Saturday, June 26, 2010

What's His Role?

Alberta’s Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett’s blunt assessment of Alberta’s film and television industries pulled no punches. Speaking at the Banff World Television Festival he said, "I sit here as a government representative for film and television in the province of Alberta and I look at what we produce, and if we're honest with ourselves ... I look at it and say, 'Why do I produce so much sh**t? Why do I fund so much crap?”
Those remarks received a lot of media attention. Most film and industry leaders agreed that the remarks were ill timed and delivered in a venue that embarrassed Alberta’s cultural community.
Yet his remarks raise a bigger question. Are his comments accurate? Is Alberta’s film industry producing “crap”? And if so, what does “non-crap” look like?
These are important questions for Alberta’s creative community to consider. Is it the role of the creative to produce work that makes folks feel comfortable and appeals to a broad spectrum of people; or is it to push the edges as it portrays the realities of life? Is it appropriate for government ministers providing funding for the arts to bluntly criticize the work of Alberta’s creatives? Should he or she who pays the piper call the tune?
The reality is that the creative's role in the restaurant of community living is to provide both comfort food and new-age cuisine. There will always be those who produce mainstream art that the masses enjoy, and there will be those that tweak and twang our sensibilities and sensitivities. What often gets forgotten is that yesterday’s radical- hello Wolfie Mozart- often becomes tomorrow’s Old Master.
Where the cheese gets binding is when public money funds the arts. Expecting a politician not to pander to his base is akin to expecting a dog not to chase rabbits- to a point.
That point comes when the politician becomes a cabinet minister. Cabinet ministers should be local, national, and international champions for the communities of interest in their portfolios.
Being a champion means that the minister does not publicly trash the efforts of the communities of interest represented in his / her portfolio. Should Agriculture Minister Jack Hayden speak to the International Beef Congress and say that Alberta’s beef mostly sucks? What if Tourism Minister Cindy Ady told a panel discussion on Canadian tourist destinations that Banff and Jasper were highly overrated?
Do you get my drift? The problem here is not the quality of Alberta’s film and television output. That industry is doing what the creative process and its’ marketplace always does- provide both a reflective and visionary perspective on our life and times. Perhaps the problem is simply that the Minister needs reminding that he’s not the television and film critic for the Calgary Sun.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Duke's Lesson

There are very few old-time ranchers who, when facing St. Peter at the gates of the Holy Corral, won’t confess to ignoring the messages sent by a willing horse. I’m talking about the times when the rider ignores his horse’s signals regarding the operating environment.
Years ago, I ignored the warnings of my buckskin partner Duke and sent us down an ice-slicked slope in pursuit of a runaway cow. We wiped out halfway down, and Duke and I parted company as we slid down the slope. When he got to his feet, Duke was favoring his hind leg. The look he gave me spoke volumes.
Although Duke was soon as fleet and savvy as ever, I never again over-rode his judgment. I learned the consequences of ignoring the messages of the willing horse.
Alberta’s political leaders might consider this lesson as they ponder the message sent to them by the Wandering River Volunteer Fire Department. The Wandering River crew recently announced that they were taking a “time out” from providing highway emergency response service along Highway 63 on the way to Fort McMurray. Along with protecting the lives and property of the folks at Wandering River, the fire crew was making an overwhelming number of trips for serious vehicle collisions along the high-accident highway. Sheri Johnson, the department's acting fire chief, said on average, there is one serious accident on the stretch of Highway 63 every week — and most volunteers aren't capable of handling the often-bloody outcomes. "There are a lot of people who don't feel it's the volunteer's job to be scraping people up off the highway, which is what we've done a fair amount of," she said. "A lot of people just can't handle it."
Ms. Johnson’s comments are spot-on. Volunteers in rural Alberta should not be expected to carry out difficult and dangerous tasks performed in urban Alberta by paid professionals. Volunteering to fight fires within one’s own community is much different than serving as first responders to the carnage on Highway 63.
Why are local volunteers shouldering such a complex and difficult burden? Is it simply because they live alongside this under-sized and over-used ribbon of blacktop? If that’s the case, why aren’t those industries whose operations drive the traffic load assuming more of the burden? They don’t because governments coping with “bust cycles” download complex and risky responsibilities such as highway first response to the volunteer sector in rural areas.
There is a more than a whiff of arrogance and entitlement about government and industry’s approach to the volunteer sector. Both know that community volunteers save many, many millions of tax dollars otherwise paid for by industry and / or taxpayers. Yet they regard the volunteer horse as impervious to overwork and abuse.
The Wandering River Fire Department has just sent a very strong signal to government and industry. You can ride a willing horse too hard. Will government and industry listen and respond with the same courage shown every day by Alberta’s volunteer fire departments? Across Alberta, other community volunteers will be carefully watching. Like any old-time rancher knows- one should never ignore the message from a willing horse.