Policy Matters: Some notes on numbers, margins, and centres

Halifax is the spiritual centre of Canada
-George Grant (echoed too by the Halifax Shambalya Buddhists)

Running through Canada’s history is a central narrative that seems to structure much of our political, social and cultural life. It’s that overly familiar interplay between the centre of power and the so-called margin or ‘hinterland’ of longing and demand, desire and resentment. Whether we speak about transfer payments or health care, education or culture, the inequities caused by this dynamic are always in debate. If nothing else then, this cursed election brought home for the first time in over two decades, the triumph of all things distinctly not central (however tentative) and with it, the possibility that perhaps some of these inequities will be given more than a cursory going over.

One can only hope, even if this is in short supply for the culture class in the post-election days ahead.

In television and film culture, consider the following: In British Columbia, funding coming from the Canadian Television Fund has declined from 5.38 million in 2004 to 3.64 million in 2005. Not an anomaly I’m afraid. Hold your breath for some numbers and look at Nova Scotia’s production figures: in 2002/03, total Canada Television Fund- supported production (docs, drama and kids programming included) was at 9.3% of the fund (i.e., $15.29 million). In 2005, this decline to 4.2% ($6.55 million). That’s more than cut in half. It’s an insult made worse by the fact that the CTF actually had a 9% increase in the amount of money available as a whole. If Nova Scotia was to get their share of production commensurate with this, it would have spent about $16.7 million for 2005, instead of the actual $6.5 million.

That’s a lot of dough lost to the N.S.’s production community, more in fact, when you realize it would have triggered about $30 million dollars worth of production. Little wonder Nova Scotia Development Corporation issued the following statement: “the numbers clearly demonstrate [that] Nova Scotia’s access to these funds is declining while over the same period of time, Toronto area access increased from 39.7% to 47.8% and Montreal area access increased from 12.6% to 17.2%. It is our opinion that equitable access to CTF funds by all regions of the country is not occurring.” The spiritual centre of Canada is too polite.

The other region that’s taken a hit that should interest this government, is Alberta. It’s share of the CTF funding dropped from 8.5% to 2.4% — that’s a drop from $13.63 million dollars spent there 2002/03, to $3.74 million in 2005. That’s staggering, no doubt about it. Perhaps oil profits cushioned some of these losses, but it’s unlikely.

This has come about for a very simple if brutish reason; a reason predicted I’m afraid to say, when policies tilted in broadcasters’ favour: the major players in broadcasting who can green-light a project for CTF funds are in the centre, i.e., Toronto or Montreal. Since broadcasters control their own envelopes of CTF money, the result has been the absurd case of marginalizing the margins/regions, despite their own specific promises to the CRTC to commission projects from the so-called regions.

Now, one line of argument roughly goes like this: Tough luck for you! Stop pressing your nose against the glass (i.e., in longing and resentment) and move to Toronto if you don’t like it. That’s what Americans do, they high tail it to L.A. or New York! Another strain of this virulent thought would invoke notions of meritocracy, that excellence in production has already gravitated to the centre (also known as the functionalist cop-out argument). Funnily enough, one would almost half expect this from a blue Tory government, that kind of market-driven, rough individualism move-to-the-centre-to-get-power attitude. And one would almost expect this from the new Heritage Minister, Bev Oda, who knows from her days at CTV what it’s like to command from the centre.

But there’s a competing argument and it’s one which is, paradoxically, also associated with Stephen Harper – he who is intimately aware of what it’s like to be marginalized by centrist power brokers. It’s the notion that Canada is precisely about equity and fairness for all regions, coast to coast. Not just for Toronto. Not just for Montreal. (And, hopefully not just for Alberta.) It’s actually – giggles permitted — a very liberal idea, isn’t it? And that’s the interesting contradiction that descends now on this government and by extension, on Minister Oda: how far will the Tories go to walk the talk of rebalancing the wrongs of aggressive marginalization?