NDP Leader Jack Layton and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe joined the audience at a Tuesday night concert in Montreal organized by artists protesting $45 million in cuts to culture funding announced by the Conservative government last August.

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Federal NDP Leader Jack Layton speaks to reporters on Tuesday as he announces his party's campaign pledge to bolster arts and culture funding. ((CBC))

The event was organized by artists from Quebec who want their voices to be heard in the federal election campaign.

Layton had already attacked the cuts at a campaign event in Quebec City on Tuesday afternoon, where he said a New Democratic government would immediately cancel the Conservatives' $45-million cut to arts funding, and invest $125 million more.

"One of the key things we must do, before we start giving $50-billion tax giveaways to banks and oil companies, is to protect and promote the arts," Layton said. "We have to begin that project by protecting the artists themselves."

He also pledged to give the CBC and Radio-Canada "stable, sure and appropriate funding," while also protecting Telefilm and the Canadian Television Fund.

Layton said the NDP is committed to Canadians being able to make programming in French and English "made and produced by people here and starring people from here," while Stephen Harper's Conservatives have tried to "turn off the floodlights on our stories, on our hearts, on our souls."

"Mr. Harper says protecting artists and funding arts is a waste of taxpayers' money," Layton said.

"We say that creative industries are an enormous part of our country's future … I say we give them the fair shake and treat them as the entrepreneurs and small business owners that they are."

Speaking ahead of Tuesday night's concert, Gilles Duceppe said the funding cuts hurt more than just the artistic community, citing carpenters, cooks and people in the transport industry whose employment relies on the arts.

"I don't want there to be any more cuts, and if there are other proposals, we should talk about them," Duceppe told reporters in Quebec City on Tuesday.

Harper dismisses criticism over 'niche issue'

Critics and members of the arts community, especially in Quebec, decried the funding cuts announced by the Conservative government earlier this summer, accusing Harper of censoring creative production in Canada and harming the nation's image abroad.

Before Parliament was dissolved, opposition parties demanded a parliamentary review of the Tories' cuts and asked for a moratorium on the measures until the Commons heritage committee had a chance to hold hearings on culture and arts funding.

The Conservatives insist the money is being reallocated to other arts and cultural programs, including various official languages projects, the 400th anniversary of Quebec City and projects connected with the 2010 Vancouver-Whistler Winter Olympic Games.

Speaking on Tuesday in Saskatoon, Harper downplayed the outrage over the cuts as a "niche issue for some."

The Conservative leader also insisted that while funding for some programs has gone down, other programs have seen a boost and overall funding for the federal Heritage Department has increased by eight per cent since his government came to power.

"Of course, this government chooses its priorities," Harper told reporters after announcing a campaign proposal to end house arrests for serious crimes.  

"You know, I think when ordinary, working people come home, turn on the TV and see … a bunch of people at a rich gala all subsidized by the taxpayers, claiming their subsidies aren't high enough when they know the subsidies have actually gone up, I'm not sure that's something that resonates with ordinary people."

In an interview with CBC News, Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan said he was alarmed by Harper's comments.

"It's not a niche issue, It's a huge issue," Egoyan said, adding there are "a lot of ordinary people" working as carpenters, technicians, drivers and support crews on films, plays and television productions in Canada.

"There's an incredible economic trickle-down effect to the arts in this country and you cannot dismiss it as being something that we watch in the glamorous events."

On Tuesday, the NDP launched a new ad campaign aimed at the fury in the province over the arts cuts, with the ad playing on the name of Harper's party by referring to the party as Conservat-tueur de la culture, or "culture killer."

But Harper hit back at Layton's party, saying the ad showed the "extreme" side of the New Democrats.

"Look, I understand that some parties think you should spend more on culture than we do, but to say we’ve been slashing culture or cutting, it is simply not true," he said Tuesday.

"And when the NDP runs an ad like that, that just shows the extreme side of the NDP, a side of the NDP that has no serious economic program at all for the country, just a whole bunch of promises without limit, without any idea of how they’re going to pay for them."

Dion promises arts investment

Harper used the opportunity to target the Liberals' platform announced a day earlier, saying a Liberal government would have little to offer the arts community after it mismanaged Canada's economy into a deficit and recession.

"The Liberal party goes around the country making all these great promises," Harper said.

"But what happens in the end, when they actually try to put together a budget, first of all, a lot of their promises vanish. They’re gone, they’re retracted … So anybody who thinks the Liberals are going to increase culture or anything else, they’re sadly mistaken."

Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion has also vowed that his party would restore the arts funding if elected to form a government in the Oct. 14 federal election. He also pledged the Liberals would double the funding for the Canada Council for the Arts to $360 million.

Speaking Tuesday in British Columbia, Dion said a Liberal government would increase the tax credit for television and film from 25 per cent to 30 per cent, a move he said would result in a $160-million injection into the film and television industry.

"There is no strong economy without a strong artistic and cultural industry," Dion said, adding that 36,000 workers depend on the movie and television industry in British Columbia for employment.

Dion told reporters at an event in Burnaby. "With a Liberal government, Canada will have more movies, more novels, more theatres and more music."

Dion will spend a full day campaigning in British Columbia on Tuesday, as he visits Burnaby and Vancouver.

Also on Tuesday, Green Leader Elizabeth May continues her whistle-stop rail tour of Canada as she stops in Rivers, Man., and later for a rally in Winnipeg. Her train is also set to stop in Sioux Lookout, Ont., in the evening.