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Federal budget gives more money for arts, little sign of cultural policy review

The CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto.

The federal government will devote $1.8-billion more to culture and recreation spending over the next decade, "modernize" the Broadcasting Act and Telecommunications Act, and spend more on official and Indigenous languages, according to the budget delivered on Wednesday by Finance Minister Bill Morneau. But anyone looking for details of the extensive cultural-policy overhaul promised by Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly since the government took office in 2015, will find scant evidence for it in the budget papers.

Most of the $1.8-billion in new money will be reserved for up to $1.3-billion in bilateral funding agreements with the provinces. "This investment will be delivered through the second phase of social infrastructure funding," the budget says. Social infrastructure usually means things like day-care centres and affordable housing, as evidenced in a section of the budget that promises "new investments of $21.9-billion over 11 years to support social infrastructure in Canadian communities." It's not clear what kind of bilateral cultural and recreation spending will fit into this envelope.

In spite of the Heritage Minister's national call for proposals to keep Canada's cultural industries competitive in a digital world, there are few hints of any new policy to come in that area. Net neutrality and cultural diversity will be studied, the budget says, and the government will avoid a "protectionist stance that restricts growth and limits opportunities." That could mean less power in the future for the federal broadcasting regulator (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission), and a continuing laissez-faire approach to online streaming services.

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The new budget includes nothing like the big, specifically targeted infusions in last year's budget for major cultural bodies such as the CBC, Canada Council, National Film Board and Telefilm Canada. The $1.9-billion promised in 2016 to those and other major institutions, including the National Arts Centre and several national museums, is still being paid out, over a five-year commitment period.

The government will provide $300-million over 10 years to the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund, which provides money for new or renovated cultural spaces, and for arts- and heritage-related equipment and feasibility studies. That's $30-million per year, which will not go far in a highly competitive program, access to which is already "difficult for new or emerging organizations as well as innovative, non-traditional, emerging types of spaces," according to a Heritage program review published in 2014. CCSF funding averages 37 per cent for approved projects.

The budget reiterates Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's promise to bring in an Indigenous Languages Act, and pledges $89.9-million in new money over three years to support Indigenous languages and cultures. Of that money, $23-million per year will go to the Aboriginal Languages Initiative (ALI), a $5-million Heritage program widely reviled by Indigenous language activists for its opacity, inefficiency and red tape. Much of the remaining new money will go to archival and preservation efforts related to Indigenous languages and oral history, even though oral history tends to be one of the strongest defining elements of Indigenous cultures.

The focus on ALI received poor early reviews from language activists. "Indigenous peoples need to fight for direct control over Indigenous languages," said Squamish activist Khelsilem Rivers in a tweet. "No INAC [Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada], no Heritage."

Official languages, which constitute the largest single expenditure in the sprawling Heritage portfolio, will receive an additional $80-million over 10 years for renewed educational infrastructure in language-minority communities.

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About the Author

Robert Everett-Green is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail. He was born in Edmonton and grew up there and on a farm in eastern Alberta. He was a professional musician for several years before leaving that task to better hands. More

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