Toronto Sun and PMO renew their fury over SummerWorks’ terrorism-themed play

Toronto Sun and PMO renew their fury over SummerWorks’ terrorism-themed play

Lwam Ghebrehariat in Catherine Frid's Homegrown (Image: SummerWorks) 

Surprise, surprise: there’s drama brewing in the Toronto theatre community. The commotion involves a stage festival, a newspaper, the Prime Minister’s Office, a soupçon of terrorism and everyone’s favourite Canadian creative tool, the government grant.

Last Saturday, the Sun reported that Toronto’s SummerWorks theatre festival had filed its Canadian Heritage grant application late last year, but that the officials in charge of assessing the application backdated the grant so that it appeared to have been filed on time. Pretty straightforward stuff, yet this was the article’s lead: “Bureaucrats bent over backwards to bend the rules and shovel federal cash to a Toronto theatre festival that staged a sympathetic play about a terrorist who wanted to blow up downtown Toronto.”

The Sun was referring to Homegrown, a play about “Toronto 18” terrorist Shareef Abdelhaleem staged at last year’s festival. Playwright and author Catherine Frid has repeatedly described her work as sympathetic to Abdelhaleem’s plight in a complicated justice system, rather than to terrorism itself. But that’s all very much beside the point, as theatre festivals don’t get grant approval based on the political content of their plays.

Since the publication of the Sun’s article, the Prime Minister’s Office has issued a criticism of the way the SummerWorks application was handled. This isn’t the first time the PMO has weighed in on SummerWorks and Homegrown: it condemned the play before it even opened last summer, when spokesman Andrew MacDougall told the media, “We are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism.”

The festival’s artistic producer Michael Rubenfeld maintains that granting bodies accepting late applications is not unheard of under certain circumstances, and J. Kelly Nestruck of the Globe and Mail has weighed in on the issue, agreeing that the fact this is even an issue verges on ridiculous:

What exactly the folks at Canadian Heritage did wrong is hard to ascertain from the article. They seem to stand accused of helping Rubenfeld fill out forms correctly and reminding him of deadlines, two things I’m pretty sure are a part of their job.

In short: A late grant application? Like that never happens.

The Heritage Minister, James Moore, is now investigating the allegations, and the PMO has warned, “If the allegations are true, we expect that those who have acted unfairly and/or have broken the rules will be severely reprimanded or fired.” While it’s true that bureaucratic rules exist for a reason, when it comes to arts organizations and the grant application process, they don’t exist in a vacuum. That someone may be fired for helping an understaffed arts organization obtain government funding seems a wee bit harsh to us—especially when it’s impossible not to connect the dots back to a little play that both the Toronto Sun and the PMO have been publicly unhappy about since day one.

• Bureaucrats bent the rules for theatre festival [Toronto Sun]
• PMO criticizes how SummerWorks received Heritage grant [Globe and Mail]
• SummerWorks and Canadian Heritage: It’s not a scandal – it’s a good news story [Globe and Mail]
Festival head takes issue with PMO criticism of play [Globe and Mail]
• ‘Sympathetic’ terrorist play gets boost [Canoe]