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OPINION: Splurging on heritage hoopla while kids go hungry is obscene

Our country will turn 150 years old next July 1. Yes, Canada and this milestone are worth celebrating. No question. But spending $210 million countrywide on excessive revelry — beginning with a New Year’s Eve broadcast from Ottawa on CBC — is gross, especially when there are so many programs and services that could use the cash.
A happy youngster celebrates Canada Day on the waterfront at Alderney Landing in Dartmouth. (TIM KROCHAK / Local Xpress)

The push from the halls of power to publicly fund anniversary events honouring Canada’s heritage and culture is as predictable as the changing seasons.

These carefully planned happenings, such as myriad projects hooked to this country’s 150th birthday in 2017, walk a thin line between community pride and government propaganda.

Love them, hate them, or coolly ignore them, they raise crucial questions: how is success measured, and do taxpayers get true value for the money spent?

As Canadians, we’ve become used to many things. Peace. The natural beauty of our land. A justice system other nations envy. Long winters. Royal commissions that produce dust-collecting reports. Wasteful government spending.

You can place the hundreds of millions of dollars linked to Canada’s feel-good, sesquicentennial fete firmly on that government-waste ledger.

Yes, Canada and its milestone birthday next year are worth celebrating. No question. But such excessive revelry is gross, especially when there are so many programs and services that could use the cash. Combating child poverty would be a good start. (More on that later.)

In 2015, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government established a $210-million Canada 150 Fund for the cross-country birthday bash. CBC News reported in March 2016 that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are working with that funding envelope as they plan events.

Not surprisingly, our public broadcaster, CBC/Radio-Canada, will use a boatload of taxpayers’ dollars to present a special lineup of programs. It’ll start with a New Year’s Eve broadcast from Ottawa, and, according to CBC, include these components throughout 2017: documentaries, radio programs, children’s programs, arts and entertainment specials, digital and virtual reality initiatives, and ongoing news coverage. (This sesquicentennial “slate of programming” begins Dec. 31, on CBC News Network, with live coverage of events from Parliament Hill.) 

According to a report in 2014 from The Canadian Press, Ottawa dished out $30 million commemorating the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Think about that for a moment. Thirty. Million. Dollars. There’s a distinct lack of moderation here.

In Nova Scotia, a taxpayer-fuelled campaign called Democracy 250 was carried out to recognize 2008 as “the birth of democracy in Canada on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of representative government in Nova Scotia,” says the province’s Democracy 250 Act.

That touchy-feely program received $10 million in federal and provincial funding. Looking back, was it money well spent?

In Halifax, plans are in the works for publicly bankrolled community goings-on marking the 100th anniversary, in December 2017, of the Halifax Explosion. The meter’s still running, and the bill to the taxpayer will likely be in the millions of dollars.

For instance, a redesign of Fort Needham Memorial Park, the north-end site that hosts the municipality’s annual explosion remembrance ceremony, includes $2.2 million for the first phase (2016-17) and $3 million for the second, pending city hall’s receipt of funding from other levels of government and the private sector.

By April 2016, the city’s Halifax Explosion advisory committee had recommended 10 local organizations be awarded a total of $90,760 in grants for projects considered by municipal staff, who examined the potential “enduring legacy,” “innovation” and “public engagement” linked to such commemorations.

Not an obscene amount of money — true. And this catastrophe will forever be part of Canada’s history. However, is an extended in-memoriam period built around next Dec. 6, the date the explosion happened in 1917, absolutely necessary?

The First World War-era disaster was a major event in Halifax, and respectfully remembering the devastating tragedy remains important in the municipality, but fewer area activities would still make for a suitable centennial memorial. Aside from the usual city-run events on Dec. 6, 2017, another three or four meaningful, publicly funded gatherings during other days sounds about right.

Canada will turn 150 years old next July 1. When it reached 122, back in 1989, Parliament pledged to eradicate child poverty across the country by 2000. What happened to that promise?

In the spring of 2015, an Acadia University sociologist, Lesley Frank, told a public meeting in Halifax that ground has been lost in the child-poverty battle in Nova Scotia. In job-hungry Cape Breton, the situation is dire: one child in three is living below the poverty line, she said.

Provincewide, going back to 2012, the percentage of poor children in Nova Scotia was 22.7 per cent higher than it was in 1989, according to a report Frank prepared called A Generation of Broken Promises. (There was a slight decrease in the rate between 2000 and 2012.)

A study Frank did this year for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said the child-poverty situation in Cape Breton is still shamefully bad, especially for aboriginal youngsters. The rate in the Eskasoni community was 75.6 per cent, her report said.

In Ontario, as part of Ottawa’s sesquicentennial party, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is getting $7.5 million from the federal government to help create and showcase a national music project, CBC News has reported.

That’s more public money wasted while kids continue to live in poverty. A report released in mid-November said Toronto is Canada’s child-poverty capital, with 133,000 kids younger than age 18 living under the poverty line.

And food-bank use across the country is on the rise. Children and youth account for 36 per cent of users, says the HungerCount 2016 report from Food Banks Canada.

(Also, a food-price forecast from Dalhousie University says prices are to increase between three and five per cent in 2017, as food retailers face steeper import costs due to the weak Canadian dollar.)

Here’s a suggestion to politicians and bureaucrats organizing Canada’s extravagant anniversaries and other special events: Turn it down a notch. Or five.

Michael Lightstone is a freelance reporter living in Dartmouth


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