An MP talks about the Stratford theatre festival

John Nater is the Member of Parliament for Perth-Wellington (Ontario). In other words, he’s the federal politician for Stratford and many communities that surround the city. He was first elected in 2015.

I don’t know John—we’ve never met—and I don’t know if he wrote his own responses (John?), but he comes across as thoughtful and candid. Something else: two years ago, he joined us at Stratford’s first-ever Pride celebration—as he should do, of course. But I think he was the only senior politician to show up. (Thanks, man. Means a lot. Next Pride—there’ll be a next Pride—bring your water gun.)

I caught up with the Conservative Party MP this week, shortly after we all learned that the Stratford Theatre Festival was forced to shut down for the year.

WGF: How did you react when you learned about the closure of the Festival?

JN: I suspect my reaction was the same as many in the community. While it was unfortunately a necessary decision given the current public health restrictions, it nonetheless provokes sadness and disappointment at (temporarily) losing this cultural and economic cornerstone

WGF: In your view, what will the fall-out be?

JN: There will be significant consequences for our community as well as for associated industries. I speak with local businesses on a daily basis and there are great concerns among the hospitality and tourism sector about what the future holds. The Stratford Festival has an economic impact of $125 million annually, so there will no doubt be large financial impacts on local restaurants, hotels/motels and retail stores.

WGF: The Festival says it needs $40 million, and very soon. You’re part of the political leadership here. Arguably, you’re the first among equals. What can you do, how can you help, in concrete and specific ways?

JN: I’ve had a great working relationship with the Stratford Festival since the day I was first elected. In fact, my first meeting, on my first day in my Ottawa Office was with the Stratford Festival Leadership Team.

In the context of the current crisis, I first reached out to the Stratford Festival’s leadership in mid-March offering my support for the Stratford Festival and my assistance in both accessing and proposing government programs in response to the pandemic. Since then, I have been in communication with senior leadership at the Festival on a weekly basis. A $500 million fund has been created to support the Arts, Culture and Sport Sectors. I have actively been seeking clarity on the details of this program and when applications will be open.

WGF: Take us ‘inside:’ What role are you playing in a crisis such as the 2020 closure of the Festival?

JN: My focus has always been on the people in Perth—Wellington. That does not change during the pandemic. My staff and I are working seven days a week responding to phone calls and emails from community members who have been so deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been working to support individuals who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and ensuring they are able to access the government supports available.

What is more, as these programs have been rolled out, I have raised the concerns of local citizens who have fallen through the cracks.

WGF: But you’re an Opposition M.P. From that side of the Commons floor, what sway and influence do you have to help with rescue and recovery for your constituents in Stratford?

JN: I have raised this issue twice on the floor of the House of Commons, including earlier today. I have also sent letters of support to the Ministers of Finance, Heritage and Economic Development. This is in addition to the countless phone and “zoom” conversations with colleagues on both sides of the political aisle. I will continue to lobby on behalf of both the Stratford Festival and the countless local businesses affected by this suspension

WGF: What’s the “hope message” here? Do you have one? If so, what lies at the core of your optimism? Or is it too soon for happy thoughts?

JN: Those who know me well, know that I am an optimistic person. I thought [artistic director] Antoni [Cimilino’s] closing comments in his recent press release were apt: “And yet, while the creation of a vaccine and anti-viral drugs will cure this pandemic, ultimately what will cure society in its aftermath is art. We look forward to the time when we can gather together again to, in the words of William Shakespeare, ‘live, and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh.’”

WGF: What’s next?

JN: The priority must be the health and safety of all citizens. Going forward, we must continue to respect the advice of public health officials in order “flatten” or “plank” the curve.

Once we are able to lift some health restrictions, it will be important that all of us as community members support those small businesses who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. I stand ready to do my part as the representative of this great community.