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Actors union talks up Canadian culture with MPs

ACTRA president Ferne Downey leads a rally on Parliament Hill in November of 2009.

Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press

Heritage Minister James Moore's office says no snub intended. But ACTRA president Ferne Downey isn't convinced.

Ms. Downey and about 20 Canadian actors, performers and other staff – all part of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Arts – took the train from Toronto Wednesday for their regular lobbying pilgrimage to Parliament Hill.

Mr. Moore "declined to take the opportunity to meet with us," Ms. Downey said. Too bad, as she and her team of actors have a lot to say about digital culture and Canadian content.

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"Our world is content creation and Canadian content is everything these days," Ms. Downey told The Globe. "We can see it in multiple platforms. It's extraordinary. I feel so well-poised for this whole thing to explode but you've got to have some sensible long-range public polices to support things. ... You can't have instability."

She wonders, for example, why a for-profit company such as Netflix cannot be regulated to have to kick in funds for Canadian content creation.

"The digital revolution is an extraordinary opportunity," she said. "It's going to require investment and smart planning."

Ms. Downey noted, too, that the entire cultural industry in Canada is big – it's worth $84.6-billion and includes 1.1 million jobs.

However, the Conservative government is seen – perhaps unfairly at times – as being anti-culture. It doesn't help that Prime Minister Stephen Harper once famously turned up his nose at black-tie arts galas, suggesting they were elitist.

Not surprising then that Mr. Harper's majority win in May was greeted with some skepticism by Ms. Downey's constituents.

"It caused me pause," she said. "It just caused me pause because you realize okay, so this is the government that has not yet historically pledged a deep fealty to the whole cultural industry. They certainly haven't understood the place of Canadian stories and Canadian culture in our world."

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But Ms. Downey added that when she meets individually with Conservative MPs and "lifts the veil" about who they are, how they struggle and how important culture is to the economy, she gets a good reception.

Leah Pinsent, an actor and daughter of Canadian icon Gordon Pinsent, is part of the lobby blitz. In an interview Wednesday, she recalled the standing ovation her father received from the House of Commons when he visited Parliament several years ago.

"It always represents the importance a Canadian artist can have on this country. We can make this country proud. ... It was such a moving thing," she said.

She wants to talk to MPs about ensuring artists have a voice. Living next door to the United States makes it that much more difficult for Canadian actors to hold on to their own cultural identity, she said.

In addition, Ms. Pinsent is fighting to prohibit so-called "mash-ups," which allow anyone to take elements of works that Canadian artists have created and mix them with other works to create something new. She argues the practice is "morally wrong" and constitutes a form of plagiarism.

Mr. Moore, meanwhile, is up to his ears with work – busy with national caucus, Question Period and other meetings. His director of communications, James Maunder, noted that the minister has met with ACTRA officials in the past. "Unfortunately, we can't meet with everybody all the time," he said.

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The ACTRA team is nevertheless meeting with over 50 MPs, including the Minister of Labour, the Leader of the Opposition and key critics and committee members.

Still, Ms. Downey remains hopeful the Heritage Minister, who represents a Vancouver-area riding, will change his mind: "We're in Ottawa all day today, my little reception tonight, all day tomorrow. I have Vancouver actors here to meet him. ... We're just trying to build bridges."

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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