When Gregor Ash was a kid in Newfoundland, he and his fellow film junkies would head to the Caribou Lounge Saturday mornings, where they'd endure the stench of cigarettes and stale beer for a chance to catch flicks that weren't on CTV and CBC, their only two channels. Despite the smell, the Atlantic Film Festival's director calls the experience "magical"---film screenings brought his community together.
Last Thursday this lover of the arts was nominated to represent the NDP in the next federal election as a Member of Parliament for the Halifax West riding, replacing peace activist Tamara Lorincz. Ash wants government to "stop thinking about culture as an afterthought" and believes investing in creative sectors correlates with high levels of economic development.
"We have some of the best writers, producers, directors and visual artists anywhere. We hold our own against communities that are much bigger," says Ash, who will continue on as AFF's director. "We've got the statistical evidence to show that that investment"---in arts and culture---"is real and that it's large."
Ash is pushing for the creation of a multi-year plan to invigorate the arts community, hopes to combat regional disparity in access to arts and culture and would like to see more funding pumped into the community.
"There's a problem with accountability and transparency, but ultimately the programs are underfunded," he says. "We need support that's very specific to the community that we have in Nova Scotia and that's looking down the road maybe five or 10 years."
It's hard to think of anyone more in touch with the needs of those working in Halifax's creative industries. Ash has worked with the Atlantic Film Festival for nearly 18 years, before that he was a record representative for A&M and an independent music representative. Through his work with AFF he understands what it's like to promote culture with a tight budget, especially since the festival's corporate sponsorship revenue was down a lot this year.
Ash also experienced Harper arts cuts firsthand, such as last year's termination of funding to the $4.7-million PromArt program and the $9-million Trade Routes program. Both helped promote Canadian arts and culture abroad. "Those budgets were gutted. For me that's really hollowing out the centre. You may have a veneer and a shell of "creative investment," says Ash, "but what do you have in the centre? You've got a lot of people who are afraid because they don't know where they're supported or what programs might be there to help them."
When it comes to programs that support artists, Ash believes decentralization is key. "The thing I liked most about a program like Trade Routes was the fact that they had cultural officers on the ground in each of the provinces," he says. These officers had their own budgets and could make decisions independently, based on the needs of Nova Scotians. "Once they started to get rid of those officers, the number of applications from Atlantic Canada went through the floor."
Ash's interests aren't limited to the arts, and include working to reduce child poverty and investing in green energy. Ash has wanted to serve publicly since childhood, but found inspiration in fellow NDP MP Meghan Leslie. "I think she's incredibly passionate. She's a new thinker. She's very creative. She's very real," he says. "She wants to make things work and that's what I want to do."