Well, it hasn’t taken Steven Harper’s newly elected majority government in Canada very long to embarrass Canada internationally and send a chill through the Canadian artistic community at the same time. The Mali-based, internationally renowned Kel Tamashek band Tinariwen has twice in the past couple of months been denied visas to enter Canada to perform.
First they were turned down for a visa to perform as scheduled at the Winnipeg Folk Festival; then when they re-applied in Los Angeles in order to make it to the Vancouver Folk Festival they were turned down again. It’s not as if this is the first time the band has travelled to Canada; they’ve been performing here on a regular basis since 2004.
So why have they all of a sudden been denied entry to the country? It can’t be because of security problems as they have had no problems gaining admission to the United States for that part of their North American tour. In fact if you check out their touring schedule listed at their website you’ll see they’re booked to play almost every major music festival in Europe and around the world this summer, except of course for Canada.
When asked for comment as to why they denied the band their visas this year, Citizenship and Immigration Canada refused to say anything except that each application is assessed on its merits. According to the spokesperson quoted in the Globe and Mail on July 15 2011, Johanne Nedeau, they take into consideration the profile of the event, invitations from the Canadian hosts, and whether letters of support were received.
OK, so the first event they were turned down for was the Winnipeg Folk Festival which has been ongoing since 1974. According to figures released by Tourism Winnipeg in 2009 the folk festival creates 244 jobs and generates $25 million in economic activity; its impact on Manitoba’s Gross Domestic Product is around $14 million. For those of you who don’t know Canada that well, Manitoba, where Winnipeg is located, is not one of the country’s richest provinces. It doesn’t have the industry of Ontario, the oil wells of Alberta, or the wheat fields of Saskatchewan. It needs any little boost it can get and the Winnipeg Folk Festival with its annual attendance of over 70,000 is not small potatoes.
Artistically the festival has been attracting performers from across North America and around the world since it began. This year’s festival was promising to be more of the same, with acts like k.d. lang, Blue Rodeo, Lucinda Williams, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and Little Feat from North America mixing with international performers like Omar Souleyman from North Africa, actor Tim Robbins and his Rogues Gallery Band, and Toots and the Maytals from Jamaica. Not only do they hold their annual weekend concert series, the festival also runs year-round programming to encourage and develop local talent and introduce young people to international music. I would think that qualifies them as a pretty high-profile event both artistically and economically.
The Vancouver festival didn’t get started until 1977, but it has more than made up for its late start by now. Being in a larger metropolitan centre hasn’t hurt, and being on the West Coast of Canada also allows them access to bands in Asia that other festivals don’t have. This year’s acts include mainstream artists like Rosanne Cash, Josh Ritter, and Gillian Welsh as well as international artists like Cassius Khan, Emmanuel Jal, and Tinariwen – oops, not them, they weren’t allowed into Canada. The Vancouver festival is one of the major international folk gatherings each year. Bands and performers from around the world make sure to include it as part of their touring schedule. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve requested information from publicists about whether their band was going to be performing in Canada only to find out they would be showing up only in Vancouver for the folk festival and nowhere else.
So I think we’ve established that both the Vancouver and Winnipeg Folk Festivals are significant events in the year’s calendar, and we know Tinariwen was invited by each of the festivals to perform. As for the letters of support, upon finding out about the band being denied a visa for Winnipeg, two Canadian Members of Parliament wrote letters supporting their application for entry to perform in Vancouver. Yet somehow or other despite all the requirements for granting of a visa being met, Tinariwen still weren’t allowed into Canada. One really has to wonder what was motivating the decision to refuse them entry.
Tinariwen are fast becoming one of the biggest draws on the international music circuit. Support from mainstream musicians like Robert Plant and others has given them a much higher profile than most international bands. Preventing the band from playing at these two folk festivals will definitely have an impact on their box office draw, as each event had scheduled them for a headlining concert –they were to have to been the opening night act in Vancouver. If one looks at the results from the last election, both British Columbia and Manitoba gave a healthy majority of their seats to the Conservative Party – so on the surface there doesn’t appear to be any political motivation. However, those most likely to attend and/or organize either one of these festivals are not the types who are liable to vote for the Conservative Party of Canada.
This is the same government who has already cancelled funding for a theatre festival because they did not agree with the content of a play performed in its previous season. Toronto’s Summerworks Theatre Festival had its funding cancelled by the Department of Canadian Heritage because they staged a play the government didn’t like. Only weeks before the festival is scheduled to begin they have been told its 2011 grant of around $48,000 was being pulled, an amount that represented 20% of the festival’s budget. The message is clear: there’s no such thing as arms-length arts funding in Canada, and if the government doesn’t like you or your politics you can expect to be screwed over in one way or another.
Vancouver and Winnipeg’s folk festivals have paid the price for not representing Steven Harper’s vision of Canada, by having one of their biggest draws refused entry at the border. While cutting funding to artists is still the easiest way to silence them, the government is also showing itself willing to find new and inventive ways of punishing those it can’t touch through funding cuts. What kind of message is our government sending when it cuts funding to artists who express opinions different from their own and arbitrarily prevents others from crossing our borders? The one I’m hearing is: If you don’t agree with us we’re going to make you suffer.
In the long run it will be the people of Canada who suffer the most as we’re gradually cut off from freedom of expression. Preventing Tinariwen from gaining admission to Canada is only the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of what looks to be a big artistic chill in Canada. Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada have five years to do what they want, and it looks as if they’re off to a flying start reshaping the country in their image.