Municipal councillor Duncan McMaster sparked palpable outrage from Tofino’s arts community last week by proposing a motion to nix council’s arts grants and put those funds towards affordable housing.
“Housing is definitely invaluable to everybody. I’m not saying that arts and culture and everything else is not valuable, but housing people is more important,” McMaster said during Tofino’s June 12 council meeting.
“Rather than just increase the taxpayer’s burden, which is going to take a heavy hit once we get into liquid waste management, it would be opportune to move those funds over to affordable housing; where the demand is.”
His motion stated that council had recently agreed to allocate $50,000 towards affordable housing initiatives, “but little thought was given as to where this money was to come from” and suggested the council and arts grants would be a better source than taxpayers.
He noted council dished out $25,000 in council grants and $25,000 in arts grants in 2018 and that nixing both those coffers would fund the housing allocation without raising taxes.
He said council’s grants largely go to the same organizations every year and those organizations should be looking to create innovative funding streams on their own.
“I’ve always viewed that grants should be looked at as an incubator for starting things off but, I think, it’s being looked at as a cookie jar; that it’s always there and people can apply and get money,” he said.
Prior to council’s discussion of the motion, three members of the public spoke against it during the public input portion at the start of the meeting.
“The value of arts and culture and the value of these grants to the community is incalculable as far as I’m concerned. It runs the entire gamut of the things that are attached to our hearts,” said Maureen Fraser.
“We know the value of recreation to our bodies. We are slowly, as a community, realizing the value of arts and culture to our souls.”
Fraser added that she has served as the president of both the Tofino Arts Council and the Tofino Clayoquot Heritage Society and said neither organization would exist without the district’s grants.
“I just want to strongly urge council to defeat this motion. In fact, I would urge you not even to second it,” she said.
Tofino’s Poet Laureate Joanna Streetly also urged council to dismiss the motion and said arts and culture create valuable community connections in Tofino.
“What stirs me about my home is not the quality of the asphalt. It’s the stirring experiences I’ve had here, the people I shared those experiences with and the warmth of that sharing. That’s what makes life meaningful here,” she said. “It’s what I’ll remember long after I’ve forgotten about the sinkhole on Olsen Road and it’s what has kept me living here, despite having issues about affordable housing.”
McMaster’s motion was seconded by Coun. Ray Thorogood.
“The group that was here this morning talked about this has got to come from the hearts. Well, I think, it’s got to come from our pocketbooks,” he said.
McMaster and Thorogood were the only councillors to vote in favour of axing the grants in favour of housing, though council collectively agreed that the granting process needs rejigging.
“It’s not exactly an embarrassment, but it is a pain in the rear every time it rolls around. It’s just an unpleasant process and neither council nor the recipients seem to be totally pleased with it,” said Coun. Greg Blanchette of the grants.
Blanchette added that, while he believed the arts is the wrong pocket to pick from, he appreciated McMaster’s efforts to find money for housing.
“I applaud councillor McMaster for your zeal in pursuing what seems to be the impossible to find: where do we get more money without increasing taxes?” he said.
Coun. Dorothy Baert said the arts are vital and suggested there are other funding streams available for affordable housing projects.
“I’m not impressed by taking this as the sword to splash a large wound in a very, very, important fabric in our community,” she said. “To say that the arts and the community would have to be made to suffer so that this can go forward, I think is just really ill-advised. It’s very upsetting to me and has been to a number of people in the community…I’m sorry that it’s even had to be discussed.”
Coun. Cathy Thicke suggested the amount council grants to arts and culture initiatives would not make much of a dent in the town’s housing issues.
“I think it’s a drop in the bucket when it comes to affordable housing,” she said.
Mayor Josie Osborne said she would not support the motion but said she shared “profound support for really retooling our granting process,” and added the district will need to find ways to fund housing projects.
“The Tofino Housing Corporation has made it really clear to council that we are not going to be able to get enough grant money from everywhere…to be able to undertake affordable and attainable housing,” she said. “We are going to have to look for alternative sources of revenue and that may include looking at property tax revenue. That is a conversation that is coming to us, whether we like it or not, in the next budget cycle.”