In 2011, Canadian author and artist Franke James found herself at the heart of a bizarre and alarming series of events when she discovered the federal government had mysteriously cut funding to her international art show with Croatian non-profit Nektarina. After filing a number of Access To Information and Privacy requests to find out what exactly was going on, she realized it was a calculated, comprehensive attack on her art, and most importantly, her message.
For over a decade, James has been writing stories and creating online games using social issues, ethics and politics as themes. Her call-to-action is for people to vote and write letters to their MPs. More than 7,900 letters have been sent to the Prime Minister and MPs from her story What is Harper afraid of?, but never did she expect such activism would land her on a federal black list.
Her new book, Banned on the Hill: a True Story about Dirty Oil and Government Censorship, consists of eight visual essays that tell the incredible journey she’s been on from 2008 to 2013 and helps raise awareness about how the Harper government is silencing environmental voices.
Hot on the heels of her campaign to bring her Banned on the Hill poster campaign to another city, we caught up with James to find out more about her unusual experience.
What happened when the government tried to shut down your Nektarina show in Croatia?
Well, first of all – I was never supposed to hear about it. It’s only because Nektarina’s director Sandra Antonovic told me the Canadian Embassy was warning her not to show my art that I started digging. It’s taken me two years, but I now have 2,172 pages of government documents – all related to me! They shed light on how, and why, the government was secretly working to scuttle my art show. The bottom-line: my art was censored because it was against Harper government policy on climate change. This quote from an internal email by Foreign Affairs spokesperson Jean-Bruno Villeneuve is a perfect example: “However, it was later pointed out by another division that the artist’s work dealt mostly with climate change, and was advocating a message that was contrary to the government’s policies on the subject. So, after consultation, it was determined that the Canadian government would not fund the project after all.”
Some people may automatically think art that does not agree with government policy should not get funding, however now that I understand censorship better, I see why that thinking is wrong because if all art has to agree with government policy to get moral or financial support, then art equals government propaganda.
Can you give us examples of what the government was doing?
Sure. When Nektarina asked to buy my artwork for a solo show that would tour Europe I was thrilled. I contacted Nektarina for a progress update in May 2011. That’s when I first heard that Nektarina had applied for funding from the Canadian Embassy – and that the funding was initially approved. However when Ottawa heard funding for my show had been approved, senior officials in Ottawa were very upset. I have Access To Information and Privacy (AITP) documents that show the Deputy Director of Climate Change, Jeremy Wallace, ordered the funding to be cancelled. Not only did Ottawa withdraw the funding but senior officials used their influence to stop others from helping me or supporting my art show in any way.
The Canadian Embassy cultural officer in Croatia warned Sandra at Nektarina not to show my art saying, “Don’t you know this artist speaks against the Canadian government?” The proof given was my Dear Prime Minister essay, which I wrote in 2008. In that letter I asked Harper to make polluters pay so our children don’t have to pay to clean up the mess. It seems reasonable in a democracy for me to express that opinion, but apparently it didn’t go over well. That essay is probably how I got on their radar. It was published online and I sent out a press release announcing it.
At another time, Thomas Marr, a trade commissioner in Berlin, wrote an e-mail with the subject line, “Franke James is your fault?” to the official who had warned Nektarina not to show my art. Most of the e-mail is blacked out for reasons of “international security,” but it’s clear there was a big stink!
Why do you think they were trying to shut down your Nektarina show? Was the art politically or environmentally themed?
The big concept for my solo art show was to inspire students to make their own climate change art. It was entirely focused on what each of us can do in our own lives to reduce our carbon footprint. The government had copies of what art was going to be shown because it was in Nektarina’s proposal. In fact, Canada’s Planning and Advocacy division approved it. But then the officials in the Climate Change office and Canadian Ambassador Scott Heatherington pointed to other essays (like Fat Cat Canada), which I’d written in the past that were critical of the tarsands. So, I wasn’t censored for the art that was going to be in the show but for art that I had created previously.
By August 2011, the show was kaput. Nektarina could not stand being in the political cross-fires and we mutually agreed to cancel it. They posted a letter online objecting to the bullying and intimidation they faced from the Canadian government.
What was your next move?
Well, I decided I needed to shine a bright light on what the government had done to stop my art show. So I did three things. One was to dig for evidence. I applied for government documents by making Access to Information requests.
The second was to get loud in Ottawa and tell everyone what had happened. I started a crowd-funding campaign for an outdoor art show on the Prime Minister’s doorstep in Ottawa. It was very successful. 82 people contributed over $4,000 to help me put on the show in November 2011. It took place around the corner from the Parliament Buildings and we got a ton of media (and luckily I had the first batch of ATIP documents as evidence). The main message of the show was for Harper to stop blacklisting our environmental messengers because artists and scientists are the planet’s early warning system. (It was great to see that one year later, 1,000 federal scientists gathered in Ottawa on Parliament Hill to protest the silencing and cuts by the Harper government. They called their march the ‘Death of Evidence.’)
And the third thing I did was publish my new book, Banned on the Hill: a True Story about Dirty Oil and Government Censorship.
Was it difficult to obtain the documents you requested through Access to Information? How long did that take?
It’s not hard but it does take persistence and attention to detail. There is lots of information on the internet as to how to structure your request. I also contacted experts including DeSmog Blog and Ken Rubin to ask them for advice on how to do it.
As I mentioned, I’ve obtained 2,172 ATIP documents that are all related to me. That isis the documents are from four different federal departments: Foreign Affairs, the Privy Council, Natural Resources and Environment Canada.
Some fun things I learned are in my book in The Games Bureaucats Play. It’s basically a distillation of what I learned from the ATIP process and tips on how to count
er their games. One game is called Stupid Cat Tricks, and gives tips on how to circumvent the government’s dumbing down of smart information (use OCR software to make the documents searchable again.) There’s also the Hot Potato game, which everyone is familiar with, but I support it with actual ATIP documents I’ve received to show how I was treated as a “hot potato” and what you can do to protect yourself (record phone calls and send call reports). Other games are C.Y.A., Litter Box Blow-Out, Peek-A-Boo, Spies and Prowlers – and more! Anyone who is interested in filing ATIPs or FOIs will find it interesting and educational.
What advice to you have for those who want to get involved in environmental activism but are afraid of being monitored or blacklisted?
Get out into the sunshine and speak up. We can’t let the bullies push us into a corner. Just concentrate on doing the right thing that’s in alignment with your values and your conscience. And amazing things will happen.
We’ve got one hard copy and one e-book of Banned on the Hill to give away to two of our readers! Send an email to email@example.com with ‘Banned on the Hill’ in the subject line and we’ll pull two lucky names out of a hat in July for the giveaway.