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Canadian culture back on the national agenda

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

TORONTO/OTTAWA — The federal government has heard the arts community's cries and offered its largest investment in culture, but some sectors will have to make do with the status quo.

The Conservatives proclaimed the budget contains $276-million in new funds for arts and culture spread over the coming years. And while they also announced funding that consists of renewals rather than increases, the scale of this year's cultural spending far surpasses that in last year's plan, which made only passing reference to culture.

Some say the Conservatives lost a chance to form a majority in the election last fall when $45-million in cuts to arts and culture programs prompted a prolonged backlash from cultural leaders, particularly in Quebec. Although the cuts were not rescinded, many arts leaders think the government is beginning to understand culture's economic impact on the country.

“This is a stimulus budget. A lot of this spending is short term, it's temporary stuff, but, of course, we recognize [the importance of] investing into arts and culture in a short-term way to have a long-term benefit,” said James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage.

The film and television industry is taking solace in the renewal of two major initiatives that had been set to expire soon. The Canadian Television Fund, which helps pay for made-in-Canada programming, will continue to receive $100-million annually for the next two years; and the Canada New Media Fund, which helps pay for the creation of Canadian Internet content, is being permanently extended at $14.3-million a year.

But industry leaders lamented that the government failed to increase its support for the $5-billion-a-year sector.

The biggest surprise is a $25-million endowment to establish Canada Prizes in the Arts and Creativity. Philanthropists David Pecaut and Tony Gagliano, architects of the Luminato Festival, will build the new competition in which international artists vie for sizable cash prizes in Toronto. The prizes will also be used to prompt schools across Canada to incorporate art into their curriculums. Mr. Moore said it will be the largest international arts prize in the world.

The Tories, who created $30-million a year in funding for festivals in 2006, continued their strong support, offering an extra $50-million annually for two years.

An additional $20-million over the next two years for the National Arts Training Contribution Program is garnering widespread praise. The program helps institutions, including the National Ballet School and the Royal Conservatory of Music, train artists for professional careers.

The budget also contains $15-million in each of the next two years for magazines and community newspapers, replacing money lost from other sources.

There is $30-million cash in each of the next two years for infrastructure-related costs for local and community cultural and heritage institutions such as theatres, small museums and libraries. Unlike other infrastructure programs, that money will not require matching funds from cities and provinces.

And the government has promised consultations to explore giving self-employed Canadians access to employment insurance, maternity support and parental benefits, all major concerns for many artists.

The biggest disappointment for most cultural groups was the lack of any new funds to promote Canada's culture abroad, though Mr. Moore noted that the Tories will continue to spend the $21.2-million a year already in place.

“Generally speaking, it's good news. Not as good as one would have hoped for, but good in that the government has turned its back on slashing arts and culture and has seen the importance of maintaining and increasing investments,” said Alain Pineau, executive director of the Canadian Conference of the Arts.

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