Fair Notice is just fair

Summerworks has lost their Canadian Heritage funding this year and the only reason that has so far been made public is that the festival presented a play in 2010 that dealt with terrorism in a way that the Harper government didn’t approve of, even though none of them actually saw the play. Canadian Heritage has not rushed to deny this charge of censorship thus leading us all to believe it is true.

I think it is very clear that this method of making funding decisions is wrong in a society that has enshrined freedom of expression in its constitution, so I won’t belabour the point here except to say that I wholeheartedly endorse this freedom, especially as it pertains to Art and believe that censorship is wrong. I also won’t belabour the point that our governments at all levels choose to fund a myriad of ventures that the majority of Canadians may or may not agree with, many times turning a blind eye to whether it is right or wrong morally (the export of asbestos to the third world, for example). That they have chosen to try to position themselves as some sort of moral guardian at this point is simply wrong headed. But enough said…this isn’t what this post is really about.

This post is really about Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s statement, recently published in the Globe and Mail, that, “…No organization should assume in their budgeting that every year the government of Canada is going to give them grants…” Minister Flaherty, let’s talk about a little concept known by funding agencies across the nation, at every level of government, as “Fair Notice”.

Fair Notice is the way funding agencies let operating funding clients know that their grant may be reduced, the reasons why, and how much time they have to correct the identified issue. These reasons and the methods for dealing with them vary from agency to agency, according to their mandates, but one thing is common: these policies are designed as a warning system. Whether you agree with the principles behind the various Fair Notice policies or not, these policies usually ensure that there is time for discussion and dialogue and at the very least, for organizations to decide whether they can or want to rectify whatever issue has been identified. The idea is to give Arts organizations a chance to continue to make Art and a shot a some kind of stability. This is what operating grants were designed for in the first place and this is essentially at the heart of every funding agency’s mandate. You may or may not agree with the methods, the criteria or the funding model, but at least the criteria are clear and the Fair Notice policies are in place and it’s all in writing. Clarity and the potential for stability all around – at least as much as is possible in an ever changing political climate.

The other point I’d like to make about Minister Flaherty’s comments is that they fly in the face of responsible planning. An application to the Canada Arts Presentation Fund, as we all know, takes many, many hours to complete. Why would any responsible Arts executive invest that much time if chance of any return on that investment is so risky? Admittedly it is very clear on all operating grant applications for Canadian Heritage that receiving funding one year does not guarantee funding in the future (and in fact you must sign a declaration that you understand this). However, this is rarely, if ever, the case in practice unless an organization is very clearly in danger or very badly managed. If it were not, the very idea of the Canada Arts Presentation Fund, or the Canada Arts Training Fund, for that matter, would be moot. It is impossible to “give Canadians access to a variety of artistic experiences in their communities,” as the objective of the Canada Arts Presentation Fund states, if there are no stable organizations to do so. Nor is variety possible, for that matter, without the ability to take risk, including the presentation of Art about provocative and potentially controversial topics.

The third thing I’d like to point out to Minister Flaherty is that in the world of business, it is not generally deemed responsible to back out of a deal or to give notice that you won’t be a part of a deal at the last minute, especially if you know that the train has already pretty much left the station, as it will have for Summerworks 39 days out of their festival. We are all very lucky indeed that this didn’t shut the Festival down completely and that they are nimble enough to be able to respond quickly. Not every organization is. With that said, we don’t yet know what the long term impact of this will be or how it will affect Summerworks’ bottom line. Responsible organizations need responsible partners to deal with. In this respect, the long assessment time and late notification jeopardizes every CATF client every year unless there is a knowledge and respect for the need for Fair Notice.

Things need to change at Canadian Heritage. Turnaround and notification to organizations needs to happen faster, there needs to be a clear Fair Notice Policy, and if the goal is to provide operating funding, there needs to be a stable commitment to organizations so that they can plan responsibly for the future. Ultimately, though, I recommend that the Canada Council for the Arts be given the opportunity and the funding to oversee these grants. This is an agency that is well-known for its efficiency and its diligent stewardship of taxpayers’ money in the service of the growth of Art and Artists in this country. It’s arms length status will ensure that our right to freedom of expression under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is preserved and that Canadian Artists will have the opportunity to create and take their place, as they should, on the world stage.

All Canadians have a right to express themselves – and Canadian Artists share this right. It’s time our government supported it properly and fairly.

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