Two weeks ago, I had the occasion to see the truly moving Broadway production Come from Away. Theatre reviews are not my specialty, but to say the show was emotionally powerful would be an understatement of gross proportions.
Come from Away captures the stories of Newfoundlanders and stranded travellers in Gander, N.L. following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. It showcases how neighbours and complete strangers came together on a personal level to cope with the turbulence of that time.
This past spring Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took in the musical on Broadway and brought along some key figures in the Trump administration. Among them were Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump’s daughter and key adviser, as well as Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations. The Liberal government spent $30,000 on 600 tickets that evening.
When news broke of the money doled out by the Trudeau government on the show, there was criticism that this was a frivolous expenditure. At a surface level, that criticism might seem legitimate. Not everyone has $50 to spend on a Broadway ticket. Many people would need that extra coin to put additional food on the table or pay other bills. Yet, as a Canadian taxpayer who has now seen Come from Away and paid US$99 retail to watch the performance, both my personal investment and that of the government’s was well worth it.
Bringing leaders of the U.S. administration to Broadway to see this story that reflected so positively on Canada-U.S. relations in our friend’s most difficult hour was clever cultural diplomacy, a practice which involves, according to the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy, the exchange of ideas, values, and other aspects of culture to strengthen relationships and advance national interests.
Members of the Trudeau government would have been foolhardy if they hadn’t used the opportunity Come From Away presented to showcase the human faces of our relationship at a time when naïve new leadership south of the boarder had fog-covered lenses. As The New York Times‘ review of Come from Away noted: “A tale of an insular populace that doesn’t think twice before opening its arms to an international throng of strangers automatically acquires a near-utopian nimbus…So does the reminder that there was a time when much of the Western world united in the face of catastrophe.”
When I sat in that audience a fortnight ago it was patently evident both how fresh the memory of 9/11 remains, and how all theatre-goers that day welcomed the warmth of humanity in coping with the consequences of dire circumstances. A natural hopeful, thankful, and long standing-ovation followed the performance. It was a most pleasant diversion from the raucous and often vile political discourse that is easily found on screens across North America.
If the $30,000 spent by the Canadian government advances either our position with the Trump administration, particularly in NAFTA discussions, or helps further highlight the benefits of our nation to the world, it is money well spent.
Personally, I much prefer this form of Canadian cash layout then all the resources expended on road signs for highway projects, cardboard cutouts of our PM, or Canada 150 stickers and flags. When we have cultural products that have the potential to benefit us on numerous levels, then let us take them to the world.
It wouldn’t hurt to tone down the predictable ranting and roaring that comes with these sorts of stories and focus on the gains they can give us. Thirty thousand dollars for tickets to a play is an easy headline and opposition slam. But when that investment creates an excellent diplomatic tool and brings an international marketing opportunity, that expenditure yields a strong return on the taxpayers’ dime.
Tim Powers is vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and managing director of Abacus Data. He is a former adviser to Conservative political leaders.
The Hill Times