IF YOU WANTED to hear the Canada Council praised this last fall, the place to be was on Parliament Hill. Not the one in Ottawa, mind you - its homologue in Quebec City. Within the beautiful confines of the Salon Rouge, complete with cherubim and metres and metres of allegorical paintings, the government of Quebec was holding hearings about culture. Architects and termites were there in force.
Who are these architects, and who are these termites? On the architects' team we find the eight signatories of the Arpin Report, and the provincial Liberal government that commissioned it. Well, not exactly the government, as we will see, but the minister of cultural affairs, Liza Frulla-Hebert. She wanted a report about the future of culture in Quebec, and last summer she got it. Soberly entitled "Une politique de la culture et des arts" (An Arts and Culture Policy), in 328 pages of turgid prose it sets down a highly centralist, interventionist view, not of culture, but of its administration. There are chapters and chapters of recommendations about how to build a better and more far-reaching administrative structure, including a super-ministry to be dubbed the Ministere de la Culture.
And, by the way, the report called for the transfer of all federal cultural powers to Quebec, with the corresponding sums of money. Added to that political wish was the pious hope that the financial envelope would he spent by the province on culture, and not on highways, unemployment insurance, or for subsidizing the electricity costs of multinational corporations. Quebec, according to the Arpin Report, is to become the one and only architect in the building of its cultural edifice.
Once that blow was struck, a secondary group of architects added their voices to support this vision: people like Philippe Sauvageau of the Bibliotheque nationale du Quebec, the parallel body to the National Library of Canada. And who can blame him? If you're a provincial administrator, and you see the chance to administer something bigger, why not take it?
There was only one group missing, a group, in fact, that had totally escaped the administrative vision of the authors of the Arpin Report: the artists. Someone forgot to tell these architects that you can't have culture without artists. The artists might well turn out to be the termites who bring down the grand administrative edifice.
But really, you can't blame the report writers, all in government employ, for this minor oversight. After all, quebecois artists have always been staunch nationalists. It could even be argued that the concept of Quebec as a nation was invented by artists during the Quiet Revolution. So why bother with them? Offer them Quebec sovereignty over the arts, and they'll fall in step.
When the first warning shot was fired over the bow of the architects in August last year, they should have paid-attention to it - and to its source. Jacques Godbout, one of Quebec's most honoured novelists, co-founder of the nationalist Quebec writers' union, supporter of the "Yes" side during the 1980 referendum, and all-round social commentator, told the architects in an opinion piece in I'Actualite that state intervention in the arts was a bad thing, that the Canada Council style of arm's-length policy was the way to go, and that the designs of the Arpin Report had nothing to do with the arts. What we need is another Malraux, he said. Unfortunately, Quebec is fresh out of that kind of vision. Suddenly, the termites were on the attack. The once trustworthy artists of Quebec had turned their coats.
The filmmaker Rock Demers, known for his production work on a variety of children's films (The Dog that Stopped the War, The Peanut Butter Solution, among others), used the kind of spicy language heard in playgrounds across the nation to denounce the report. The playwright Rene-Daniel Dubois (Being at Home with Claude), speaking for his sector, called the report a kind of suicide, and said it made his blood run cold. Claude Tousignant, a painter, admitted he wouldn't be where he is today without the Canada Council, which had given him grants at a time when his own province refused to recognize him. The writer Yolande Villemaire said she sensed an attitude of contempt on the part of the provincial arts-funding authorities, and one of respect from the Canada Council. Even the Quebec writers' union, while supporting the transfer of cultural powers to the province, put the report through the shredder. Finally, the secret was out: quebecois artists loathe their politicians, PQ and Liberal alike.
Reeling under an onslaught of attacks, the architects counterattacked, but something was trussing from their words: righteousness. Serge Turgeon, signatory of the report and president of the Union des artistes (something like English Canada's ACTRA), accused Rock Demers of being motivated by fear of losing federal money for the films he produces. Liza Frulla-Hebert admitted she was shaken by the testimony, and was immediately accused by the Parti quebecois culture critic, Ande Boulerice, of being soft on federalism (she has since recanted, and come out for full control of culture by Quebec).
At the centre of this storm is Robert Bourassa. Central, and silent. So far, he hasn't made a single comment about the controversy surrounding the Arpin Report. For Quebec artists, that silence is not golden. It translates into the disregard the provincial government has for the arts. For years, the arts community has been pushing for the one per cent solution - one per cent of government's budget to be given to arts funding. "Maybe later," is the government's response, and it doesn't matter which government. The Parti quebecois, despite its nationalism, has no better a record in cultural affairs than the Liberals.
Has the current provincial government learned anything over the course of this exercise in public consultation? The answer is non. Last November 14 was the opening of the Montreal book fair - the Salon du Livre du Montreal - funded in part by the province. Among the dignitaries who had gathered to inaugurate the event, which was to attract some 104,000 paying visitors, there was someone missing: Liza Frulla-Hebert. What was her pressing prior engagement that night? Tickets to the opening of Phantom of the Opera!
The government might not have learned anything, but the artists have. They are looking back at their unrequited love-in with the Parti quebecois during the 1970s and saying to themselves - to quote the world's greatest British rock band, The Who - "we won't get fooled again."