OTTAWA – Oscar nominee Sarah Polley and other prominent members of Canada’s entertainment industry took centre stage in Parliament on Thursday to denounce a federal bill they decried as censorship.
They appeared before a Senate hearing on legislation that would allow the federal government to deny tax credits to film or television productions deemed offensive.
The response from the Conservative Party of Canada was terse and combative.
The party issued a press release attacking Polley’s left-wing political ties and suggested the artists had no business telling “hard-working Canadians” how their tax dollars should be spent .
Earlier Thursday, Polley had said controversial provisions of Bill C-10 would force Canadian productions out of the country and said they must be changed.
“Any whiff of censorship is chilling for us,” she told a news conference before the Senate hearing.
“It’s the job of artists to provoke and to challenge. Part of the responsibility of being an artist is to create work that will inspire dialogue, suggest that people examine their long-held positions and, yes, occasionally offend in order to do so.”
The actress, who is also an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter, said the government should respect the decisions of the arm’s-length agencies Telefilm Canada and the Canadian Television Fund.
As it stands, producers apply for a bank loan for the production of a film or television show and get a government credit only after the show is complete, if they meet Canadian content rules.
The new legislation would give government the power to revoke the credits if the project is judged unacceptable.
The artists told politicians that such a change would send a chill throughout the industry and deter financial institutions from lending money in the first place.
Polley said that she would not have a career if not for public money, and that few Canadian productions would ever be made if they had to rely entirely on the private sector.
Fellow actress Wendy Crewson told the news conference that artists in every country – except India and the United States – rely on public money.
“If you pull public financing from the arts, we will lose it. We will have no Canadian voice,” Crewson said.
She has starred in a number of Hollywood films including the “Santa Clause” movies with Tim Allen, and the popular television series 24.
She was also featured in “Away from Her,” which Polley directed and for which she received her Oscar nomination.
“When censorship, historically, has ever been introduced – and always with the best of intentions – it never goes right,” Crewson said.
“We do not want to open that gate in any capacity, under any government.”
Polley noted the legislation could subject Canadian films to a funding clawback if they offend the government, but U.S.-based projects filmed in Canada would be free from similar restrictions.
“This so-called hammer of morality would only apply to home-grown productions,” she said.
“These provisions were not thought through with much rigour.”
The government has responded to the critics by noting that the controversial provision was first announced by the Liberals but never enacted before the 2004 election.
The Conservatives placed the measure in Bill C-10 – a sweeping 568-page omnibus bill containing a multitude of taxation changes.
It was adopted by the House of Commons with little fanfare. The opposition parties appeared not to notice the film measure until after the bill passed.
To become law, it must now receive approval from the Senate, the upper chamber dubbed the home of sober second thought by Sir John A. Macdonald.
“I don’t know how we can give sober second thought. There was no first thought given to this bill,” said Liberal Senator George Baker.
Heritage Minister Josee Verner says the new regulation would impact few movies, and she promises a one-year grace period before the measure would be used.
In the meantime, she says she would work with the entertainment industry to draw up more precise definitions of what projects would be deemed too offensive to receive federal money.
Not all Conservatives were in such a conciliatory mood. The party put out a press release that took particular aim at Polley.
She has been a vocal supporter of the NDP, and once lost a pair of teeth when a riot squad aggressively broke up an anti-Mike Harris protest she was participating in outside the Ontario legislature.
“Individuals with vested personal and political interests should be honest with Canadians on what their true intentions are,” said Pierre Poilievre, an Ottawa-area MP.
“Hard-working Canadians are growing increasingly tired of special interest groups telling them what to do.”
He said that if film-makers want to produce pornographic or excessively violent material, they’re still free to do it on their own dime.