event in Niagara, and is proud that his law firm has been a financial sponsor of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts.

Bittle believes that “valuing arts and culture, including our built heritage, make a community a better place to live and help us express who we are as Canadians,” and describes the Liberal Party of Canada as firmly committed to supporting arts and culture through long-term, stable investments. He also highlights cuts that have been made to the CBC under Stephen Harper, and promises that a Liberal government would work to reverse those cuts while increasing funding for the Canada Council for the Arts, and undertaking a review of the Copyright Board.

If elected, Bittle would also support the digital arts sector, libraries, museums and archives. “Public access is as essential as supporting the modernization and development of arts and culture venues,” Bittle writes, and increased training opportunities for artists and creators is part of this vision, “to ensure arts and culture has the opportunity to flourish in Niagara.”

Bittle sees a clear connection between cultural media production and our collective identity: “[Liberals] recognize the valuable economic contributions that feature film, television, and digital media producers make, both at home and abroad… they ensure that Canadian culture is preserved and promoted…highlighting stories about what it means to be Canadian and making sure we remember that the things that bind us together as a country are much more powerful than any differences and divisions.”

Susan Erskine-Fournier, St. Catharines candidate for the NDP, provided no response.

Niagara Falls: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Falls, Fort Erie

Rob Nicholson has been the Conservative MP for Niagara Falls since 2004, and is currently Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. His website and contact information at robnicholson.com “is unavailable during the 2015 Federal Election.” An email inquiry to his office in Ottawa went unanswered.

Challenging Nicholson for the Liberal Party of Canada, Ron Planche gained accidental notoriety in July 2015 for a homemade political video that the National Post described as “the best and weirdest Canadian political video of the year.” [Find this video and its equally remarkable spinoffs online: the claims are not exaggerated.]

Setting this awkward blip aside, Planche offered a thoughtful response to our questions. As a geological researcher near the Queen Charlotte Islands, he witnessed totem carving in northwest coast indigenous communities, felt “a profound effect” from this experience, and is now committed to the preservation of indigenous culture and language in Canadian life. Planche also worked as a photo journalist in St. John New Brunswick, and studied visual arts at Sheridan College in Oakville, then Art History at York University.

During his time as a Town and Regional Councillor in Oakville, Planche was instrumental in fundraising for the Oakville Centre for Performing Arts. Along with his wife, family and friends, Planche started the Children’s Centre for kids’ professional theatre performances: the Planche and Munz Family Foundation continues to connect children with theatre in that community today.

If elected, Planche “will work to ensure that a fair share of our infrastructure investment gets applied to arts and cultural endeavours.” Like Phil Rose, he considers funding for the cultural sector as a way to attract and retain youth in Niagara’s communities. The Liberal Party’s Youth Training Program and Pre-Apprenticeship Training Program are two such examples of how this could be accomplished.

Planche links arts and culture to the large scale political issues of economic growth and international relations. On a national scale, he emphasizes the importance of sustaining the CBC, “because we know a strong public broadcaster is a critical part of maintaining Canada’s cultural identity.” Planche says “I truly believe the arts help us express who we are as Canadians. By telling and hearing one another’s stories we create a more open and humane society that can play a positive role in the world. Poetry, paintings, stories and music help build communities not walls, and foster diplomacy.”

Carolynn Ioannoni, long-time municipal councillor for the City of Niagara Falls and current candidate for the NDP in Niagara Falls, provided no response to our request for comment.

Niagara Centre: Thorold, Welland, Port Colborne, St. Catharines South of Glendale Ave.

Malcom Allen has been the NDP MP for Niagara Centre since 2008, and is running for re-election this year. When not in Ottawa, Allen attends local cultural events and festivals, hosts an annual art show and sponsors local arts events like Art On King. He is also currently serving on the Task Force of the Welland Canal Fallen Workers’ Memorial, designed by Dereck Revington Studios.

On the potential for misperceptions of arts and culture strengths in Niagara Centre, Allen says, “there’s a belief by some that people like me who grew up in a very working class environment don’t appreciate culture as much as others. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Allen considers arts and culture to be part of our national infrastructure, and believes that all levels of government need to contribute to funding in this area. If re-elected, Allen will “continue to fight against cuts to vital Federal cultural programs and institutions…including the CBC and National Film Board.” Allen will also meet with artists and local cultural organizations to ensure that they understand and take advantage of all funding programs available to them.

On the traditional positions of the NDP, Allen says “when New Democrats are fighting for fair wages and better social programs, we are also fighting for arts and culture….If people can’t afford adequate housing and are food insecure, they have little time and energy to pursue creative projects.”

Both Niagara Centre’s Conservative candidate Leanna Villella and Liberal candidate Vance Badawey, current Mayor of Port Colborne, provided no response to our request for comment.

Join the Conversation

To read more on the role of arts and culture in this year’s federal election, check out the Canadian Arts Coalition and express your views using the hashtags #ArtsVote and #cdnpoli. Creative Publics is also currently organizing “art-making inspired by federal election issues,” with much of their work featured online at creativepublics.ca.

Though they may not dominate election coverage headlines, arts and culture do have the potential to impact and shape policy at the federal level. Many thanks to the candidates who contributed opinion to this piece, and to our readers: get out and vote on October 19.

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