EDMONTON — Author Margaret Atwood stopped by a protest rally at Winston Churchill Square Wednesday to question Stephen Harper's judgment on the economy.
"Eighty-six billion dollars in the arts industries in Canada has just been somehow totally dismissed by Prime Minister Harper," said Ms. Atwood, speaking before a crowd of about 300 people. "[He] doesn't seem to know that and he's supposed to be good on the economy."
Ms. Atwood was in Edmonton for a speaking engagement at the Winspear Centre but dropped by an Albertans for the Arts protest rally attended by members and supporters of the local arts community, NDP candidate Linda Duncan and Liberal candidate Jim Wachowich.
The rally was organized by local artists to protest recent funding cuts to the arts.
Mr. Harper also touched off a wave of indignation in the arts community with his remarks last week that "ordinary working people" are unsympathetic to artists at "rich gala[s] all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren't high enough."
The comment prompted a rebuttal from Ms. Atwood, who defended artists as ordinary people, many of whom make very little money.
"Sure, I found it personally insulting," she said Wednesday. "If those comments had been made about a race or an age group, you would have heard such an outrage. To take a whole group of people like that and just dismiss them."
At the rally, Ms. Atwood argued that artists make vital contributions to the economy, creating a spinoff industry she valued at $86-billion in total.
"It's the economy, stupid," she said. "It's $86 billion. Where are those jobs located?"
Dave Dunn, who attended the rally, said he used to work in the oil and gas industry and considers himself an "ordinary" Albertan who also cares about the arts.
"I think it's despicable that our ex-prime minister or prime-minister-to-be would say that our working-class people don't care about the arts," he said. "He's way off-base."
Standing in Winston Churchill Square, Mr. Dunn pointed to Tix on the Square, which sells tickets to local theatres and events, as an example of a spinoff business thriving on the contribution of artists.
"Where would they be without the arts?" Mr. Dunn asked. "It's a whole industry. It's a huge industry."
Ms. Atwood's published rebuttal was partly the inspiration behind Wednesday's rally, said Edmonton-based artist Holly Newman, one of the organizers.
She claimed the protest wasn't necessarily a political statement, but an attempt to point out that art touches everybody's lives.
"We're all involved in the arts, just by participating in watching our child play the piano or be in their school play," Ms. Newman said. "It's very important to present everyone as a participant in the arts, whether you're a liberal or a conservative."
Alice Major, Edmonton's first poet laureate, said she thinks it is important to address the issue of arts cutbacks in light of the upcoming election. She worries about the potential repercussions of a Harper majority.
"Yeah, maybe nothing would fall of the planet next week but it's the overall trend in direction that concerns me. You can lose a creative community."