Praxis Theatre is currently on hiatus! Please find co-founders Aislinn Rose and Michael Wheeler at The Theatre Centre and SpiderWebShow, respectively.

Category: political theatre

September 2, 2014, by

Freedom Theatre, Jenin Refugee Camp. Image by Non Violent Vigilante via Creative Commons

“I want to move people. I want them to wake up … It is their silence that allows things to continue.”

 – Juliano Mer-Khamis

By Nikki Shaffeeullah

Artists in the West, and particularly in North America, do not often talk about the occupation of Palestine. For a community that by its very nature envisions itself as agents of discourse and change, the general silence from artists about Palestine is pervasive. This has to stop. Artists must talk about Palestine, and in the wake of Israel’s current deadly military assault on Gaza, artists must talk about Palestine now. We must do so because the occupation of Palestine is, among other things, an artistic issue.

The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because storytelling is an artistic craft. As artists we know that one story can be told an infinite number of ways. In storytelling, characters do not always have equal access to narrative platforms: this is particularly apparent in the story of Palestine. The dominant narratives told to the world about Palestine are instrumental in ensuring the occupation continues. Contemporary art-makers and audiences are versed in balancing many practices of artistic reception: the skilled playgoer, for example, can submit to Aristotelian catharsis at the moment of dramatic climax and still invoke Brecht to question the intentions of the artist and other possible perspectives not present on stage. It is vital that the world maintain such critical artistic reflexivity when told stories about Israel-Palestine, for as Joyce Dalsheim argues, “The literary nature of national narratives is extremely important” (156). As is the case in many settler-colonial societies, including Canada, the popular story told about the state of Israel relies on the erasure of Palestinian indigeneity. In the particular case of Israel: “a people without a land” needed a “land without a people,” and so in the story of Israel’s statehood, Palestinians become “an uncanny other, not fully recognized, not fully known, somehow magically imagined away, and for all these reasons that much more frightening” (167).

When they are not made invisible in the story of Israel’s creation, Palestinians are rendered hypervisible in narratives of violence that conceive of Palestine and Israel as somehow being equal players in an equal war, as opposed to a colonized people—refugees in their own land—resisting apartheid and siege from a military superpower. North Americans very often do not feel empowered to speak or think critically about Israel and Palestine because of the dominant narrative that conflates a 3500-year old religious history with a 66-year old colonial history — the story is thus, “too complicated to question” and those who dare tell another version of the story are bound to have their motives, integrity, and legitimacy questioned. The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because the prevailing story told about Israel-Palestine is an artful construction that serves to perpetuate the occupation, and it must be understood as such in order for critical analysis and action to take place.

The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue for artists in the West when the colonial powers who maintain the occupation of Palestine exact influence so powerful and intimidating that it censors our art-making at home. In 2006, CanStage had planned to stage My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a play based on the true story of a young American activist who was killed by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer while attempting to prevent it from destroying a Palestinian family’s home. However, the theatre pulled the show from its season after being dissuaded by “prominent benefactors” (Voss). New York Theatre Workshop pulled the show from their season the same year, saying they didn’t want to take “a stand in a political conflict” (Borger). When Teesri Duniya Theatre staged it the following year, it was met with charges of anti-Semitism from groups such as the Quebec-Israel Committee, who publicly derided the show—without having seen it (Arnold).

In 2009, Independent Jewish Voices Montreal (IJVM) organized a reading of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza, which Churchill wrote in response to Israel’s military assault on Gaza earlier that year. Again, the all-consuming taboo against talking about Palestine in the West surrounded the project: as IJVM’s Abby Lippman wrote in an Dispatch, “cries of outrage and accusations of anti-Semitism were swift, loud, and numerous.” Lippman stresses that “while heated discussion and legitimate criticism are both welcomed, the kinds of attacks made against Seven Jewish Children deflect attention from the very issues it raises for discussion.” Silencing work that speaks about Palestine is a normal, everyday affair: “Rather than engage with the substance of the play, these critics ignored IJVM’s invitations to come to see the play and discuss it with us and others—they merely sent letters of protest to the media.”

Also in 2009, the Koffler Centre for the Arts commissioned Toronto artist Reena Katz to curate each hand as they are called, an exhibit celebrating the artist’s Jewish roots and the Jewish history of Kensington Market. Despite the project itself having nothing to do with the occupation of Palestine, the Koffler Centre ended the exhibit and their association with Katz after learning about her history of Palestinian solidarity activism (Lu). The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because for artists like Reena Katz, artists who dare express solidarity with Palestine, their art, regardless of its content, becomes subject to political profiling. The silencing machine forces artists to choose between their artistic careers and legitimate critique of the state of Israel, even when the critique happens elsewhere. The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because supporters of the state of Israel try to force it to not be an artistic issue.

Wall in Palestine via Creative Commons

Wall in Palestine via Creative Commons

The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because artists do not create in isolation: we are part of a global community of artists, and our artist counterparts in Palestine call upon us to act in solidarity and observe a cultural boycott of Israel. In 2006, a network of Palestinian artists asked us international artists to join “in the boycott of Israeli film festivals, Israeli public venues, and Israeli institutions supported by the government, and to end all cooperation with these cultural and artistic institutions that to date have refused to take a stand against the Occupation, the root cause for this colonial conflict” (Palestinian Campaign). This year, again, Palestinian performing arts organizations and artists collectively called upon “fellow artists and cultural organizations to condemn the current aggressions against Gaza and the occupation of Palestine through petitions, protests and statements” and specifically to support “the Palestinian cultural and academic boycott of Israel” (Palestinian Performing). They are not calling for the boycott of a people or a nation, but of an oppressive state. As it was in South Africa, the boycott is a tool the international community can use to pressure Israel and Israel’s allies (including Canada) into ending Israeli apartheid.

The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because the way art lives in occupied Palestine is an exemplar of the urgency, the necessity, the power of art in the face of oppression. The way art lives in Palestine reminds us of its ability to exist and resist. The occupation of Palestine and subsequent border restrictions starve Palestinian artists of resources, but they find a way to create and innovate. Mohammed al-Hawarji, without access to paint, took to his canvas with curry and cumin; his work subsequently garnered international attention for its multisensory engagement of smell as well as sight. The occupation of Palestine and the Western media culture that supports it prevents Palestinians from speaking the political truths of their personal lives in the rare moments when they do have access to media.

Through art, however, their truth finds a way: activist Rafeef Ziadah’s poem We Teach Life, Sir responds to a moment when a journalist asked a loaded and leading “Don’t you think that everything would be resolved if you would just stop teaching so much hatred to your children?” Ziadah’s piece recalls the pressure in the moment to resist saying anything that could feed stereotypes of Palestinians (“not exotic, not terrorist”) and the journalist’s own prescribed rules (“Give us a human story. / Don’t mention that word ‘apartheid’ and ‘occupation’. / This is not political”). However, in the piece itself—her performance of it went viral online—she answers the question with unbridled honesty and artistry: “We Palestinians teach life after they have occupied the last sky. / We teach life after they have built their settlements and apartheid walls … No soundbite will fix this … We Palestinians wake up every morning to teach the rest of the world life, sir” (Ziadeh).

The occupation of Palestine is further an artistic issue because Palestinian artists cannot nurture and expand their practice through tour and exhibition, the way free artists do elsewhere. Indeed, since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, imagined borders and eight-metre-high walls have prevented Palestinians from being able to travel through the land their ancestors called home for time immemorial. And yet, Palestine pushes back: The Palestine Festival of Literature gathers artists and puts them “on a bus that travels from one Palestinian city to another, breaking down a state-sponsored system of imposed isolation and ignorance” (Abulhawa). The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because the ways Palestinians make art in spite of and in response to their oppression is an incredible demonstration of how culture is a tool of resistance. The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because in Palestine, the spirit of survival lives in all dimensions of art: not only in the content of art but also in its forms, relationships, and ways of dissemination.

The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because artists have real power to destabilize the structures that oppress them. Israel’s current assault on Gaza was sparked by the kidnapping and shooting of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank by Palestinians. Within a week, Israel had named suspects and ordered the demolition of their family homes. Three years earlier, Juliano Mer-Khamis—son of a Palestinian father and Jewish-Israeli mother and founder The Freedom Theatre in the West Bank’s Jenin Refugee Camp—was assassinated by a masked gunman just outside the theatre grounds. Mer-Khamis, too, was an Israeli citizen, but in less than two days Israeli authorizes abandoned the investigation of his death (Issacharoff and Harel). Israel was not interested in justice for Mer-Khamis because they knew his art challenged the state; they knew his art was powerful, popular, and already stimulating change. They saw that the occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue.

The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because imagination is a vital tool shared by artists and the oppressed. Our counterparts in Palestine remind us that “as artists, the most powerful weapon we have is our ability to play, dream and imagine.” The occupation of Palestine is an artistic issue because although  generations of Palestinians continue to be born into the reality of occupation, and the cycles of siege repeat, “as long as we are able to imagine another kind of reality, we have the power to pursue it—a free and just Palestine” (Palestinian Performing).

Works Cited

Abulhawa, Susan. “Imagination has no substitute: Reflections on Palfest in Gaza.” The Electronic Intifada 7 June 2013. Web.

Arnold, Janice. “Corrie play not helpful to dialogue.” All About Jewish Theatre. Web.

Borger, Julian. “Rickman slams censorship on play about US Gaza activist.” The Guardian 28 February 2006.

Dalsheim, Joyce. “Settler Nationalism, Collective Memories of Violence and the ‘Uncanny Other.'” Social Identities 2 (2004): 151.

Issacharoff, Avi, and Amos Harel. “Israel leaving investigation of Mer-Khamis murder to PA.” Haaretz 6 April 2011.

Lippman, Abby. “What Should We Tell Them”? cultural diversity and the stage 6.4 (2009): 35.

Making art in the Gaza Strip: Mohammed al-Hawajri. BBC. 4 April 2014. Video.

“Palestinian Filmmakers, Artists and Cultural Workers Call for a Cultural Boycott of Israel.” Palestinian Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel. 4 August 2006. Web.

Palestinian Performing Art Programme. “Statement by Palestinian performing arts organizations.” 17 July 2014. Web.

Ross, Val. “CanStage loses interest in controversial Corrie play.” The Globe and Mail 28 December 2006.

Ziadah, Rafeef. “Rafeef Ziadah—’We teach life, sir’, London, 12.11.11.” Youtube. 11 November 2013.


This piece was originally published as an editorial in cultural diversity and the stage 11.2 (2014): 8-9.

December 9, 2013, by

Hon James Moore being sworn in as new Minister of Industry. The Globe and Mail reported Ministers with new portfolios were given 'enemy lists' during this federal cabinet shuffle.

Hon James Moore being sworn in as new Minister of Industry. The Globe and Mail reported Ministers with new portfolios were given ‘enemy lists’ during this federal cabinet shuffle.

Saturday morning I woke up to discover the Federal Minister of Industry, James Moore, took to Twitter to respond to one of my tweets, which he deemed “false”.

It started with his tweet below, which I never saw, because I “have been blocked from following this account at the request of the user”.

I remember this “blocking” occurred roughly a year-and-a-half ago during The Freefall Festival. I was debating the merits of Conservative cultural policy on Twitter with Moore during Jonathan Goldsbie’s Enchanted Streetcar Ride. Soon after I mentioned that our hashtag #route501 was trending above the Ontario provincial budget, Moore proceeded to block me.

Anyhow, the narrative begins with this tweet:



As if hope was the exclusive providence of mindless platitudes…. But this is a story about specific facts, so I will refrain from commenting further. Because I am blocked from seeing tweets by Minister Moore, it came to my attention when it was quoted by Kelly Nestruck, Theatre Critic for The Globe and Mail (who has not blocked me, yet).



When I saw this, what didn’t come to mind was grammar or Layton. What occurred to me was that Moore’s tweet was extremely rich. As a Cabinet Minister his staff would have been responsible for putting together one ‘Enemies List’ for incoming Heritage Minister Shelly Glover, and he would have received a second list to be brought up to speed on the “enemy” situation from the people that brought you Industry Minister Christian Paradis.

So given that Moore was involved with not one, but two sets of enemy lists during the cabinet shuffle several months ago, I tweeted this:



Of course by “predecessor” I meant “successor”.

There followed a brief conversation between Nestruck, playwright Sean Dixon and myself about whether the NDP used apostrophes properly in their mailings. Went to bed early enough to avoid The Raptors embarrassing themselves, and woke up to this tweet:


I was confused by this tweet by a Minister of the Crown in response to allegations that he and his office created lists of enemies at the request of, (say it in your best Duffy Baritone) The P.M.O.

On July 16, 2013. The Globe and Mail reported Harper’s office

sent a memo asking for lists of “enemy stakeholders” for new cabinet ministers.”

Is The Honourable James Moore calling The Globe and Mail “liars”?

On July 17, 2013. Recent Harper Cabinet Minister Peter Kent heavily criticized Enemy Lists:

For those of us of a certain generation, it evokes nothing less than thoughts of Nixon and Watergate.”

Is The Honourable James Moore calling Conservative MP Peter Kent “mindless”?

On July 24, 2013. The Toronto Star’s Susan Delacourt reported over 200 civic-society groups, including Amnesty International Canada and Oxfam Canada, had asked for access to enemy lists, but were being stonewalled by the Harper Government:

It is worrying more widely… with respect to the state of democracy in Canada. Plain and simple, in a healthy democracy government does not publicly talk of its critics and detractors as enemies.

Is The Honourable James Moore calling Amnesty International “childish”?

Franke James discovered incontrovertible proof she had been placed on an 'enemy list' that cause go'v officials to interfere with her work because she created art about The Tar Sands. Learn more.

Franke James discovered through FOI requests proof she had been placed on an ‘enemy list’ that caused govt officials to interfere with her work because she created art about The Tar Sands.

I am asking these questions non-rhetorically, because for Moore’s tweet to be truthful, then the answer to each must be “yes”.

So we are left with two versions of the truth:


A massive conspiracy involving The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, a broad spectrum of civic society, and even a member of Moore’s own caucus, which has colluded to make us falsely believe Cabinet Ministers in The Harper Government created and received ‘enemy lists’ during the last Cabinet shuffle.


Harper Cabinet Ministers and their offices made and received ‘enemy lists’ as requested by PMO.

Perhaps the Minister mis-tweeted and this was just a Fordian slip? Getting a bit tedious being asked to believe in the absurd as plausible these days.

November 17, 2013, by

On Monday Dec 18 all 308 MPs will receive this invitation.

On Monday Dec 18 all 308 Members of Parliament will receive this invitation. CLICK TO ENLARGE

After 34 acclaimed performances of You Should Have Stayed Home in Whitehorse, Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, we conclude our tour in Ottawa on November 20th. It is our hope some of our nation’s elected representatives will join us onstage on opening night.

The production will have a reception on Parliament Hill, the same day as this performance. We are extremely grateful to The Honourable Andrew Cash, Member of Parliament for Davenport, for organizing this event where MPs of all stripes can meet us and discuss the opportunity.

Reception for You Should Have Stayed Home on Parliament Hill

3pm-4pm Wednesday November 20th, 2013.

Centre Block: Room 601

Winner of The SummerWorks Arts Professional Award

Reviews: NOW MagazineGeorgia Straight 

Hundreds of Canadians have already stood up for civil liberties in a safe and creative way by participating in a short scene in the middle of the show. Before each performance we’ve led a discussion about Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms and how it’s been significantly weakened by G20 Toronto — a period Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin called, “The most massive compromise of civil liberties in Canadian history.

We hope Members of Parliament will be inspired by this level of engagement by  ordinary citizens across Canada, and also stand up for civil liberties.

We have already confirmed participation by a few MPs, and we’re hoping for more. We’re encouraging MPs from all political parties to join us. Civil liberties are not a partisan issue. Everyone from libertarians, to socialists, to all of those in between, can find rare common ground on this subject. This important consensus can be communicated theatrically.

If you are an MP:

Please get in touch by email:

If you are not an MP, but live in Ottawa and would like to join us onstage:

Please get in touch by email:

If you are not an MP, but you would like to see your MP participate:

Please send them this post. If you tweet to them, be sure to use #G20Romp. Also, be sure to be nice.

Consider sharing this post on Facebook or whatever other social network you use.

Only through real momentum will we fully realize this goal.  We are so darn close and we need your help.

September 13, 2011, by

by Michael Wheeler

“The rich people have their lobbyists and the poor people have their feet.”

Nathalie Des Rosiers, General Counsel of Canadian Civil Liberties Association speaking at a post-show panel at after You Should Have Stayed Home at The 2011 SummerWorks Festival.

This summer I directed You Should Have Stayed Home, a play about theatre artist Tommy Taylor’s experience over 48 hours of the G20 weekend in Toronto presented at the 2011 SummerWorks Festival. While trying to return home from his first ever protest as a law-abiding citizen at the “Free Speech Zone” at Queen’s Park, Taylor was swept up in a mass arrest, caged with 40 other people in a 10ft by 20ft cage and denied drinking water until he passed out from dehydration.

Taylor contacted me in February to talk about collaborating on a piece of theatre adapted from his Facebook note, How I Got Arrested and Abused at G20 in Toronto. Having read the post, I knew the story presented an excellent opportunity to dramatize and address the deterioration of civil rights in Canada.

Click the logo to read the rest of the article on

July 15, 2011, by

The proceeds frorm these nation-wide readings will go to the recently de-funded Summerworks Festival

by Michael Wheeler

Today will see over 70 companies across the country join together in readings of the play Homegrown by Catherine Frid, in an impressive display of solidarity amongst Canadian theatre artists.

As one of these 70, it is a heartfelt honour for Praxis Theatre to join our peers from coast-to-coast in an action that supports the notion that art is created within an ecosystem, and that it is a slippery slope down the road towards censorship if a government only forms relationships with artists that support or reinforce its ideological agenda.

Here’s all of the key Homegrown info:

As a final note, a tip of the hat to playwright Catherine Frid who didn’t ask for any of this but lends her play to the entire country tonight. And another to event organizer Michael Healey for showing leadership in pursuit of solidarity in a time when we needed both.

Image Courtesy of Natural Resources Canada

Momentum grows for nation-wide performances of Homegrown by all theatre organizations that receive federal funding in protest of Summerworks Festival being defunded by Federal Government

by Michael Wheeler

Last week saw freedom of speech and federal support for the arts come under unprecedented attack by the Harper Government when the Summerworks Festival had its Heritage Department funding pulled with no information given as to why.

This follows a series of co-ordinated attacks on the festival by SUN Media and even The Prime Minister himself, some of which I wrote about last August, when the performance of the play Homegrown by Catherine Frid, about a lawyer’s relationship with a man convicted of terrorism, was being used as a smokescreen to deflect attention from public outrage over the discontinuation of the long-form census.

Last week, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty followed up the Summerworks announcement with this statement:

“One thing I’d say, and maybe it’s different than it used to be, is we actually don’t believe in festivals and cultural institutions assuming that year after year after year they’ll receive government funding. They ought not assume entitlement to grants … no organization should assume in their budgeting that every year the government of Canada is going to give them grants because there’s lots of competition, lots of other festivals, and there are new ideas that come along. So it’s a good idea for everyone to stay on their toes and not make that assumption.”

While it may seem reasonable to suggest that arts organizations shouldn’t simply expect automatic renewal of funding, there is no argument to be made for this kind of  cut to an organization with a strong record of meeting and exceeding its mandate, announcing consecutive years of record-breaking attendance and growth.

The cumulative message behind the Summerworks axe and the statement by the Finance Minister could not be more clear:

If you create work that critiques the Harper Government – we will take away your funding.

So begins what will likely be a challenging era for cultural institutions that are committed to making groundbreaking work which may (gasp) challenge the dominant value system – or just aren’t interested in being propagandists for a mean-spirited regime designed to respond to the commands of a leader who cannot tolerate criticism. When L’Etat C’est Moi is the rule of the day – and Moi has a big problem with people putting on plays about ideas he doesn’t agree with – Houston We Have A Problem.

Of course the argument is being presented that this is freeing up funds to support new ideas – but anyone who knows anything about the way the cultural ecosystem functions knows this is complete hogwash: Stripping Summerworks of $43,000 in funding to free up $500,000 for The Walk of Fame Festival is like declaring yourself pro-Rain, but anti-Cloud.

Even if we accept for a moment that promoting already famous people like Alex Trebek is a good idea that needs support from taxpayer dollars, how on earth do they imagine artists on very rare occasions become famous? They struggle to hone their craft in festivals devoted to groundbreaking work just like Summerworks, which has an extraordinary record as the birthplace for a number of the most exciting new works in Canadian performance. Last year’s Summerworks hit, Ride The Cyclone, recently announced an off-Broadway deal as a direct result of participating in Summerworks.

After traveling from Victoria BC to Toronto to participate in the National Series at Summerworks, Atomic Vaudeville's 'Ride The Cyclone' get a chance to take their show to NYC.

Almost none of the artists involved in Summerworks will be paid a living wage. Practically everyone doing a Summerworks show is working a second/third job and knows the best they can hope for financially is a small honorarium and that the show will go on to have a greater life after the festival. Everyone participating does it anyhow – because they know that Summerworks is an important place for new contemporary performance in Canada.

All of this is to say giving Summerworks the axe is an extremely poor approach to public policy and the cultural equivalent of poisoning the well.

The immediate impact of this politically motivated intervention in cultural policy is that ticket prices will go up and the marketing budget will go down. All tickets, including for the Praxis Theatre/The Original Norwegian Co-Pro, You Should Have Stayed Home, are now going up by 50% to $15. ($10 + $5 FST*) *Free Speech Tax. Summerworks is also in the midst of a grassroots fundraising campaign you can participate in here.

Canadian Actors Equity Association’s Executive Director Arden R. Ryshpan was the first member of the theatre community to respond to the situation with a statement released by CAEA last week:

“It is hard to interpret the Minister’s statement as anything but a threat and a potential ideological attack on the arts. I don’t recall seeing similar statements made about long-term government support to other industries such as forestry, fisheries or mining. Given that our industry is larger than all three of these sectors combined, we deserve better from our Government including meaningful consultation leading to thoughtful program change and development, if required. An off-the-cuff remark by a Minister alluding to substantial change of practice is shocking and imprudent.”

Artists across the country have also independently begun to respond positively and pro-actively to the situation. The Globe and Mail reports Western Edge Theatre in Nanaimo, B.C. will perform a public reading of Homegrown on July 15 with all proceeds going to The Summerworks Festival.

Multi Dora-winning Shaw and Tarragon playwright Michael Healey has sent out a call to action to all Artistic Directors of organizations that receive Federal arts funding to join Western Edge Theatre in performing a reading of the play, whether or not they participate in the fundraising initiative. Healey has offered to provide scripts and keep a list of participating companies so that the initiative can continue to gain momentum.

This is not the type of storm theat can be weathered by hoping they won’t come for you. Or if they do survive it that way – lets talk about how relevant the work those theatres end up putting on will be. Will Stephen Harper’s vision of Canada be the only art that forms partnerships with the government? The final sentence of Michael Healey’s message to AD’s of Canadian Theatres urging them to participate in a nationwide reading of Homegrown expresses best the necessity of a national response to this attack on Canadian culture:

“If you find yourself anxious about the potential ramifications for your own company’s federal funding as a consequence of taking part in this demonstration, I can think of no better reason for participating in it.”

October 14, 2010, by
1 comment


Photo by Rob Huntley

You might not know it reading this space lately, but Toronto is not the only municipality having a municipal election in Ontario on October 25th. In fact they all are!

To celebrate their civic conundrum, The Wrecking Ball crew in Ottawa has put together an event for the occasion with new political works by Pierre Brault, Todd Duckworth, Kris Joseph, Catriona Leger, Kevin Loring, Glenn Nuotio, Alix Sideris and Dennis Van Staalduinen. All proceeds are split between Actor’s Fund of Canada and Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Meanwhile here in Toronto, political heads are spinning following the release of a new ICAN-Reid Poll that shows Pantalone solidly in first place with Ford and Smitherman tied a distant second. It remains unclear what effect this will have on other electoral conversations going on in the theatrosphere in places like here and here.

September 30, 2010, by

OCAD's lobby became the overflow room to the overflow room

OCAD's lobby became the overflow room to the overflow room. Photo: Sarah Mulholland

by Michael Wheeler

The biggest benefit of last night’s Mayoral Arts Debate organized by ArtsVote is the massive interest there was in the event itself. The doors opened at 5pm. At 5:10pm the room was declared at capacity and attendees were directed to an overflow room at OCAD. Next the overflow room itself began to overflow before being declared at capacity at 5:40pm. Anyone after that occupied the OCAD lobby, which became the overflow room for the overflow room. An estimated 1750 streamed it live on their computers, while 540 others watched it since.

All told, this untelevised debate attracted an audience of over 3000 active and engaged citizens. This will matter much more a year from now when the elected members decide which election promises to keep and which will shatter on the altar of “hard economic times”.  Clearly this is an issue that the populace is engaged in and is willing to organize around. In short, and this is the only thing that really matters around City Hall, there can be tangible political consequences to politicians who dismiss the arts as inconsequential.

James Di Fiore is a mayoral candidate with a mission to improve citizen engagement by those under thirty five.

James Di Fiore spoke at the AGO as a mayoral candidate with a mission to improve citizen engagement in civic politics by 18-35 year olds.

Praxis Theatre was tweeting the whole debate if you’re looking for a play by play of the he said, he said, and a video replay is streamable here, but post-debate chat unanimously agreed the candidates presented a series of lacklustre performances due to the absence of both substance to the discussion and charisma or a sense of leadership on anyone’s part. Ford said a couple of outrageous things that were by no means the craziest things he’s ever said, and the other contenders managed to snipe at one another in a way that no one looked like a hero.

A bright spot to the evening was James Di Fiore, the candidate invited to participate through an online poll on the ArtsVote website. Admitting he had no chance to become mayor, he addressed the fact that in the previous civic election 18% of eligible voters under 35 participated.  His main thrust was that the problem is not apathy, but a belief amongst this cohort that political engagement is a waste of their time as the discourse does not address them or their issues. None of the other candidates addressed these concerns, which pretty much reinforced the notion that James was correct in his analysis.

With major arts policy announcements earlier in the day, both Rossi and Smitherman announced their arts and culture platforms, which they both refer to as their “Creative City” plans, referencing the city’s 2003 Creative City culture plan. Heavily influenced by the ideas of Martin Prosperity Institute Director Richard Florida, it suggests that arts and culture can improve a city’s economy by improving its “creativity index”. Separate from the highly suspect nature of the premises Florida uses to support these claims, last night it allowed these candidates to use broad platitudes about contributing to both the “soul” and the “economic engine” of the city without saying much of substance.

Most candidates agreed to increase cultural funding from $17 to $25 per capita, which is exactly what councillors have solemnly resolved to do for quite some time while not actually doing it, so this was hardly earth shattering territory. Rossi tried to distinguish himself in this regard by committing to making the increase in his first year as mayor and have it up to $33 by the end of his (highly theoretical at this point) mandate.

The most memorable moment of the evening occurred when Rob Ford suggested holding fundraising dinners as a substitute for arts funding. Until that point the audience had been fairly civil and respectful to a candidate that had aggressively attacked the arts as a councillor at City Hall, but the crowd couldn’t resist responding with a pretty solid “Boo” from all corners of the room to this remark. Praxis Artistic Producer Aislinn Rose later noted: “It was like suggesting to an aspiring actor to consider getting a job at Stratford.” We had thought of that one a little while ago.

Skip ahead to 4:40 to see Praxis Board Member Bridget Macintosh explain the Praxis Gourmet Dinner fundraising events we’ve been holding since 2004. Complete with slides!

This will be remembered as the debate that no one could get into it was such a hot ticket. Blog TO reports that even some media were initially being turned away as the debate began due to capacity issues, and accounts from the overflow room suggest a boisterous crowd responding vocally to each performance. As the numbers attest, this was AN EVENT.

The whole evening was possible due to some impressive work by ArtsVote, a volunteer advocacy group that has already been influential in civic politics as a force that contributed to Barbara Hall’s successful run for mayor. The focus and media attention this debate brought to the cultural community and the issues of arts funding this election solidify ArtsVote as a major player in Toronto elections by forcing politicians to explain their cultural positions in a high profile venue under a bright media spotlight.

Tip O’ The Hat ArtsVote.

September 29, 2010, by
1 comment

debate drawing

Things you should know about today’s Toronto Mayoral candidate debate:

* All the major contenders have confirmed. The debate will be moderated by Jim Fleck.

* Read this excellent backgrounder on the event by Torontoist Senior Editor Hamutal Dotan.

* Arrive at The Art Gallery of Ontario early: Doors open at 5pm, the debate starts at 6pm, it finishes at 7:30pm.

* If you can’t get in because it’s packed – head to OCAD room 230 where they will be livestreaming the debate.

* Bring your friends. Turnout for the debate will indicate, in some broad  way, support for arts and culture in the city.

* Post-debate drinks are at Sin and Redemption across the street on McCaul.

* If you can’t make it at all, Torontoist is livestreaming the debate live on their website.

* Do not attack the Borg. Shooting (or insulting) the Borg only makes them stronger.

August 25, 2010, by

Someone forgot to tell the PM that encouraging Nickeback actually reduces Canadian culture...or did they?

Someone forgot to tell the PM that encouraging Nickelback actually reduces Canadian culture...or did they?

by Michael Wheeler

Shortly after the 2008 Federal election, Peter Donolo, soon-to-be Chief of Staff to Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, addressed a select group of executive directors and organizational leaders at an industry seminar organized by The Arts Advocate. In his role as pollster for The Globe and Mail during the election, Donolo had accumulated extensive data on the arts and how it had impacted the race. One piece of information from his presentation produced audible exhalations and dismayed nodding of heads:

The highest polling numbers the Harper campaign ever saw in the province of Ontario were on the day after his Ordinary People Don’t Care About The Arts statement (Sept 24/08).

However much it seems retrospectively the comments were a careless slip that may have cost the government a majority, the reality is there was an emotional resonance to this message that initially gave him momentum in a battleground province. Eventually, these numbers receded in the weeks before voters went to the polls, leaving the merged Canadian Alliance and PC parties short of a majority government with the support of just over one third of the electorate.

Seen in this context, comments made by the PM to the national media that he was “concerned” by Catherine Frid’s play Homegrown at the 2010 Summerworks Festival begin to fit into the government’s larger agenda as a strategic exercise by a government no longer able to communicate through rational discourse.  These comments point to a desire to use emotionally charged signposts to frame discussions and talking points, rather than the merits of programs and policies based on data or logic.

Will we talk about the arts next election in relation to harnessing our imaginations and creativity within a complex and multidimensional culture? Or will we discuss the arts in relation to whether we should use tax dollars to support terrorism? These are the types of paradigms that are being established in the discourse leading up to the next election.

If Harper succeeds in connecting arts funding and supporting terrorism, it will fit in well with a campaign that paints public funding for political parties to replace the influence of massive donations by corporations and unions as supporting separatism, a coalition government as advocating socialism, and an inquiry into the largest series of civil rights violations in Canadian history at G20 as supporting anarchism.

Of course none of these references are true, but it doesn’t matter. Every mainstream reviewer who saw Homegrown went out of their way to specifically address the allegations by the PM and his office that the play “glorified terrorism”. Each one reached the identical explicit conclusion that the play in no way justified or supported terrorism. What matters is that arts funding and taking a “sympathetic” view of terrorism are now a cultural meme that some people will remember. Mission accomplished.

This type of highly emotional and dramatic hyperbole will be backed up by an impressive war chest accumulated by the Conservative Party that has been significantly out-fundraising the opposition since fall 2008. In the lead up to the next election, this will back a multi-million dollar wave of negative ads in every media geared at emotional flashpoints in an effort to define complex policy issues with simple narratives that elicit a kneejerk response from sub-cortical “reptilian” elements of the brain.

By hoping to communicate with voters through fight or flight stimuli, the goal is to avoid any rational or substantive debate. Next year, without any reliable or detailed information available through the census, there will be even less data available to evaluate and discuss policies and programs. The heavily partisan bent of the Harper government has forced it to abdicate a knowledge-based discussion of their policies, save a few economic statistics that neglect to mention the sizeable budget surplus Canada had when they took the reins of government and the huge deficit they have generated five years later.

When Kory Teneycke (l) was Communications Director fo the PM they lunched with Fox News President Rupert Murdoch. Four months later he left his position to lead Quebecor Media's attempt to rewrite CRTC rules to start a "Fox News North".

When Kory Teneycke (l) was Communications Director to the PM they both lunched in NYC with Fox News President Rupert Murdoch. Four months later he left his position to lead Quebecor Media's attempt to rewrite CRTC rules in their favour to start Fox News North, which he is pictured announcing.

This embrace by Conservative strategists of US Tea Party-style political tactics is set to be joined by the biggest weapon in regressive populist media: Our very own Fox News. Upset that the current CRTC head won’t fast track a special Category 1 licence for a national TV station to be run by Harper’s previous spokesperson, Harper is set to replace him with someone who is willing to break CRTC rules to allow him a national TV station dedicated to supporting and propagating his ideology.

Who owns the station “applying” for this licence? You guessed it: SUN Media. The very same SUN Media that created the Homegrown controversy in their Toronto newspaper and scandalously asked Harper about the play with one of only two English language questions available to the media in Harper’s first comments to the country in over a month. It has since been revealed that virtually every other journalist in attendance had already agreed to ask him about the census. (What the entire national media didn’t think Canadians from coast-to-coast were dying to hear the PMs thoughts on a summer indie theatre festival?)

There is an unfortunate logic to politics that right-wing parties are succeeding when they are talking about the military and the economy, and failing when they talk about things like education, healthcare and culture. By framing culture as a “spending” and  “national security” issue they are effectively taking a topic that is a loser for them and turning it into a winner. Combine that with the strong numbers in Ontario after Harper’s anti-arts statements in 2008 and the fact the Conservatives have given up completely in Quebec, and we may be looking at another election where arts and culture is again under attack.

This is not necessarily a great strategy for Harper – where last election arts and culture supporters were caught off guard being attacked by their own government, this election they will be organized, have lists of active supporters in every major city, and have identified leaders and organizing strategies that target swing ridings. They are also way better than them at gaining earned media and using the internet. At the end of the day, it will be up to the opposition, the non-Quebecor owned press, and civil society to shift the debate out of the highly emotional, into factual analysis of the policies and parties that will best serve the country.

Lately, it has been the subject of some media as to whether an emotional, ideologically-based discussion of policies and programs can become a substitute for rational debate that includes data and information.

It can not.