The Conservatives, Bloc Québecois and the Green Party were no-shows at Wednesday night’s art and culture debate at the University of Ottawa.
Seated beside each other, Ottawa-Vanier Liberal Mauril Bélanger and Ottawa Centre’s NDP incumbent Paul Dewar remarked on the absence of the opposing parties.
“They did this in my riding with an issue on immigration, as well as last night there was a forum — well attended – and they didn’t show up,” Dewar said about the Conservatives.
Dewar added that their absence was disappointing “because of the importance of the arts.”
Though a debate with candidates from different ridings seemed strange, organizer Alain Pineau, national director of the Canadian Conference of the Arts, said that was planned from the beginning.
“(We) deliberately avoided inviting people who were fighting each other in a riding,” said Pineau.
He added that at least five Conservatives were invited to the debate, as well as representatives from both the Green Party and Bloc Québecois, but all declined.
Among the topics discussed at the debate included increased funding for arts and aboriginal communities, copyright laws and the Canadian cultural identity.
“Without arts we are nothing,” said Dewar.
“Go through our day-to-day life and what it means to you. It’s about stories, narratives and expression. It’s the ability to see ourselves in different ways. We can’t do that unless we have support for the arts.”
Both candidates spoke to plans to increase funding for arts if elected: the Liberals plan to double the current $180 million arts budget over four years, and the NDP plan to increase arts funding by $90 million over four years.
First-time voter Brandon Kenned asked about the tendency for Canadian artists to seek commercial success in the U.S.
“(Artists) leave because there’s not money to support them,” said Dewar. “Let’s give them platforms here and give Canadians opportunity to see our art.”
Bélanger disagreed, saying that part of the success of Canadians such as Margaret Atwood, Sarah McLachlan or Shania Twain has been because their art has been exported.
“If you’re going to have the domestic capacity, it’ll enhance it by being able to export,” he said.
Centretown resident Gerard Delisle, 61, lamented the hardships of experiencing art in Canada when fees act as a barrier.
Dewar agreed, mentioning Ottawa’s Westfest as an opportunity for the community to engage with artists and their art.
“It’s so profoundly important that we don’t lose that (engaging with artists) and that we continue to grow and support it,” said Dewar.
A mostly youthful audience gradually shifted the discussion to the role youth have in deciding the results of the May 2 election.
Third-year political science student Taylor Breau asked the candidates their thoughts on the recent VoteMob campaign that has taken place at several universities across Canada, including Carleton University and the University of Ottawa.
“I find it peculiar that none of the party leaders have addressed the VoteMob situations,” she said.
Bélanger took Breau’s question as an opportunity to speak about the Liberal’s proposed “learning passport” program.
“Any young person that qualifies to go to college or university would be given $1,000 per year to pay for tuition over four years,” he said.
Dewar took a different approach, citing the need for politicians to re-engage youth.
“It’s often we (politicians) blast out and amplify, but it’s about connecting back and forth,” said Dewar.
Bélanger took the Conservative absence as an opportunity to warn the audience about potential funding cuts for arts if the Conservatives win majority.
“If they (Conservatives) form the government we can expect very significant cuts and Ottawa will be the prime target,” Bélanger suggested.
He added that Canadians “have every reason to be worried.”
The next all-candidates debate is scheduled for April 28 at St. Paul University.