The 21st century politician has one critical role: to lobby for and stand in defence of his or her constituency and its residents.
The average backbencher at the provincial level will also draw some committee work, and occasionally get to voice their opinions on cabinet-directed policy initiatives.
The average backbencher at the federal level has even less meaningful work to perform in Ottawa, outside of constituency support.
So any criticism of the inability of Red Deer and its various community organizations to attract public funding — across a wide spectrum from culture to sports — should be directed primarily at three people: Red Deer MP Earl Dreeshen, Red Deer North MLA Mary Anne Jablonski and Red Deer South MLA Cal Dallas.
It is noteworthy that all three are members of a ruling party, not members of the opposition. It is also noteworthy that Red Deer has voted solidly conservative (Reform, Canadian Alliance and Conservative), at both the provincial and federal levels, for decades. In Alberta, the Progressive Conservatives have formed the government for almost 40 consecutive years. Jablonski is also a cabinet minister, responsible for the seniors portfolio.
This week, the operators of The Matchbox theatre announced that they would be shutting their doors at the end of May. Principally, they cite a lack of public funding support.
According to the federal government records for the fiscal year ending last March (the last period available), no federal money was given to The Matchbox to run its varied musical, theatrical and film programs.
According to provincial government records, The Matchbox received $4,204 from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts for “community presenting” in the 2010-2011 fiscal year, and another $40,000 from the Community Facility Enhancement Program for “facility upgrades.” Facility upgrades represent a one-time cost that doesn’t influence programming (however, the money, like the improvements, is lost if the facility is abandoned).
The Matchbox management say they applied for two other provincial grants. They were refused.
If The Matchbox closes as anticipated, a significant part of the community’s cultural character will be lost. In the next eight weeks alone, eight different events are planned for the 120-seat theatre, which has become a hub for a wide array of performances that have attracted a fervent following and broadened the cultural landscape in this community.
The theatre’s funding woes are symbolic of a local pattern in political paucity, despite our longtime support for the ruling party.
Red Deer received $74,106 in Canada Council for the Arts grants for the fiscal year 2009, or 82 cents per resident.
Less than $1.8 million came to various city groups in provincial cultural grants in the 2010-2011 fiscal year, for an average of $19.66 per person per year.
Almost every comparison reflects badly on Red Deer.
In the same fiscal periods, Lethbridge received $406,250 in federal money, for an average of $4.72 per person (better than five times that received in Red Deer). And it drew just shy of $2 million in provincial money, for an average of $23 per person.
Medicine Hat got just $41,500 in federal money (74 cents a person) but a whopping $1.64 million from the province, or $29.30 per person.
Brooks received $410,000 in provincial funding, for a per-person average of $27.33.
The Calgary Exhibition and Stampede Ltd. alone received almost $9.4 million from the provincial government’s cultural grant program. (Red Deer’s Westerner Exposition Association received $258,000 from the province.)
Grande Prairie got $128,450 in federal money, or $2.57 per person.
Prince Albert, Sask., got $89,000 in federal money, or $2.54 per person.
Brandon, Man., got $133,370 in federal money, or $2.90 per person.
Kelowna, B.C., got $250,835 in federal money, or $2.36 per person.
Peterborough, Ont., got $325,625 in federal money, or $4.34 per person.
Guelph, Ont., got $416,150 in federal money, or $3.62 per person.
Sherbrooke, Que., got $306,840 in federal money, or $2.11 per person.
Moncton, N.B., got $536,815 in federal money, or $2.60 per person.
In general, Red Deer’s federal cultural funding falls short in comparisons with every region of the country.
The federal government is even parsimonious when it comes to its Small Business Finance Centre funding in its Arts and Entertainment category. Of the 22 grants and loan recipients from Alberta in this category, who received a total of $435,226 in the last reported year, no Central Alberta groups received any money.
It’s important to note that this is but a snapshot; it’s possible that other years reflect different funding levels. But most cultural programs require sustained funding to survive.
There is certainly enough blame to go around.
It appears the province has not treated Red Deer organizations fairly when it comes to grant money.
Nor has the federal government.
You may wish to surmise that in both cases it is because Red Deer voters — and their Conservative inclinations — have been taken for granted.
The end result is a shortage of cultural funding in this community, and it is time that shortcoming is addressed.
Red Deer is not that long removed from being named a Cultural Capital (2003, by Canadian Heritage), but every opportunity lost and every venue closed takes us further away from what that title represented.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.