Ontario’s tourism and culture sector faces a frightening prognosis

Even when the pandemic is over, will people rush back to concerts, museums, or football games?
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jun 08, 2020
Lisa MacLeod, the 14-year veteran MPP for Nepean, currently serves as Ontario’s minister of tourism, culture, and sport. (Tijana Martin/CP)

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Think about the Ontario economy, and what comes to mind? Automobile manufacturing in Oakville, Alliston, Woodstock, and Windsor; innovative high-tech companies in Toronto, Waterloo, and Ottawa; some of the most profitable financial- and legal-services companies in the skyscrapers of downtown Toronto; the world’s most prolific mining companies. Not to mention myriad small businesses providing everything from haircuts to good meals.

What you might not immediately think of is a sector that represents $75 billion to the province’s economy — more than the revenues of mining, forestry, and agriculture combined.

Tourism. Sport. Culture. Heritage. They not only fill our souls with joy, but they also contribute hugely to Ontario’s bottom line. And because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those industries have taken a collective and astonishing $20 billion hit.

The minister responsible for overseeing this crucial sector is Lisa MacLeod, the 14-year veteran MPP for Nepean, who spends 14 hours a day looking for answers, which so far simply aren’t there.

“The suite of sectors I‘m responsible for have been decimated by this pandemic,” she told reporters in a Zoom news conference last week. “And there’s no silver bullet to get out of this.”

Think about the artistic havoc this pandemic has wreaked. The Stratford Festival: cancelled. The Shaw Festival: cancelled. The Maple Leafs, Senators, Argonauts, Tiger-Cats, Redblacks, and Raptors: deep in hibernation. Films and television series: shut down. Art galleries and museums: closed tight. Music festivals, symphony orchestras, rock concerts, cinemas, live theatre: all shuttered. Never mind all the Canadian dollars that won’t be spent on those delightful pursuits; we also hugely depended on tourists, particularly from the United States, to come here and leave behind those very dear greenbacks with pictures of Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson, Grant, and Franklin on them.

Ontario’s capital city expects to lose $5.6 billion this year alone, because those trips are now not happening.

Even worse is the fact that, once this pandemic is under control and society begins to establish a new normal, it’s hardly a given that all these cultural institutions will suddenly spring back to their former glory. MacLeod says she’s seen polling that indicates 43 per cent of those surveyed would not attend a large concert venue even after the pandemic ends.

“Many people are afraid,” she admitted. “So even if we open up the economy, there’s a social reality because people’s behaviour will change.”

MacLeod estimates it could take two to three years before Ontario’s cultural industries come back. Given that ominous prognostication, I asked her whether she had any reservations about how slowly the Ontario government is reopening the economy. More and more voices are now urging a faster reopening, given the economic, social, health, and mental-health costs of continuing the current state of emergency.

“No, I stand by every decision we’ve made,” she said. “I believe in the restrictions. They’ve saved lives. We’ll continue to reopen slowly and gradually.”

With the U.S.-Canada border shut tight to all non-essential travel, MacLeod soon expects to roll out a multimillion-dollar tourism-marketing campaign aimed at Ontarians. The thinking is, once the state of emergency is over, she wants people travelling all over Ontario to make up for the lack of international visitors.

“We’re going to extol the virtues of seeing Niagara Falls or Muskoka or the provincial or national capitals,” she said, adding that she expects the campaign to roll out in multiple languages.

Being culture minister has never been regarded in politics as being on the same political level as, say, the finance, health, economic development, or education ministers. But it’s probably a heck of a lot more fun. Under normal circumstances, culture ministers spent endless hours going to plays, shows, festivals, art galleries, and museums. They hang out with actors, directors, hockey players, and artists. It’s a great job. You’re also rarely in the opposition’s crosshairs during question period.

None of that is true today. So what’s Lisa MacLeod doing with her days?

“Well, they’re all 14-hour days, I can tell you that,” she said. “I was on the phone with MLSE [Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment] at 6 o’clock this morning. I spoke to Beth Potter [CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario] at 7:30. I’ve got 14 ministerial advisory committees that I meet with, so I’ve met with the airlines, the book business, film and TV, and done virtual tours. We’ve even visited some film sets, although practising physical distancing.”

Before she took on the cultural post, MacLeod did have an occasionally tempestuous time in politics. She dipped her toe into the March 2018 Ontario PC Party leadership race, which was eventually won by Doug Ford. However, she dropped out well before convention day. The support and money just weren’t there.  Ford handed her the autism file when the Tories took over governing the province in June 2018, and it took no time at all before she was at loggerheads with her stakeholders, who couldn’t wait to see her go. (Ford shuffled her out a year later).

She had a well-publicized public blow up with the owner of her favourite hockey team, the NHL’s Senators. But she also garnered considerable sympathy for being candid enough to talk about her own mental-health challenges over the years. Certainly, in public, she has seemed more centred and at peace since taking over Tourism, Culture, and Sport a year ago. It’s a ministry where her obvious love of politics and people can shine through. So I asked her a bit of an odd question during last week’s Zoom news conference.

“You’re one of those politicians who loves to press the flesh,” I said. “You love shaking hands and meeting people. Are you ready for a style of politics going forward where people may never shake hands again?”

MacLeod corrected me. She’s not a hand-shaker. “I’m a hugger,” she clarified. “I’m from Atlantic Canada. I’m a Blue Noser. It’s been so strange to be at the legislature and greeting people by putting our elbows up.

“I think we’ll be dealing with the social impacts of this for years to come.”

No doubt, true. And I suspect I’m one of 14.5 million Ontarians who can’t wait to go back to a movie theatre, see the Toronto Symphony perform again, or visit the National Gallery of Canada. It can’t come soon enough. 

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