Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Interesting times in Ottawa

With the possible overthrow of the Conservative Federal Government for a Lib-NDP coalition, and hearings at Ottawa City Hall on the City 2009 budget, these are interesting times in the Nation's Capital. They don't have much of an Anglo-Celtic Connection, but the City budget means I haven't had much time for genealogy.For those interested, below is the text of my remarks to City Council on December 1st. As heritage is one of the areas being targeted for major budget cuts the issue is of interest for local genealogists.

Remarks to Ottawa City Council Committee of the Whole on Budget 2009
John D Reid

I’m Chair of your Arts, Heritage and Culture Advisory Committee which has a mandate to provide you thoughtful advice and advocacy.

In joining the committee I sought to represent the interests of local and family history. In serving it’s been my privilege to experience and learn how arts and heritage build our community, economically as well as socially.

To start on a positive note; a milestone was reached this year.

You approved a new city archives building, and twenty million dollars in provincial funding followed.

The building will be a legacy for this Council and for Colleen Hendrick whose leadership will be missed.

A year ago you all agreed to renew your commitment to your Museum Sustainability Plan, Arts Investment Strategy and Festivals Sustainability Plan. You recognized that cutting all funding for arts, heritage and festivals, a one third of one percent anorexic sliver of the city budget pie, wasn't going to save the day.

You sat here and heard repeatedly of the public support.

Now, here we go again.

People get passionate about arts and heritage.

Tap into that passion and marvellous things happen.

A little City funding brings communities together, releases hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of hours of volunteer time, and primes the pump for other funding.

It isn't natural resources that drive our economy as with so many Canadian communities; our economy isn't based on manufacturing as in Windsor and Hamilton.

For Ottawa it's knowledge workers in government, technology innovation, tourism, education and health -- industries that depend on a highly educated workforce.

Knowledge workers need to continually upgrade their skills, are mobile and seek a high quality of life for themselves and their families.

The Canadian Council on Learning recognize availability and proximity to arts and heritage facilities as important for knowledge workers and their quality of life.

Similar evidence for the role of cultural infrastructure comes in a recent report, "Valuing Culture" from the Conference Board of Canada.

They find that residents of Ottawa-Gatineau ranked number one in spending on culture goods and services in 2005, averaging one thousand and sixty-four dollars per person.

The Conference Board conclude that "an important challenge for governments is to ensure communities have the means necessary to support creativity and diversity, and to build a thriving culture sector."

Cutting isn’t building. Again this year cutting culture wouldn’t be the salvation of the budget, but would damage the City economy.

It would even reduce income to City government from tourism, something the City Treasurer chooses to marginalize.

The budget proposals target culture, eliminating many programs and imposing 54% cuts overall. They renege on your Museum, Arts and Festivals plans, the results of extensive community consultation and negotiation. The cultural community feels victimized.

What would be the impacts? I’ll give an overview for arts, heritage and festivals in turn. You’ll hear detail from others.

You can hear from a wider range of citizens by visiting the protest rally in Marion Dewer Festival Plaza in support of Arts, Heritage and Culture, and more broadly for social investment, at noon.

Cuts to the Arts proposed are total elimination of multiple programs, 42% to the Three Year Operating Funding Program and 10% to Service Agreements.

Some familiar names on the hit list include Opera Lyra, GCTC, Odyssey Theatre, the Ottawa School of Art, Galley 101, SAW Galley and Video, MASC, The School of Dance, Théâtre de la Vieille 17, et Théâtre du Trillium.

Some organizations including Le Groupe Danse Lab and Propeller Dance have already stated they would close.

Some, like the Ottawa Symphony, would cut back the number of performances.

Others would continue, suffer from discouraged volunteers and fade away. Similar cuts in the 1950s resulted in the loss of a theatre company. It moved to Stratford and founded the Stratford Festival. What a lost opportunity.

What does it say about us if we cut the seven thousand five hundred dollar Karsh Award in the very month of the centennial of Ottawa's, and Canada's, greatest photographer?

Can we really claim to believe in multiculturalism if we eliminate funding for the celebration of ethnic cultures?

Turning to heritage, overall cuts proposed are 43% despite the commitment in the September 2005 four-year Museum Sustainability Plan.

For the 11 local museums the Plan has been a success with enhanced programming, more outreach and community involvement. Visits to the museums are up 19% this year, 14% in ‘07. More staff meant increased revenues from other sources.

Cuts and deferrals would mean the end of The Workers Heritage Centre Museum. Elsewhere there would be job losses, less programming, conservation and capability to find other funding. Elimination of capital would mean museums falling short of the requirements of the Ontario Disabilities Act.

Local historical societies outside the Greenbelt would be especially hard hit.

Meg Hamilton tells me that a 100% cut for the Council of Heritage Organizations of Ottawa and the Ottawa Museum Network would force both organizations to close their doors with the lay-off of four full-time staff. Services to the community would cease.

David Flemming informs me that a 100% cut to Heritage Ottawa's grant would close its office, reduce its educational and advocacy activities, and lessen its ability to leverage other funding. Heritage Ottawa’s volunteer contribution of over sixteen hundred hours of community service supporting the work of the City's Heritage Planning Section would be reduced.

Turning to Festivals, key drivers of Ottawa's tourist trade and an important source of employment, they are targeted for a 100% cut.

The Festivals Plan has bought stability -- we no longer read the horror stories of problems with festivals.

If the City shows a loss of faith by totally eliminating their first tier funding other sponsors would inevitably fall away.

Julian Armour tells of his experience where every dollar the city provides brings in twenty-one dollars from other sponsors. More generally perhaps one city dollar leverages ten from other sources. Arguably City tax revenues from festivals exceed the funds being cut - not to mention the much larger benefit to the city economy as a whole.

With over 1.6 million participants having enjoyed a day at one of our festivals this year continuing with the Festivals Plan is a no brainer.

In Conclusion

Statistics show Ottawa at the bottom when it comes to per capita cultural funding amongst Canada’s major cities.

Others understand the economic value of culture. But in Ottawa there’s a perception problem evident in the draft budget.

We need to break out of this annual cycle of destructive debate and threats to long term plan commitments, which are a matter of trust. This reflects the governance concern found in the 2008 Citizen Satisfaction Survey.

It’s time to find a way to better engage the community earlier in the annual budget process. Peter Honeywell points to the idea of an Arts Commission broached in the 20/20 Arts Plan. Other models, both locally and in other municipalities, should be explored.

The City has made progress thanks to the virtuous circle created by your Museum, Arts and Festivals Plans. The programmed increase, six hundred and thirty thousand dollars operating, should proceed. The cultural community stands ready to fulfill their part of the bargain.

The community reject proposed extraordinary cuts of 54% to culture, that’s down four point one million dollars. And now the 2008 Citizen Satisfaction Survey doesn’t justify the targeting.

The city needs to move ahead, not stand transfixed by the status quo. People with a vision of the cultural potential, and its economic advantage, for this city, including the wiser heads on Council, should prevail.

The cultural community is ready for constructive dialogue, but never again do they want to feel so victimized. Thank you.

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Delivered 1 December 2008

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