The arts and culture people are predictably thrilled with the $560-million announced for them Wednesday by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and Culture Minister Sheila Copps. The PM said he was doing it due to the high value he puts on the “spirit,” even if “there isn’t a lot of vote” in it for him. He said he regrets the cuts he made to culture in the past, but sadly, when he came to office in 1993, Canada was “bankrupt, basically.” I’m glad he’s started to add “basically,” indicating the country wasn’t bankrupt at all. Since I’ve indicated skepticism on that score, let me also suggest some on the notion that there isn’t much “vote” in culture. (I’m not mocking his English, by the way. I like “vote” as a collective noun for something you can weigh and kind of move around.) I’d say we’ve always misunderstood and underestimated the effect of culture in the world of votes.

Let me start with an example of this point from the 1980s. When Brian Mulroney’s people were trying to reach the first free-trade deal with the United States, they announced they would keep culture “off the table.” It seemed odd. They hungered to be violated by the Reagan administration and the American corporate elite, yet were ready to risk it all for Cancult?

They weren’t a notably cultured, much less nationalist, bunch. Yet, through polling, they’d learned that the main obstacle to support for a deal was fear over loss of Canadian sovereignty; and culture, through its connection to a sense of identity, had become a symbol of sovereignty. To prove they weren’t relinquishing independence, they promised not to sacrifice culture. The result was the so-called exemption for cultural industries in the FTA. It was actually worthless due to a bizarre and tortuous retaliation clause, with which I won’t dazzle you. But the point is, culture carried heavy political weight in that crucial time.

Here’s another example: the U.S. has ever since tried to eliminate the exemption for culture. This is strange, because the clause always worked for them. In fact, no Canadian government has ever invoked the exemption for fear the U.S. would, as is their right, retaliate: they may penalize us to their heart’s content in areas such as lumber, potatoes, fish or animation, if we actually dare use our precious exemption. You can argue it has given the U.S. more clout than they have in other areas. So why do they hate it?

I think it’s again a matter of symbolism. The free-trade deals of recent years had little to do with trade; most trade was free before they were made. They are really about conquering the world in the name of an economic vision: reducing all things to commodities that can be bought and sold, for profit, in the marketplace; and eliminating all forces, especially governmental, which can operate in the name of other values such as human rights, the environment or art. Art and culture seem especially resistant to this reduction. There is something obscene about turning a work of art into a product for sale, even though it happens all the time. The last thing the marketplace ideologues wanted was an “exemption” which showcases limitations and alternatives to their vision. Just as the free-trade deals were a kind of Trojan horse containing the neo-conservative worldview, the cultural exemption was a Trojan horse containing its refutation.

Okay, now back to the funding announcement: the free market vision of reality has had the run of things, but there are signs its hold is slipping. Like the worldwide protests against “globalization,” a good term if you take it to mean the global imposition of one narrow economic dogma. Or the Walkerton mess and the suspicions aroused about for-profit approaches to things like water. There is a new generation of people who don’t want their lives reduced to shopping; and a skepticism about the reduction of all things to market and profit – which brings us back to culture, the epitome of non-reducibility. The Liberals have always been keen on adopting a humane and “progressive” stance when it can help them to gain and keep power. They are great weathervanes and a crosswind is starting to blow. Et voilà: money for culture. Just don’t tell me it has nothing to do with hustling the vote.

Footnote: The struggle to “marketize” all reality continues, just as the resistance to it never ceased. This week the Institute for Research on Public Policy, funded by federal and provincial governments and the private sector, presented a new study on how to eliminate the cultural exemption and include culture in the same framework as all other forms of trade and life. Since the U.S. is the only real opposition to exempting culture from trade deals, the Institute is effectively doing the Americans’ heavy lifting for them – something Canadians have specialized in. Yet the IRPP seems endearingly unaware of this, so they attach a little section on why the U.S. might be willing to go along with this elimination – the dearest yearning of its heart’s desire since the Canada-U.S. trade deal first came into being.

Originally published by The Globe and Mail. Rick Salutin’s column appears every Friday. Posted on with permission.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.