Government officials killed funding for Canadian artist: documents

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Artist Franke James says the federal government pulled its funding for a slated European tour of her work, likely because she says, it didn’t approve of the content.

Photograph by: Handout, Postmedia News

OTTAWA — A few months ago, Toronto artist Franke James said political bullying by the federal government had caused her European art tour to fall apart — claims the Conservative government quickly and firmly rebuked.

But newly released documents obtained under access-to-information legislation show that Department of Foreign Affairs officials did initially earmark funding for James’ show, only to withdraw their support days later, citing, among their reasons, that it “would run counter to Canada’s interest.”

On Wednesday, the award-winning artist brought six of what she called her 40 banned art pieces to Ottawa.

“I was shocked,” James said of learning her tour had been cancelled. “This was one of the biggest opportunities of my life.”

Croatian group Nektarina — a non-governmental organization that specializes in educating youth about climate change and environmental issues — initially wanted to purchase and tour James’ work titled: What Can One Person Do, When 6.8 Billion People Are Frying The Planet?, along with several other pieces she’s done.

But the chance to exhibit her visual essays across 20 countries crashed in a matter of weeks, James said, as sponsors began pulling out and the Canadian government dropped its funding offer.

Nektarina’s organizer, Sandra Antonovic, told Postmedia News in July that a government official had contacted her and had voiced concerns around the organization’s request for support for the exhibit from various Canadian embassies in Europe.

“(The Canadian official) said they got a call from Canada and said Franke James speaks out against the Canadian government,” said Antonovic.

A Swiss company also withdrew financial support to the project, but denied any political bullying in its decision.

James produces animated visual essays and illustrated books that address environmental and social issues. She alleges the government money was revoked because some of her work is critical of the Conservatives’ environmental policies.

In July, the federal government called James’ allegations a “fantasy of her own making,” claiming that no funds had been guaranteed or withdrawn.

But email correspondence between government officials show $5,000 initially was promised on April 29.

The emails show that Sylvie Gauvin, a strategist at the Foreign Affairs Department, wrote to Vlatka Ljubenko, who works in the Canadian consulate in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, voicing support for the project.

“GLB (the Foreign Affairs Department of Strategy and Services) is very supportive of (the Nektarina) project on Climate Change. . . . GLB is able to give $5,000 on our Advocacy Funds for your mission,” she wrote.

A funding request form followed, the access-to-information documents show.

However, days later, Jeremy Wallace, Foreign Affair’s deputy director of the Climate Change Division, wrote to Gauvin expressing his concerns with the plan.

“I would appreciate an opportunity to discuss further with GLB the implications (including the comms aspect) of ZAGRB’s project going forward. Is it too late to pull it back?” Wallace asked in an email on May 2.

Parts of the email provided under access to information were blacked out.

Two days later, Wallace wrote a lengthier note, saying: “To my knowledge, we have focused our funding at strengthening local capacity in other countries, and not/not (sic) towards Canadian speakers making presentations abroad on the subject of climate change.”

“(The climate-change division in Foreign Affairs) has concerns that the funding proposed below would not be consistent with our interest and approach outlined above, and would in fact run counter to Canada’s interest more broadly, so we indicated to GLB that we would recommend against supporting,” he added.

On May 25, Nektarina received a formal rejection letter from Ambassador Edwin Louglin in Zagreb, citing an “unanticipated cut in our budget,” and saying, “the funding that we had provisionally identified to support this project is no longer available.”

Foreign Affairs spokesman Chris Day said there was no political interference in the funding decision.

He said in an email that the documents represented a difference of opinion among bureaucrats.

“Until a formal contribution agreement is signed, no funding can be considered ‘promised.’ Nor can it be withdrawn,” he said.

James’ work did apparently have some fans.

In one email, before the possibility of funding was revoked, a counsellor for public affairs at Canada’s embassy in Rome called her work “intriguing,” adding she seemed like a “dynamic and interesting person.”

On Wednesday, James said governments are cracking down on dissenting artists around the world.

“Artists are very powerful in shaping public opinion and (governments) want to shut down the artist,” said James.

“How could this be happening in Canada?”

James’ exhibit, “Banned on the Hill!” will be on display in billboard posters in downtown Ottawa, near Parliament Hill.

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