Opinion: It’s a bittersweet celebration in Doug Ford’s Ontario for festivals

A group performs on the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival main stage in Confederation Park.

When Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government took the reins of power at Queen’s Park, they said they would do things differently.

So citizens have watched the new Tory regime end the previous government’s cap and trade scheme that was aimed at controlling carbon emissions. They have gone to war over the federal carbon tax and produced a plan that looks a lot like — wait for it — a carbon tax.

They moved quickly to cut finding for municipal services only to find that communities across the province were going to be devastated by the decision. They had to roll that one back.

Now, wielding a ham-fisted axe, the ministry of tourism has devastated festivals across the province with a drastic cut in the number of Celebrate Ontario grants for 2019. And in some cases they are handing the money out after the festivals have ended. This year some 250 festivals will share more than $13 million. Last year, more than $20 million went to a record 328 festivals. (It’s worth noting that the Ford Nation folks have already cut the Ontario Arts Council by some $5 million).

It’s not all bad news. In the Ottawa area, important festivals have received Celebrate Ontario money:

The Ottawa International Writers Festival ($52,000), the Ottawa Children’s Festival ($98,000), RBC Bluesfest ($250,000) along with sister festivals CityFolk ($250,000) and the Ontario Festival of Small Halls ($61,500). The Music and Beyond festival picked up $236,900 according to the list provided by the ministry.

But others have not been so lucky.

The government can choose to fund whomever it sees fit, but when arts organizations work hard to build a community presence and help develop a tourist draw for a community — and have been funded for years — there is a measure of consternation and confusion that emerges when the government changes its mind.

The TD Ottawa Jazz Festival has been receiving Celebrate Ontario grants for years. Executive Director Catherine O’Grady told Ottawa media that the festival expected to have that continue after conversations with provincial government officials that they have worked with for years. They spent money based on that assumption.

Perhaps that was naive, but there was no indication of trouble on the horizon until May 31 when the list was published three weeks from the beginning of the event. That’s too late; that’s not fair.

The festival is now scrambling for options. This latest bit of bad news comes on top of a few seasons of bad weather that had cut into ticket sales and a move out of the Jazz Festival’s traditional, and very popular, Confederation Park venue. There is also some doubt about whether the festival will be allowed back in the park following a review of properties by the National Capital Commission.

The Bank Street weekend party that is Glowfair is also not receiving a grant this year and that will result in the elimination of a stage.

Consider the case of the 66 year old Ottawa Tulip Festival, which annually pulls in about 650,000 visitors. They were denied after the 2019 event was over. How do they make that shortfall up now?

When the Ford government launched its review of spending, decisions on programs that fund groups were delayed several weeks. As the dominoes have fallen, the announcement of the decision on Celebrate Ontario funding was pushed back and is now woefully tardy.

Brett Weltman, press secretary for Michael Tibollo, the province’s minister of tourism, culture and sport, told the Ottawa Citizen, that the government’s emphasis this year is on funding new festivals, not-for-profit organizations, year-round events and a greater number of events in rural and Northern Ontario.

“We made sure to provide funding to those festivals and events that demonstrate a clear return on investment, respect for taxpayer dollars, and were focused on increasing tourism in the province of Ontario,” Weltman said.

That’s a cruelly ironic statement for events such as the Jazz Festival that will be holding its 39th event this summer and that draws people to Ottawa from across Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec and beyond.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson summed up the consternation in a statement:

“These funding announcements come two months later than usual, at a time when festival season is well underway. These cuts will undoubtedly affect our festivals’ ability to deliver quality programming this year — and for those that were hardest hit, survive in the future.”

He pledged to work with the Ottawa Festival Network to “assess the local impact and consider next steps to engage with the Government of Ontario on the matter.”

Let’s hope that engagement is not too late for some.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.