OTTAWA – “Gala” has been a real four-letter word for the Harper Conservatives since the last election – the gathering of the tuxedoed and bejewelled for cultural events branded as elitist.
But if this Saturday’s Governor General’s Awards for the Performing Arts are any indication, galas might back in political vogue.
High-profile members of the Conservative cabinet are on the guest list, as is Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s wife, Laureen.
Some observers see it as an attempted thaw in relations between the government and the arts community, which has been highly critical of the Tories.
“Maybe it’s a belated acknowledgment that it’s not just gala, but that it’s celebrating something that is important to Canadians,” said Alain Pineau, national director of the Canadian Conference of the Arts.
“Apparently the public relations side of the (National Arts Centre) has been extremely active, and I can only presume there has been a green light by the Prime Minister’s Office.”
Those on the guest list include: Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Environment Minister Jim Prentice, Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and government Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton.
Heritage Minister James Moore is scheduled to give remarks at the event.
“When you have moments of recognition like this, I think it’s important for myself and other ministers to come up and show our support for arts and culture,” Moore said Tuesday.
Moore, MacKay, Prentice and Raitt have been the subject of rampant conjecture around Parliament Hill on who might run to succeed Harper in a future Conservative leadership contest.
Other expected guests are Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, NDP Leader Jack Layton, and Green party Leader Elizabeth May.
The ceremony and reception celebrate the lifetime achievements of a half-dozen performers, including dance luminary Peggy Baker, Acadian songstress Edith Butler, and Quebec playwright and director Robert LePage.
There are also awards for volunteerism and for extraordinary work over the past year.
Baker said she has been alarmed by cuts to the arts – particularly the PromArt program at Foreign Affairs that helped artists showcase their work abroad.
She said there’s a great difference between galas and the artists they celebrate and support who are often struggling in a hand-to-mouth existence.
“It’s a complete red herring in my life, to put on an evening dress and go somewhere,” said Baker, an acclaimed contemporary dancer, choreographer and teacher.
“That’s not what my life is like. I’m honoured to be celebrated in the arts in that way, but that does not typify what my life is like.”
Harper inspired the chill on galas during the last campaign, condemning artists who clamoured for more money while they attended “rich galas” subsidized by taxpayers. Harper drew a distinction from the gala crowd, and “hard-working Canadians.”
The government had just cut $45 million from a range of arts programs, ones that it said were not delivering value for money. It reinvested funds in other cultural areas, but the controversy over Harper’s remarks and the cuts would not go away in Quebec.
The debacle was widely believed to have cost the Conservatives potential new seats in the province and possibly a majority.
Tension with the arts community was palpable for a spell.
Laureen Harper and other ministers were no-shows at the National Arts Centre fundraiser that occurred shortly after Harper made his remarks. Ditto for this spring’s Prix Jutra and Genie Awards, honours for excellence in Quebec and Canadian filmmaking respectively.
The Governor General’s awards could be the big ice-breaker.
“I think it’s because many politicians of all parties think that supporting the arts…is not a right or a left issue,” said Jayne Watson, director of communications for the National Arts Centre, the location for the event.
“It’s a reflection of the respect that ministers and parliamentarians have for the artists.”