2013 Villain: Department of Canadian Heritage
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2013 Villain: Department of Canadian Heritage

Nominated for: defunding the Rhubarb Festival.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains: the very best and very worst people, places, things, and ideas that have had an influence on the city over the past 12 months. Cast your ballot until 2 p.m. on January 1. At 4 p.m. we will reveal your choices for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

villain rhubarb funding matthew daley

For most of 2013 there was no clear contender for a 2013 Villain in the arts. Then, in late November, the Department of Canadian Heritage entirely defunded Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s Rhubarb Festival, which for thirty-five years has developed new work and helped emerging artists build careers. To add insult to injury, the Department of Canadian Heritage won’t explain why, continuing to stonewall inquiries (including ours) as to why Rhubarb no longer meets their funding criteria.

One might think the government agency would’ve learned from past funding missteps. In 2011, the Department of Canadian Heritage revoked all funding for the SummerWorks Festival. That was widely seen as a response to artificially stoked outrage over one SummerWorks play called Homegrown, which examined the Toronto 18 terrorism plot. After nationwide protest readings, multi-year funding for SummerWorks was restored. This time around the issue, potentially, is sex: Buddies is Canada’s longest-running queer theatre company, and many in the theatre community think this defunding decision too is political.

It’d be hard for the Department of Canadian Heritage to justify the move based on Buddies’ recent track record: under artistic director Brendan Healy Buddies has been flourishing. At this year’s Dora Mavor Moore Awards it picked up five trophies. The defunding notice was released on the same day that playwright Nicolas Billon was awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award for his Fault Lines: Three Plays anthology, some of which was developed at Rhubarb. The list of theatre artists who have come through Buddies and gone on to lauded careers is longer than we have space for.

Healy has announced that Rhubarb will continue but that programming will have to be scaled back. Past participants, such as playwright Hannah Moscovitch, performers Gavin Crawford, and directors Allyson McMackon and David Ferry, have spoken out in support of the festival; the theatre community has a widely circulated petition. Department of Canadian Heritage can expect pressure to mount in 2014, to convince Canadians that they aren’t holding the performing arts and queer communities in Toronto in contempt. The longer they wait, the more people will come to just that conclusion.


CORRECTION: December 31, 2:45PM The post previously referred to the Department of Canadian Heritage as Heritage Canada. The corrections have been made throughout.