Arts and politics: the power of the arts community to shape our politics…

Ever heard of the anti-Harper protest song “You have a choice?” Me neither.   Shame really. I checked it out the other day on Youtube (produced by AAVAZ, the global non-profit organization) and apart from the music, which, as is so often the case with these well-intentioned but unwieldy artistic collaborations (e.g. We are the world) is rather confused – note to producers for future reference: bagpipe solos never make a good intro to a pop song! – the message on the threat of climate change deserves to be heard. Designed to influence the vote in the ’08 federal election against the eco-criminals in the Harper government (though it misguidedly advocates strategic voting as the answer), the song never really got any exposure. So why the hell didn’t it work!?!!

In part, it seems, the answer to that question can be found in English Canada’s political culture and its relationship with the artistic community. Note the distinction here between French Canada, specifically Québec, and the rest of the country (ROC).   Think I’m exaggerating? Google Margaret Atwood and Bloc, and brace yourself for an endless stream of digital hatred directed against one of this country’s bona fide artistic geniuses. In sharp contrast to this kind of savaging, when artists in Québec voice their anger over government policy, they are almost universally praised to the heavens for having the courage of their convictions.

Why the double standard? To begin with Québec’s artistic community is better funded, smaller and, above all, better organized than their counterparts in the ROC. Evidence of this abounds. Consider the fuss kicked up by the bus load of Quebeckers who testified at the parliamentary committee tasked with amending bill C-32, Harper’s feeble attempt at copy right reform, back in November ‘10. Their concerns no doubt fell on deaf ears, but the names involved in this exercise reads like a who’s who of the Québec recording business: Luc Plamondon, Robert Charlebois,  Michel Rivard, Arianne Moffat, and  Marie-Denise Pelletier!

And didn’t Harper stumble into a political minefield during the ’08 election, when he basically characterized the community as a bunch of spoiled, whiny, ne’er do wells,   pampered by government subsidies? The reaction from artists in Québec was quick and massive. Comedian Benoit Brière got some of his show business buddies ( Rivard, Stéphane Rousseau, etc.) for a delightful comedy vignette that pokes fun at the ignorance of Harper and his Anglophone cronies with respect to francophone culture.   The video got a staggering 170, 545 hits on youtube alone!!! By the same token, artistic giants such as Michel Tremblay & Jazz festival co-founder André Menard, made their displeasure known with the 45 million in cuts to arts, at a rally organized in downtown Montreal. Many pundits still argue that these events negatively impacted the results for the Conservatives & Harper in the province, where some in the party had expected a breakthrough at the outset of the election.

Finally, Québec artists haven’t limited themselves to criticizing Harper ( though they seem to do that with a particular relish!). They have also taken aim at various provincial laws and policies, on occasion. For instance, a group   calling itself Gaz au shiste: Wo!, basically a collective of artists led by environmental crusader and cinematic super-hunk Roy Dupuis, organized against the Charest government’s planned exploitation of Québec’s shale gas deposit.   They sensibly implored the government to maintain the existing moratorium, in order to ensure that the harmful effects of the project be properly studied before giving private gas companies the green light to begin extraction.

This piece was certainly not meant to be yet another lament about the differences between the so called “two solitudes” of Canada.  It’s more like a humble reminder from a non-artist to artists all over the country that they do have a voice and the power to be a factor in politics, provided they follow the good example set by their comrades in Québec. Just don’t make the same mistake that Atwood made and declare your admiration for the Bloc.

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