11/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Quebec Says Non to Arts Funding Cuts, Stephen Harper

Did Holy Fuck just cost Stephen Harper a majority government?

When a senior government official leaked in August that the Conservatives were slashing $45 million from the budget for arts funding, that official made explicit reference to the Canadian electronic-rock band. In a literal sense, you can only mention Holy Fuck in an explicit way — and that was in part the hey that Harper hoped to make with more conservative voters from his Prairies base. But it wouldn't be long after that Conservatives would be using the expletive themselves as it's more often heard. Harper, who had hoped to realize his dream of a legislative majority by roughly doubling his party's standings in Quebec, won the election but lost the majority in a blunder that irritated those same Québécoises who were beginning to come around on the Tories.

Looking at polls in August, L. Ian MacDonald offered that "having traded places with the Liberals as the federalist alternative outside Montreal, the Conservatives could argue they have become the block-the-Bloc party, the very case the Liberals used to make." Not only were the Tories leading in Quebec, they promised to pick up seats in Montreal -- at the expense of Bloc Québécois, which was foundering at best. Then came notice that the Tories were cutting arts funding, an announcement that could only hope to appeal to voters in the Prairies and other like-minded provinces beyond Quebec. Seeing an opportunity, BQ leader Gilles Duceppe zeroed in on the eminent threat Harper's Tories posed to Canadian arts -- dropping all talk of separatist fantasies and framing BQ as the alternative that the Tories themselves had hoped to be in Quebec.

It didn't matter that just $15 million of those cuts were aimed at Quebec specifically, or that Holy Fuck is from Toronto. And it hardly mattered that $45 million is a tiny, tiny fraction of the $3.8 billion that Canadians spend on the arts. Though it does make one wonder how much hey Harper thought he could make with this issue even in places where the cuts would be attractive, given the token amount. Nor did Conservatives try to drum up significant outrage to inspire their conservative base. It was just of a gesture to insult Québécoises, but not enough of an issue to motivate anyone else.

However, it was enough to give Duceppe, leader of the flagging BQ, a major wedge issue to galvanize supporters. And as a bonus, it was also enough to ignite Margaret Atwood, Canada's most celebrated author.

By the release of polls in early October, the high-riding Conservatives had lost the lead earned in Quebec to both BQ and the Liberals in Quebec. Editorials published before the eve of the election asking "Has Stephen Harper given up on Quebec?" suggested that the Tories might even need to play defense to hold on to the seats they'd previously won. (They kept the same number of seats they held going in, 11.) While Duceppe and other party leaders joined artists and musicians for protest concerts in Montreal, Harper sang a tune only a tin ear could hear when he defended his position in late September:

You know, I think when ordinary, working people come home, turn on the TV and see . . . a bunch of people at a rich gala all subsidized by the taxpayers, claiming their subsidies aren't high enough when they know the subsidies have actually gone up, I'm not sure that's something that resonates with ordinary people.

All the while, Harper received fierce denunciations from Canada's leading cultural lights. Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan pinned the issue to a broader economic base during an interview with CBC News, noting that the cuts affected "ordinary people" like carpenters and technicians. No critic was fiercer than Handmaid's Tale–author Margaret Atwood, whose late September Globe & Mail editorial blasted Harper, igniting a new round of editorials and analysis inside and outside Quebec. Atwood lent all her literary talents to the harangue, asking probing and earnest questions and, yes, somewhat overblowing the degree to which the Tories' cuts would undermine Canadian arts:

What sort of country do we want to live in? What sort of country do we already live in? What do we like? Who are we?

But she ably undermined Harper's image of wealthy gala attendees being the only Canadians who enjoy the arts.

Did Atwood, Egoyan, and Holy Fuck undermine the culture wedge in Canada? If anything, the issue has revealed that there is an active category of Canadian voters ready to inflate and seize upon an issue of limited political relevance but great symbolic significance. Woe to the Tories: Those social voters aren't social conservatives.