Quebec Arts Funding Controversy

When an artist applies for public money, there are no guarantees. Bruce Vavrina had been around long enough to know that. But he thought he had a shot.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 28, 1996

When an artist applies for public money, there are no guarantees. Bruce Vavrina had been around long enough to know that. But he thought he had a shot.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on October 28, 1996

Quebec Arts Funding Controversy

When an artist applies for public money, there are no guarantees. Bruce Vavrina had been around long enough to know that. But he thought he had a shot. Last year, the 45-year-old actor-director won rave reviews for his production of My Father's House, an adaptation of author Sylvia Fraser's disturbing memoir of childhood sexual abuse. After a successful run at Toronto's Ford Centre, he had firm offers to mount 16 performances in four U.S. cities on the West Coast. Ottawa's foreign affairs department gives out $4.6 million a year to support artists touring outside the country. And Vavrina was asking for $28,000, expecting to raise another $62,000 privately. After submitting his application, he waited three months for a reply. By the time he found out that his request had been rejected, he was upset enough to ask some pointed questions. "Tell me, who did get the money?" he demanded. When he finally got an answer, he was shocked: all six theatre groups awarded travel grants were based in Quebec.

Vavrina's experience points up a stunning disparity in Foreign Affairs arts funding. During the 1995-1996 fiscal year, of the $2.6 million in touring grants that Foreign Affairs handed out to the visual and performing arts, $1.7 million - almost two-thirds - went to Quebec-based projects. In the current year, about 40 per cent of performing arts grants have gone to Quebec. That imbalance - exacerbated by the fact that the three department officials overseeing grants to the visual arts, performing arts and publishing all happen to be francophones - has led to allegations of favoritism. Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy acknowledged to Maclean's last week that there has been a problem and said the system of grants allocation was being changed. "But there is some good reason for [the existing situation]," he said. "There seem to be more applications in the performing arts from Quebec."

Aside from the issue of deliberate bias, the lopsided funding underscores a growing culture gap dividing Canada: while Quebec's cultural infrastructure thrives - in large part because of unflagging provincial support - the arts in the English-speaking provinces have been steadily eroded by severe spending cuts. As a result, Quebec artists are often in a better position to take their shows on the road. According to Robin Higham, director-general of Axworthy's international and cultural relations bureau, performers in other provinces often "haven't got the critical mass necessary for travelling any more, so they're coming to us less for topping up."

Still, that does not explain why last fall Higham's officials could not find a single non-Quebec theatre tour worth supporting. "If they had covered their butt with just one, at least it wouldn't look so bad," says Vavrina. "I've been turned down for plenty of grants and never complained - I've been thrown out of better places than this - but most of the time it's on a level playing field."

Vavrina is not the first to report shabby, high-handed treatment from Foreign Affairs. Toronto author John Robert Colombo says that when he was honored at a literary event in Hungary last year, Foreign Affairs declined its support. "What was particularly galling," he recalls, "was that my hosts were told that if they wanted to invite two Quebec writers they could easily be bankrolled."

Higham disputes the veracity of Colombo's story. And current figures show that Foreign Affairs has not unduly favored Quebec authors, unlike performing artists. Still, the department has a reputation for political meddling in the arts. Last spring, controversy swirled around Belles Etrangères, a celebration of English-Canadian literature in France. The organizers' decision to drop author Mordecai Richler from the guest list caused widespread speculation that French-Canadian diplomats had intervened because of his pugnacious hostility to Quebec separatism.

Greg Gatenby, artistic director of Toronto's International Festival of Authors, says there is "a clear prejudice in favor of French-Canadian artists at Foreign Affairs. But the core problem is at the top. The mandarins are not interested in the arts, and culture is just the marionette of trade." Adds Gatenby: "Canada wants to augment trade to the Pacific Rim, so Foreign Affairs says, 'Hey Greg, have you thought of bringing a writer in from Indonesia?' "

Even artists who are well treated by the department privately question its practices. "It does feel like it's a fiefdom," said one touring artist, who asked Maclean's not to use his name for fear of losing department support. "The idea is to keep on the good side of these people, because there doesn't seem to be any kind of accounting."

For artists accustomed to arms-length funding agencies such as The Canada Council and Telefilm, the department's attitude to artists can be puzzling. "The behavior at Foreign Affairs is extremely strange," says Penny Dickens, executive director of The Writers' Union. "There are no guidelines. The arts community is used to dealing with guidelines, with peer assessment. There needs to be some professionalism."

Vavrina's experience is a case study of one artist's frustration with an opaque bureaucracy. It started last year when he began filling out a labyrinthine, 40-page grant application, itinerary and budget. Vavrina submitted the application by the Sept. 30 deadline, backing it with ringing endorsements from Senator Keith Davey and former Liberal fund-raiser Heather Reisman, an original investor in My Father's House. The application form promised a reply in early November.

Vavrina waited. He says his phone calls and a fax went unanswered. He finally received his rejection in January. The letter, from Foreign Affairs official Jean-Paul Picard, said the decision had been made two months earlier. The letter referred to "My Father's House in Western Europe," although the play was to tour the U.S. West Coast. And it said tours were chosen that would visit "the largest number of countries and regions of particular importance to Canadian foreign policy interests" - a condition not listed in the criteria sent to applicants.

Vavrina fired off a letter saying he was "shocked, appalled and insulted" by how he had been treated. He said the delay had basically scuttled the tour, and that he had wasted his time seeking funds for a project that "was judged on criteria that changed midstream." He badgered the department for two months until he finally learned about the theatre grants all going to Quebec. "I just went berserk," recalls Vavrina. He unleashed a profane tirade against a department official on the phone, then faxed Axworthy and threatened to go to the press.

Two days later, Higham contacted Vavrina and arranged to meet him for breakfast at a Toronto hotel on April 1. "I noted it was April Fools, but put that in the back of my mind," says Vavrina, who recalls that Higham began their meeting by apologizing, and then saying that he had been running the department's cultural program for only 10 months and that things were going to change. "He basically said that there were a lot of French people in the department and they give their money to the people they know," says Vavrina. "He also mentioned the climate around the time of the Quebec Referendum as being a factor. And he said that there was a lot of dead wood in the department and that was going to change under him."

At one point, Vavrina recalls, Higham referred to his tirade on the phone and suggested he was "a loose cannon" who might not be trusted to represent Canada. "And I said, 'Not long ago, I saw the Prime Minister grab someone by the throat and throw them to the ground. Let's not talk about Canadian behavioral standards.'"

Last week, Higham seemed taken aback when Vavrina's recollection was relayed back to him by Maclean's. Asked if he talked about dead wood, pro-French bias and referendum politics, he said, "If I did, it was very indiscreet to say such a thing. I guess I would have to deny it. With Bruce I thought he would put his cards on the table and speak in a candid fashion. He's not treating me with the same discretion."

But Vavrina and Higham agree that their meeting ended amiably, with the artist convincing the official that a worthy project had been given short shrift, and the official offering to help expedite funding. In the end, however, the department asked Vavrina to resubmit his application, which at that late stage he was not prepared to do.

Higham concedes that, until recently, regional diversity was not a priority - artists were funded solely on the basis of excellence and prestige. Now, Axworthy, who took over Foreign Affairs in January, has charted a new course, he adds. "His instructions to us are along the lines of, 'You guys find better regional balance, please.'"

Axworthy also stresses that new cultural support from his department will mobilize artists around particular projects, such as a cultural mission to the Asia-Pacific region. "We'll go out and seek the best balance or range of cultural artistic presentations from across Canada to meet that need," he says. And some observers are encouraged by his interest. "He came to the portfolio without any real commitment to arts and culture," says Mary Sparling, a Halifax arts activist who co-authored a report on culture as the "third pillar" of foreign affairs (after politics and economics). Higham, she adds, is "very supportive - he has energy and vision."

Of course, the broader context for any debate about subsidizing art is that the funds are increasingly limited and precarious. The so-called third pillar is extremely slender. Higham expresses fears that any negative press could jeopardize his whole program. Its future may indeed be up in the air. But one thing seems clear: in a department dedicated to the diplomatic arts, diplomacy has not always begun at home.

Maclean's October 28, 1996