It’s hot. But Rodney MacDonald is as cool as a cucumber. Call him Rodney, he says. And it fits; he’s more relaxed than the photos cached on Google Images, which read like a book with its guts ripped out. Chapter one: a gawky young Cape Breton fiddle player. Chapter 20: a suitably stiff MLA.
MacDonald’s got a fine-looking suit and neatly trimmed hair. He’s in his sixth year as a cabinet minister for John Hamm’s Tories. And he’s seven minutes late for our meeting. There’s not a sign of stress on MacDonald as he apologizes for his tardiness (he ran late at the Halifax Chamber of Commerce State of the Province Address). It’s the last day of November, 12 degrees and according to Environment Canada it should only be four. MacDonald’s handler is sweating bullets. So’s our photographer. I am too. Rodney’s not even flushed.
Twenty-six minutes, 51 seconds later, the meeting’s done. Ministerial commitments, a young family and campaign duties—such as attending events like the Friends of Rodney MacDonald Fundraiser—leave the Inverness native without much spare time.
He’s in his second term as a cabinet minister, but still there’s much people don’t know about Rodney MacDonald—how he envisions the development of Nova Scotia culture, what sports he plays, his favourite colour (blue, duh) and what Nova Scotians can expect of him as our next premier.
He could win. MacDonald could take the February 10-11 Progressive Conservative Leadership Convention and the first minister’s seat that goes with it. Or, a strong showing this year could guarantee him as a shoo-in next time. MacDonald’s young for a politico—33. He’s popular—he was re-elected for his second term in office with the most votes for any politician during that campaign. And he’s well-rounded— his provincial portfolio includes Tourism, Culture, and Heritage; Health Promotion; and Immigration. He’s big on his part in the Hamm Tories’ balanced budgets and he’s a former physical education teacher. He plays “a lot” of hockey and badminton, and he ran a 10-K race last July.
He’s a Caper, which counts in Nova Scotia politics. He’s supported by members of the old school Tory guard (former deputy premier Tom McInnis is backing his campaign). His Inverness roots and relative youth give him a foothold on each side of Nova Scotia’s politically conspicuous urban-rural divide, even if the urban-planted foot is tapping out a jig.
Nova Scotians are expected to go to the polls within months of the Tories’ February convention and MacDonald says if he goes into that election as leader of the PCs his youth will hold him—and the party—in good stead. Especially in Halifax.
“We have a lot of young people living in HRM that want to see our problems move forward and I think I could tap in to some of that attention,” MacDonald says. “That’s one of the reasons, perhaps, that our government hasn’t made as good a connection in HRM.”
MacDonald says he can relate better than Neil LeBlanc and Bill Black, his fellow PC leadership contenders, to “some of the issues that young people often face, such as when they’re getting married or going through university or having children.” LeBlanc, a former Hamm government finance minister, turns 50 this year and former Maritime Life CEO Bill Black is 54.
MacDonald might be young and potentially more in tune with urbanites. But he’s all politician—polite and on-point. Rodney MacDonald serves his media trainers well:
“Balancing the books is something any government should do and I feel that it’s really what you can do by balancing the books that’s important. You can invest in education, you can invest in health care, you can invest in better roads, you can invest in arts and culture and new technologies…”
“I have a great team and we’re looking forward to the days ahead. We’re working very hard. I feel it’s important to get out to every part of the province to speak to people and hear what they have to say. Because if you’re a leader and a premier…”
“There are a few key areas that people focus on, and that are important to me, and that’s health care, education, and as a former teacher myself I understand investment in the education system, and the economy, helping grow new opportunities. And one of the areas I feel is very important…”
But there is a chink in the armour.
Visit rodneymacdonald.com and click on the “Vision” link.
There’s the outline of MacDonald’s commitments. To business. Immigration. Infrastructure. Industry. Education. Health care. And “most importantly” balancing the books. Where’s Tourism, Culture, and Heritage, MacDonald’s signature portfolio?
“Actually, what I did there,” he says, “because you can only say so many things on a statement, I include Tourism, Culture, and Heritage as part of the economic and education plans. So it really falls under those pillars. You can’t throw too many things at people, but I feel very strongly about the cultural side of my portfolio.”
MacDonald moved on assuredly from the oversight, talking about increased investment in the culture sector and Nova Scotia’s cultural export wealth. But the omission of Tourism, Culture, and Heritage—if in name alone—is significant. His impact on Nova Scotia culture is where Rodney MacDonald has made his mark as a cabinet minister and a politician.
Telling the story of Rodney MacDonald’s political career is telling the story of provincially funded cultural development—or lack thereof—in Nova Scotia since he was appointed head of the department in 1999.
Do you want the good news first? Or the bad?
If MacDonald were to be remembered for anything in the arts community at this juncture in his career, it would be the funding his department introduced to support Nova Scotia music.
The name of the program will put you to sleep—it’s the Nova Scotia Music Sector Strategy. But the cash—$3 million over four years—ought to jolt you back to consciousness.
MacDonald, himself a musician and two-time East Coast Music Award nominee for his 1997 album with Glenn Graham, Traditionally Rockin’, adopted the Nova Scotia Music Sector Strategy in 2002.
The Music Sector Strategy report was written by—and for—the Music Industry Association of Nova Scotia, a member-run advocacy group for the provincial music industry.
“The document was done for ourselves,” says MIANS executive director Gordon Lapp, “to help guide us through the next five years. pretty much the state-of-the-industry and a few recommendations.”
MIANS presented the paper to government, and, in Lapp’s words, “the government said, ‘Sure. We’re buying into this.’”
What government bought into was a plan to further develop Nova Scotia’s notoriously vibrant music industry, “in terms of commerce,” Lapp says, “as opposed to culture.”
The Music Sector Strategy’s $3 million is mandated to last through 2008. MIANS administers half the funds to “export-ready” (i.e., established) artists and industry professionals for cost-share projects—either for touring and travelling or for marketing. The Culture Division, one of the three branches of minister MacDonald’s Tourism, Culture, and Heritage portfolio, doles out the other half to emerging artists. So far, MIANS has spent half a million bucks funding 10 industry professionals and 61 musicians including Joel Plaskett, Classified, Jimmy Rankin and Wintersleep. The pay-off? “Sometimes it’s instant,” Lapp says, “and sometimes it isn’t.”
“We assisted in sending Gordie Sampson to England to do some collaboration with some songwriters over there,” Lapp says by way of illustration. “Did Gordie write a song that’s going to make a whack of dough? Who knows. Maybe not yet. But he’s written some pretty serious songs in collaboration. And some of his collaborations are appearing on major US albums right now like Keith Urban and Faith Hill.”
Halifax independent hip-hop artist Classified used his MIANS money (nearly $7,000) to help fund an advertising campaign on MuchMusic to promote his 2005 Boy-Cott-In The Industry release.
“We don’t have commercial hip-hop stations ,” he says. “MuchMusic is the only way to get your music out on a national level.”
Classified says the grant “definitely” gave him a boost. Immediately—Boy-Cott-In The Industry was the biggest-selling independent hip-hop record for a Canadian artist in 2005—and over the long haul. “I think it helped my airplay with the station,” he says. “They see that I’m putting money into my career so they give my videos a bit more play.”
“We’re pretty happy that minister MacDonald is there,” says MIANS executive director Gordon Lapp, “and that he does the forward thinking that he does.”
Not everyone characterizes Rodney MacDonald’s thinking the same way. Take Andrew Terris, for instance.
“The music industry is growing. That’s the good news,” Terris says. “The arts are feeling ignored and left out.”
Terris has been involved in cultural research, planning and advising for three decades. He has served as executive director of Visual Arts Nova Scotia and founding executive director of the Nova Scotia Cultural Network. He recently finished a stint in Ottawa as interim national director of the Canadian Conference of the Arts. And he was instrumental in the 1996 creation of the Nova Scotia Arts Council.
Remember that bad news from before?
If there is a second event that defines the work of Rodney MacDonald in the culture sector, it would be the sudden closure of the Nova Scotia Arts Council in March 2002.
The axing of the agency—which artists and arts advocates had spent more than 15 years fighting to create—saw nearly 1,000 people take to the streets of downtown Halifax to protest the closure and the loss of the province’s first and only source of arm’s-length funding for the arts.
MacDonald says his department closed the Arts Council to streamline provincial arts funding. “If it’s getting along the line of needless duplication in administration, that to me is not the end goal. What I want to see is the dollars that we invest are getting to the individuals, to the people.”
MacDonald replaced the Arts Council with the Nova Scotia Arts and Culture Partnership Council, a province-wide advisory board that directs MacDonald’s culture sector funding.
The new Partnership Council committee members are appointed directly by the minister, whereas old Arts Council members were selected by the minister together with arts community members. The Partnership Council maintains a peer-assessment process, which was a component critical to the integrity of the old Arts Council. But one difference that has arts activists upset is that the funding is no longer arm’s-length.
The old Arts Council model of funding was set up so the minister didn’t have veto power and Culture Division managers couldn’t have undue sway on decisions. Now it’s different. Terris explains: “The government has no say in the immediate allocation of funding. But technically, the minister can axe anything.
“Now, they haven’t done that. I think that the effect this has had is that it’s making people in the sector very cautious. Nobody is saying anything publicly because they know where their money comes from.”
Two thousand two was a big year for changes in Nova Scotia’s culture sector. That year, MacDonald’s Tourism, Culture, and Heritage department also began implementing changes to the funding of “anchor organizations”—those province-wide agencies that, in the words of one Culture Division mandate overview, “provide leadership, enable development, provide training or play a key role in cultural production.”
The most-felt change was a 15 percent across-the-board decrease in operations funding (money that goes to salaries, benefits, regular programming, the phone bill and every other basic expense you can imagine) for members of the Cultural Federations of Nova Scotia, which includes organizations like Dance Nova Scotia, the Multicultural Association of Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Designer Crafts Council and the Nova Scotia Choral Federation.
This funding decrease, the replacement of the Nova Scotia Arts Council and the adoption of the Nova Scotia Music Sector Strategy all happened in 2002. Andrew Terris thinks it’s more than coincidence.
“A year or two before the Arts Council went down, New Brunswick made a big investment in its music industry—the New Brunswick Sound Initiative. My theory,” Terris says, “is that the powers that be in Nova Scotia looked at it. Rodney MacDonald looked at it. Marcel McKeough looked at it. And they said, ‘Gee, we should be investing in our music industry too.’ And they said, ‘OK, where are we going to get the money?’
“Rather than making the pie larger—keeping the Arts Council and investing in music—they shut down the Arts Council. They cut back the Cultural Federations and they’re scrambling. When Eastern Front Theatre was in trouble they went to government and government said no.”
“There’s no question that everyone is operating very bare-bones,” says Briony Carros, executive director of Visual Arts Nova Scotia, which had its operations funding cut back 15 percent in 2002 along with the other Cultural Federations. “If VANS is to continue to operate on our current programming and staffing levels, we will not be able to survive past a year and a half. We will have to start cutting our programs. We already had to drop our PAINTS program, which is Professional Artists In The Schools.”
Though he says they “may have been impacted a few years ago,” minister MacDonald says he’s proud of the changes to funding of the Cultural Federations. “When you take a look at the operating funding, it’s remained stable over the past few years, but there’s been additional opportunity to apply through the cultural activities programming and the cultural industries programs. Those opportunities have never been there before. Those have presented some big opportunities but they’ve presented some challenges for them for extra funding. If you look at those organizations, in fact, they’re receiving more money today than they were six years ago. But it’s different. Different isn’t always bad.”
Here’s how it is different, though, according to Jane Buss of the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, another organization with fewer stable funding dollars today than it had before the Tories came to power.
“A new government was elected. New Culture Division. New programs. No consultation. The Writers’ Fed is thrilled to be accountable, to show how well we fulfill the mandate established over 30 years by the working writers of this province, and how careful we are with a buck. But…”
But because operations funds have been cut, cultural organizations have to spend more time writing grants and less time fulfilling their own mandates.
“If I have to apply for $2,000 to do workshops in Cape Breton and $2,000 to do something else—because they’ll only give you little bits of money—it takes days doing all of the stuff that they require,” says Buss. “You could spend day after day after day sending in new grant applications with new budgets, different kinds of numbers, following it up with an interim report and following up with a final report. The Canada Council funds two of our major programs on a three-year basis. I know I can depend on that money and I don’t have to keep applying for it.
“If we want to do three times the work, yes,” Buss says, “we can have a little money maybe.”
Andrew Terris thinks these changes are ill-conceived.
“That’s where you develop the skills and the talent that goes into the cultural industries,” he says. “That’s where your creators are. And if you kill that, you’re killing the goose that laid the golden egg. It’s counter-productive and it demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the sector. People have their heads down and they’re doing their work and they don’t take time to see how it all fits together. I think Rodney definitely doesn’t understand it.”
Rodney MacDonald’s still-in-the-making legacy to arts and culture in the province is grounded in bombshells—Nova Scotia music’s much-deserved $3 million boost and the protest-ridden closure of the Nova Scotia Arts Council. But the greater impact of MacDonald’s ministerial helming of Tourism, Culture, and Heritage is in the subtle shift in provincial arts funding and the cultural agenda of the province.
“This is a Conservative government that’s concerned with business,” says Terris. “The interest in art is purely commercial—the short-term returns from business and tourism, the commercial aspects and how culture can draw tourists. And, again, it’s a failure to understand the dynamic, the internal logic, the ecology of the sector.”
MacDonald—still not sweating, still on-point—says culture is “key for the growth of our province…We’re export wealthy.”
Like he says, with a sly smile—and it’s the last thing he says, before he’s off to Hants East for more campaigning—“My favourite colour? Blue.”
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