Opposition MPs launched a House of Commons review of nearly $45 million in cuts to arts funding on Tuesday, suggesting the way the cuts were made was an example of government censorship and abuse of power.

"They were done in secret, with no consultation, with no public review," New Democrat MP Peggy Nash told a meeting of the Commons heritage committee.

 Recent federal arts and culture cuts
  • Canadian Memory Fund (to be phased out as of April 1, 2009): $11.57 million.
  • Research and development component of Canadian Culture Online (to be phased out as of April 1, 2010): $5.64 million.
  • Northern Distribution Program (to be phased out as of April 1, 2010): $2.1 million.
  • Culture.ca web portal (to be phased out as of April 1, 2009): $3.8 million.
  • Canadian Cultural Observatory (culturescope.ca) (to be phased out as of April 1, 2009): $560,000.
  • AV Trust - Feature Film Preservation and Access (to be phased out as of April 1, 2009): $150,000.
  • AV Trust - Canadian Music Preservation and Access (to be phased out as of April 1, 2009): $150,000. 
  • Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund (to be phased out as of April 1, 2009): $1.5 million.
  • National Training Program for the Film and Video Sector (to be phased out as of April 1, 2009): $2.5 million.
  • Trade Routes (contributions to be phased out as of April 1, 2009, remainder of program phased out as of April 1, 2010): $7.1 million. 
  • Canadian Arts and Heritage Sustainability Program (two components to be phased out and one component reduced as of April 1, 2009): $3.9 million.
  • Supply Chain Initiative component of the Book Publishing Industry Development Program (reduced as of April 1, 2008): $1 million.
  • Support for Industry Development component of the Canada Magazine Fund (to be reduced as of April 1, 2009): $500,000.

(Source: Canadian Heritage; does not include cut of Foreign Affairs program to assist the travels of artists abroad.)

The three opposition parties demanded the session in the wake of cuts the government quietly implemented during Parliament's summer recess.

"There is real concern the government is picking and choosing which artists it is supporting and which artists it is not supporting," said Nash.  "I suggest, in a democracy, that is a dangerous thing."

The cuts affect programs vital to promotion of Canadian arts abroad and appear to have been aimed at artists whose politics and philosophies are out of favour with the Conservative government, Nash said.

Conservative MPs argued the cuts were the result of a "strategic review" of arts funding — which has not been made public — that found the programs had either fulfilled their original goals or were wasting money on excessive administrative expenses.

But the opposition called for a moratorium on the measures until the heritage committee completes its hearings, which could begin as early as next week.

Liberal MP Mauril Bélanger said the government may have overstepped its bounds by arbitrarily reducing program funding that had been approved by the Commons in the 2008 budget and in subsequent spending estimates.

"We live in a parliamentary democracy, and this government seems to want to avoid Parliament like the plague," Bélanger told the committee.

"Is there an abuse here of executive authority? If the government can cancel any program it chooses, where does it stop?"

MPs said the type of art and range of artists who will be affected by the elimination of a program that sends artists abroad to promote their work has prompted fears of censorship in the arts community.

Nash suggested artists she got together with before the meeting were concerned that Conservatives are masking their opposition to some of the messages the subsidized art conveys by rationalizing the cuts as examples of thrift and accountability.

Program funded trips to Cuba

The promotional travel program the Conservatives are eliminating this year has included sponsorships such as a $550 grant to an Ontario filmmaker to present the short film Confessions of a Drag Queen at a gay and lesbian film festival in 2006.

The program gave another filmmaker $900 to present the film Peking Turkey at a gay and lesbian film festival in London, England, last year.

The program also funded trips by writer Gwynne Dyer and retired Supreme Court of Canada justice Michel Bastarache to travel to Cuba for speeches on Canadian foreign policy and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Several other artists and groups also received grants to travel to Cuba.

Other grants promoted seminars on corporate responsibility in South America and Central America, but dozens of grants for filmmakers, writers and performing artists were for trips to festivals and performances around the world.

Liberal MP Denis Coderre said artists and creative groups learned about the cuts "from the back door."

Coderre said the government was overlooking the spinoff economic activity — estimated at $84 billion by the Conference Board of Canada in a report released Tuesday — that the arts community creates.

Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro argued the Conservative government increased arts and cultural funding to $200 million in the 2008 budget — 20 per cent more than the last Liberal government allotted to the sector.

With files from the Canadian Press