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Canadian Heritage gives bureaucrats more power over arts funding

Canadian Heritage Melanie Joly has relinquished absolute control over funding decisions.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Having the final sign-off on all cheques has long been emblematic of the minister's absolute power over cultural grants and contributions at Canadian Heritage.

But Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly has decided to forfeit that power and allow her bureaucrats to approve 90 per cent of the 8,000 grants and contributions that the department awards each year.

In addition, Ms. Joly has decided to allow cultural groups to sign more multiyear agreements with Canadian Heritage, freeing them up from the obligation to send in an application every year for ministerial approval.

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Ms. Joly said the measures will limit political considerations in the awarding of funding, such as favouring areas that voted for the government in power.

"There was often a lot of discretion built into our various programs, and that sometimes allowed for a more partisan approach," Ms. Joly said at an event with reporters and representatives of cultural groups on Wednesday. "It's not normal for some ridings not to receive any funding, when groups have a right to that money. It's normal for us to support arts groups across the country."

Historically, Ms. Joly said, ministers and their political staff rejected only about 2 per cent of the grants and contributions that had been approved by the bureaucracy. Still, she said partisan officials should not have the right to overturn the decisions of bureaucrats who operate in the same regions as the recipients and have greater knowledge of local needs and priorities.

Under the new system, Ms. Joly will continue to sign off on all funding awarded as part of next year's celebrations of Canada's 150th anniversary, and all deals worth more than $75,000, which account for about 10 per cent of the department's annual output.

She said she needs to retain a role on bigger projects, given that demand for funding is much larger than her department's budget.

"On some projects, I have to be able to have discussions with municipal and provincial authorities," she said.

The minister said allowing bureaucrats to sign off on most deals will speed up the process by weeks or even months in some cases, bringing down the level of "anxiety" among recipients.

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To make things more efficient, the government will use bank transfers instead of cheques to send the money to recipients.

Canadian Heritage is also moving toward greater openness by posting all of its grants and contributions on its website, regardless of the amount of funding.

The new measures were welcomed by some of the groups that receive funding from Canadian Heritage, including the Canadian Arts Presenting Association.

"Having stable funding will increase our ability to create and innovate," said association spokesman Frédéric Julien.

Giving more say to bureaucrats, and speeding up the approval process, will make a difference to groups working in French-language communities outside of Quebec, added Maggy Razafimbahiny of the Fédération culturelle canadienne-française.

"These measures are a nice surprise for our members. We've never seen anything like this," she said.

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Ms. Joly said the new measures come as the federal government is increasing its spending in arts and culture, with an influx of $1.9-billion over five years in the past budget.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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