Was Sun News' Margie Gillis hate-on a prelude for a Harper led Tea Party North?
Canadian dance icon Margie Gillis speaks out about how Sun News attacked and deceived her, calls for its demise. "I think the station should be taken off until they can prove that they represent Canadian values," she said.
By now, almost every Canadian has weighed in on the infamous interview between Sun News Network’s Krista Erickson and Canadian dance icon Margie Gillis. During the one-sided grilling, Erickson mocked Gillis and asked her why $1.2 million in public funds was being used to support her foundation. Although Gillis tried to explain, her interviewer constantly shouted over her, at one point flapping her hands in a crude imitation of the dancer’s art.
The notorious interview would result in CRTC receiving a record 4,300 formal complaints from viewers (the average is around 2,000 per year). People were outraged: Gillis was an internationally recognized dance icon, a recipient of the 2011 Governor General’s award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement. Erickson, meanwhile, was a little-known broadcaster who herself was paid out of taxpayer dollars for 11 years at the CBC, where she worked prior to joining the Sun News team.
While the interview was treated as a joke by some media outlets, its implications were serious. The Sun "interview" revealed three major things: 1) the onset of right-wing, American-style demagoguery in Canada 2) the political undermining of the arts and culture sector and 3) an erosion of compassion for the weak and marginalized in society.
Years from now, the Gillis-Erickson interview may be remembered as a watershed moment when Canada became a less polite, less civil nation in the public discourse.
Dance icon Margie Gillis was well aware of Sun News’ reputation when she accepted the interview. “Fox News North,” people called it – Gillis, a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen, knew exactly what that meant.
Still, when her office began receiving persistent phone calls every day from Sun News, urging her to appear on their show, her administrator eventually became persuaded that their intentions were honorable.
“They said, ‘we are obviously a conservative television station, (but) we really respect her and admire her…we feel we would like to give her a chance to speak about funding and the arts,’” she recalls.
Wanting to “bridge differences”, Gillis decided to accept the invitation. She waited in a small room with a TV monitor when her interviewer appeared on the screen. Gillis said Erickson reassured her that it would be a respectful interview:
“Krista said, this is going to be a lot of fun, a couple of difficult questions, but we really respect you, this is going to be great.”
What followed was a lengthy bashing and belittling of Gillis, and by extension, the entire arts community.
“It was just an attack,” Gillis said. “She just didn't care what I was saying … I've never done an interview where they don't come back on to say thank you very much. I sat there in this little room. Nobody came in, nobody came out and I sat there for about 10 minutes just going: wow, that was an attack.”
Stunned by the hostility of her interviewer, Gillis nonetheless sensed that there was more to it than just a deeper context for this attack, and said she does not resent Erickson. She believes that the journalist was merely doing her job, following the orders of someone higher up the ladder.
“She had someone speaking in her ear the whole time, people telling her what to do and what to say,” said Gillis. “I have no animosity towards her.”
So who are the people pulling the strings in this interview? Is it simply a TV producer desperate for ratings? Or could it be someone much higher up, such as the Prime Minister?
The Sun News Network: Harper’s mouthpiece?
It’s no secret that The Sun is a right-wing news agency with deep ties to the Harper administration. Its Vice President, Kory Teneycke, is the combative former communications director for Stephen Harper. Described as the “spiritual leader” of Sun News, he pushed for a news network that would help push Conservative policies to wider public acceptance.
From the beginning, Teneycke was a lightning rod for critics due to his close ties to the Harper government as he worked on bringing Sun News to televisions across Canada. He had resigned from the network last September due to controversy that he had tampered with an online petition created by activist group Avaaz.org to stop a “Fox News North” from coming to Canada.
Yet just months later, the former Harper spokesperson quietly returned to the company fold as vice president. His network took on stories aligned with the Tory agenda, such as questioning public health care, undermining green policies, and of course, attacking funding for the arts.
For years, Harper has shown an unusual disdain for the arts and culture sector. He slashed $45 million slashed in arts funding in 2008, causing outcry from people working in the industry. He made divisive remarks in a bid to pit average Joe Canadians against their intellectuals and artists:
"I think when ordinary working people come home, turn on the TV and see a gala of a bunch of people at a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers … I'm not sure that's something that resonates with ordinary people," Harper said that fall in Saskatoon. The Prime Minister dubbed his opponents "elitists" and said they were preoccupied by a "niche issue."
Harper's rage against arts-inclined "elitists" was strangely reminiscent of the way in which Conservative pundits across the border such as Rush Limbaugh and Republican politicians such as George Bush spoke of the "liberal elite". Their rhetoric helped create a feeling of alienation among working-class Conservatives from their left-leaning fellows.
Both former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and the late NDP leader Jack Layton were alarmed by Harper's rhetoric. "We need to stop this man. He wants to pit everyone against everyone, Canadians against their artists," warned Dion. The NDP criticized Harper's arts funding cuts, running an electronic French-language ad in Quebec that showed the "Conservateur" (Conservative) logo morphing into "Conserva-tueur de la culture," or "culture killer."
People in the arts community worried over Harper's dismissive attitude toward their jobs. One blogger wrote:
"What I find most maddening ... is the revolutionary overturning of the term ‘elites’ to mean, not economic elites such as the Ruling Class, but Margie Gillis and others who live mostly below all poverty lines. The artist who does not serve the state becomes, in fascism, the eternal scapegoat."
Sun News accordingly aligned itself with Harper's views on the arts. In SunTV's advertising plugs, the network calls Krista Erickson "SUNshine girl", and introduced her to the public gazing into the camera with a bold, sexualized "I love sports and country" come on.
Both Harper and Sun News criticize artists' dependence on public funding and grants. Unfortunately, not every artist can be a self-perpetuating success like Justin Bieber: some arts programs, especially those focusing on minority groups and at-risk youth, require funding to serve the community.
The liberal elite scapegoat
And why does Harper go after the artists? While it’s impossible to generalize, artists and cultural sector workers have traditionally been less attached to the Conservative party.
According to a June study by Samara.org, the current Conservative Party’s elected officials are almost exclusively from a business/law career, while the Liberal and NDP party are more likely to come from “liberal arts” and community work backgrounds.
Silencing and discrediting the arts sector is way to silence and discredit people who tend to vote against the Conservative agenda. Sun News anchors regularly use the term "artsy-fartsy" to describe Liberals and "soft" Conservatives, as though being somewhat left-leaning by default connects someone to the arts.
Although Erickson attacked Margie Gillis on the grounds that she was receiving funds from the government, taxpayer dollars may not be not at the heart of the issue.
Funding not the main issue
Government funding for the arts is in fact only a minuscule portion of its overall budget, Louis Laberge-Côté, a Toronto-based dancer and choreographer, said.
“According to Canadian Heritage, the federal cultural funding totals “$1.51 billion for the fiscal years from 2010 to 2015, which amounts to an average of about $300 million a year,” he said. “The Canadian federal budget expenditure totaled $276 billion. Wanting to cut these amounts to help the economy is somewhat similar to wanting to cut the toenails of an obese man, just so he could lose some weight. Somewhat ridiculous, don’t you think?”
What’s more, he argues, money invested into the arts is not simply being thrown into the void. According to Industry Canada, the economic footprint of Canada’s cultural sector was $84.6 billion in 2007, or 7.4 per cent of Canada’s GDP. The culture sector employment exceeded 1.1 million jobs that year.
And the arts are hardly the only sector to receive public funding: from professional sports to scientific research, every sector receives public funding.
“I don’t understand why artists are being publicly described as spoiled elitists when the government also supports the pharmaceutical industry, high-caliber sports or higher education,” argued Laberge-Côté.
“Everything is financed by the state. And everybody benefits from it. When an athlete competes on an international level, we’re all winners.”
Mike Ross, a writer for the Edmonton Sun, wrote that although he felt torn about the issue, he disagreed with the Conservatives' stance on the arts:
Just as there are “hidden” costs to the $1 burger at McDonald’s (obesity, the decline of family farms, etc.), there are many hidden profits from the arts aside from tourism or successful coffee shops in proximity to art galleries […]The better the art, public or not, the nicer the place and the richer society becomes as a whole.
Artists aren't the only ones who are taking a beating. Journalists and media have also been a target -- Greg Weston, a Sun News writer, was quickly fired after he broke story on the the $1.2 billion "fake lake" that Harper ordered last year for the G8 summit. He was rumoured to have been let go for writing news that caused embarrassment to the Prime Minister.
The late Jack Layton predicted in 2008 that Stephen Harper would try to privatize the CBC if he ever got a Conservative majority. Now that he has that majority, Sun News has been relentless in its attacks on the CBC. As it is, Harper has been described as a "control freak" toward media, allowing just five questions from reporters and screening individuals at Conservative Party events. Even though Sun News is being promoted on the premise of "free speech" and "diversity" in the media, these are two things sorely lacking in Harper's dealings with the press.
If even a right-wing media reporter is muzzled for questioning the government's expenditures, it's unlikely that a privatized CBC would be able to maintain its duty to keep checks and balances on power.
Toward a less compassionate Canada
Gillis was taken to task in the interview for having said in a previous documentary that she felt Canada has become a less "compassionate" country in recent years. Erickson chided Gillis, saying that she had no right to be talking about compassion at a time when soldiers were dying in Afghanistan.
Many viewers -- even self-described Conservatives -- said that Erickson was comparing apples to oranges by dragging in Canadian soldiers to the debate. Soldiers in Afghanistan wrote Gillis, saying that although they "didn't know anything about the arts", the comments by Erickson were intolerable.
But there was truth in Gillis' comments, even taken out of context. In terms of caring for the most vulnerable people, Canada is indeed becoming a less compassionate country since Harper came to power.
Harper has cut funding to 11 major womens’ groups, immigrants’ groups and to disability jobs training programs. And with the average artist earning just $23,000 annually, the $45 million in arts funding cuts plunged many struggling artists deeper into poverty.
Native activists Kirsten Gilchrist and Bridget Tolley from Families of Sisters in Spirit, an organization advocating for missing and murdered aboriginal women, accused the Harper government of ignoring the plight of society's most vulnerable individuals.
"Stephen Harper cut funding for Families of Sisters in Spirit," Tolley told Rabble.ca in June. "He promised $10 million for missing Aboriginal funding but half of it went to the RCMP."
"The money went to things like expanding wiretapping," said Gilchrist. "It seems he used missing and murdered aboriginal women to expand his law-and-order agenda."
Sun News Network, meanwhile, outright ignores such issues or tackles them from the angle that such groups deserve to have their funding cut. It focuses its energy on anti-union articles, on fanning anger over CBC funding, and promoting a "Tea Party North" in Canada.
Since its inception, Sun News has unsuccessfully tried to gain access to millions of Canadian households by having the network embedded as part of the basic cable package. Last month, the network surprised many by announcing that it would give up its current over-the-air license that gave it access to viewers who weren't already subscribers to the news service. But the network may just be keeping quiet before major changes in the future.
The Prime Minister tried on numerous occasions to push out the current Canadian broadcaster chief, Konrad von Finckenstein, who denied CRTC its special license last summer, according to a Globe and Mail report. When his term expires in 2012, people may be surprised to find the right-wing program resurface as part of peoples' cable packages.
As laughable as the idea may seem today, the presence of a 24-hour right-wing news network may shift the political centre of Canadians toward the right. The Krista-Gillis interview, which outraged so many Canadians in June, may soon become as banal as a Glenn Beck interview in Alabama if Sun News is allowed to have its way.
In the meantime, Gillis hopes that the network, which she described as a propagator of "hatred and anger", be removed from the airwaves.
"I think the station should be taken off until they can prove that they represent Canadian values," she said.