Liberal candidate Justin Trudeau says the $45 million in cuts from the federal arts budget shows Conservative Leader Stephen Harper doesn't "get" Canadians.

"Canadian identity is built around its creativity, its imagination, its vision. Our artists drive us forward," Trudeau told CTV's Mike Duffy Live on Tuesday.

"This is yet another example that the fact that Mr. Harper simply does not understand Canadians and does not trust Canadians in the choices they make."

Harper dismissed mounting criticism of the cuts by calling it a "niche" issue that doesn't resonate with "ordinary" Canadians.

In his strongest statements to date over the cuts, Harper said regular Canadians see a "bunch of people, you know, at a rich gala all subsidized by taxpayers claiming their subsidies aren't high enough, when they know those subsidies have actually gone up."

Trudeau says the arts are an $85-billion industry in Canada that directly employs one million people and the average salary is $23,000 a year.

"Hardly the kind of millionaires he likes to conjure to get people to react the way he wants to," said Trudeau. "He's all about the politics of division, the politics of pettiness. The Liberal Party of Canada, and I'm glad to say the other parties in Canada, will not stand for that kind of divisive discourse."

Harper was responding to increased pressure from arts groups and political foes over pulling funding for programs like PromArt and Trade Routes, which helped promote Canadian art internationally.

Harper said that with dimming economic prospects, Canadians have to be realistic about such government-funded programs.

"Ordinary people know you have to live within a budget," said Harper, who made the comments while announcing law and order measures in Saskatoon.

Harper also dismissed an aggressive NDP advertising onslaught in vote-rich Quebec, which likens the Conservatives to "culture killers," as extreme.

"It just shows the extreme side of the NDP - a side of the NDP that has no serious economic program for the country," he said.

NDP would restore funding

Earlier Tuesday, NDP Leader Jack Layton cast himself as the saviour of Canadian culture during a stop in Quebec City, where he pledged to protect artists and restore the cutbacks.

Layton also attacked Harper for slashing arts money while providing tax breaks for big business.

"Mr. Harper says that protecting artists and funding the arts is a waste of taxpayers' money," Layton told reporters.

"We say the arts are at the core of the economy."

NDP would restore arts funding, says Layton

Layton added that if he were elected prime minister, he would reverse the Tories' cutbacks, provide tax breaks for artists and impose regulations that would give Canadian productions prime television spots.

"We've got to begin that project by protecting and promoting the artists themselves - the people who actually create the television, the film, the performance, the visual art," he said.

When asked if the NDP had calculated the total cost of their arts package, Layton said the plan totalled about $150 million.

He added that a cornerstone of his plan includes an income-averaging model for artists based on Quebec's taxing system, and he praised Quebec's artists who "have kept the flame of French culture strong, in this city, in this province and right across Canada for four centuries."

Layton warned that Conservative policies could "throw our artists out of work" and lead to an onslaught of non-Canadian programming in film and television that would "deny us to our own stories as a country."

Both the NDP and the Conservatives have made major recent gains among Quebecers at the expense of the Bloc Quebecois and the Liberals, and observers say the province is a key battleground that could deliver Harper his first majority government.

In the last week, the subject of arts funding has become a hot issue in Quebec's urban areas and Quebec artists, like Michel Rivard of the band Beau Dommage, have been among the most vocal in the country about the funding decreases.

Rivard, along with other Quebec artists, recently launched a YouTube video which lampoons the Conservatives' approach to arts as bureaucratic and heavy handed.

The video, entitled "Culture en Peril" (Culture in Danger), has garnered tens of thousands of plays since its debut last week.

On Tuesday evening, Layton is scheduled to join Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe a Montreal nightclub to protest Stephen Harper's handling of Canadian arts and culture.