Which Canadian cities are the most known around the world? When you speak to people in other countries, which cities come to mind? Not Ottawa. The three most famous Canadian cities are probably Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver (I know this from living in a few foreign countries.) Per capita spending on arts and culture in these three cities? Montreal $11.32; Toronto $5.26; and Vancouver $11.64 (according to a recent press release from the Canadian Conference of the Arts.) Proposed per capita spending on the arts under the new Ottawa City Budget? Less than 60 cents. This is pathetic. In the capital of a country ostensibly proud and supportive of its heritage and culture, it's heartbreaking.
There is a reason to support the arts, and not simply because of abstract things like beauty or intellectual development. The arts bring real money into a community, through tourism, travel, festivals and investment. The Ottawa International Jazz Festival brings thousands of people to the city, from all over the country. Look at hotel bookings during that, and during Bluesfest. And yet the proposed budget will cut all funding to 28 major festivals and heritage projects. In Wednesday's Citizen, there was an article on the little-known fact that, if not for "money-saving measures," Ottawa could have hosted the Shakespeare Festival that is now held in Stratford - the largest theatre festival in North America could have been ours, and the millions in tourism and trade resulting from it.
Having lived in Ottawa for several years now, it seems clear that the city council is much more interested in building more imposing parks and beautifying streets no one uses - and in keeping taxes down in order to keep people happy in the short term - than in directing that money into the cultural life of the city. The result is "the city that fun forgot," in which a friend's English as a Second Language exchange students complain that there's nothing to do and they want to take a field trip to Montreal. Ottawa has always had to fight a talent bleed to the big artistic centers south and east of us. This will only widen the gates.
While the current budget crisis is terrible for everyone, and everyone in the city will have to lose something, compromise could be better effected than to slash 80% of funding to arts festivals and arts organizations. I'm hoping that number is just a scare tactic, something to make the arts organizations in this city breathe easier when "only" 50% is taken - and I'm saddened to see the mayor and counsellors using the arts community to lobby for higher taxes rather than risk censure by making the argument themselves.
I'm not asking that nothing be cut. Everyone is going to lose something, and I will be sorry to see OC Transpo (and especially the O Train) lose funds, I'm sorry to see recreational facilities, libraries, and city-sponsored community classes scaled back (all of which are important factors in my personal involvement with Ottawa.) But a little from everywhere will be easier to bear, and in the long run less damaging to the city, than the full-scale gutting of any sector.