What’s it going to take to bring back Ontario’s cultural industries?

No sector has been hit harder than Ontario’s tourism, cultural, and sports industries. Bringing them back to health is going to be a herculean task and could take five years
By Steve Paikin - Published on Dec 17, 2020
Ontario’s tourism ministry has just released a white paper looking at how to bring hard-hit cultural industries back from the brink. (Mark Spowart/CP)

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For many, living in the province of Ontario has meant having access to some of the most wonderful cultural industries, tourism attractions, and sports activities on the continent.

There are museums, art galleries, theatres, festivals, symphony orchestras, glorious destinations, hotels, and restaurants, not to mention two NHL teams, a plethora of junior-hockey teams, three CFL teams, relatively recent NBA and MLS champions, and an up-and-coming MLB team.

But as the Ontario minister responsible for overseeing all of this, Lisa MacLeod, points out: “These industries were among the first and hardest hit. They’re expected to take the longest to recover.”

Yes, COVID-19 has been beyond awful for this so-called “high-touch” sector, whose very existence depends on lots of people gathering in close proximity to one another — the very thing the coronavirus has made impossible.

MacLeod’s ministry, the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism, and Culture Industries, has just put out a white paper which attempts to assess the damage, solicit ideas from stakeholders, and put a bit of a road map in place to get the sector back on its feet.

Every provincial ministry wants to make the case that it deserves support from the Treasury Board to get its respective sectors back on their feet. But MacLeod thinks hers has got a special case to make, given that its economic footprint contributes $75 billion to the Ontario economy (there’s also the hundreds of thousands of jobs that come with that). How big is $75 billion? It’s larger than the entire economy of Manitoba; it’s larger than Ontario’s forestry, agricultural, and mining sectors combined.

It’s big.

The folks at Pride Toronto point out they’ve parlayed a $250,000 government grant into an extravaganza that generates more than $60 million for the provincial treasury.

“That is a return of over 24,600 per cent,” says Ande Clumpus, Pride’s treasurer. “Warren Buffett would kill for something like that.” 

And there are also things, not so easy to measure, that those activities promote, such as increased social cohesion and community pride, and you can bet MacLeod will make that case at the virtual-cabinet table as well.

For the last many months, the minister has convened 14 town halls — including a Zoom call today that had more than 650 dialing in — to get feedback from stakeholders.

However, some rudimentary polling numbers cited in the white paper show how big a problem MacLeod’s sector faces. Only 31 per cent of people surveyed feel safe staying in a hotel these days. Fewer than 20 per cent surveyed would take a flight. And only a third feel safe dining out. Add in the fact that international-border crossings to Ontario declined an astonishing 95 per cent in September (compared to a year ago) and that 94 per cent of Ontario Arts Council stakeholders reported postponing or cancelling events altogether in 2020, and you’ve now got some understanding of why the people who work in this sector are not only mortified at their situation today, but deeply concerned about their prospects going forward.

Film and TV production saw more than $700 million worth of business evaporate. That’s 45,000 lost jobs every month. Half of musicians reported losing more than 75 per cent of their income. Pro sports and associated spinoff industries saw $1.2 billion disappear.

Yes, governments at all levels jumped in with a variety of helpful acronyms, from CERBs to CEWSs to CEBAs. But the heritage ministry’s white paper is still chockablock full of horrifying economic numbers, only some of which are reproduced here.

MacLeod has included 15 proposals in the white paper — everything from redeveloping Ontario Place, to promoting more volunteerism and competing harder for global festivals, events, and conferences once this pandemic loosens its grip on us. Frankly, the list of items reads more like a giant pair of fingers being crossed than any concrete comeback plan. The fact is, so much of what MacLeod calls a five-year “aspirational” plan is out of her hands. The closure of the border to the U.S. has essentially shut down pro sports in the province, but re-opening it depends on the feds. And, of course, the vaccine rollout depends so much on availability of supply and other logistics.   

“Lots of great ideas that touch every large and small community and organization in the Province,” said Mervon Mehta, executive director of performing arts at the Royal Conservatory of Music, in an email responding to the white paper. “Of course, we now look forward to the details and confirmation of net new funding to support artists, creators and the institutions that support them.”

MacLeod rightly pointed out at a news conference after her Zoom presentation that if Ontario wants a piece of hosting the 2026 FIFA World Cup, there’s no time like the present to begin planning, securing a financial commitment from the Ministry of Finance, getting volunteers lined up, and organizing security.

Similarly, the tax credits for Ontarians to take a “staycation” within the province have been secured. There’s $150 million in the treasury, earmarked for this plan once it’s safe to travel.

So, the white paper has put the call out for ideas on how to bring arts and culture back. But even the minister acknowledges this could all take five years. Until we all have our date with the needle, it seems the vast majority of our interactions with the things that fill our souls will continue to be on our laptops, rather than in person.

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