It was her Tory predecessor who warned Mélanie Joly about the political dangers of her cultural policy review. Asked to comment when the Liberal minister of Canadian heritage launched the review two years ago, former Conservative minister James Moore pointed to the difficulty of balancing public expectations of ever-more consumer choice with cultural industry demands for subsidies and regulations. He didn’t add that cynical political calculation was the reason Stephen Harper’s government had simply allowed the file to languish, but today, as Ms. Joly finds herself demoted to a trio of minor portfolios – tourism, official languages and la francophonie – Mr. Moore’s observation looks prescient.
So can Pablo Rodriguez, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new Minister of Canadian Heritage and Multiculturalism, do a better job of squaring a commitment to Canadian culture with global realities? Mr. Rodriguez is a trilingual Quebec MP of Argentinian extraction who previously worked in international development and, in politics, has served as opposition critic on culture as well as covering the official languages file. Most recently, however, he has been Mr. Trudeau’s chief whip, with a reputation as a smart political operator. He will need those smarts if he is going to wrangle the cultural policy portfolio, which Ms. Joly leaves in some confusion.
The outgoing minister has taken seemingly contradictory positions in recent months, stating that foreign programming services will be required to contribute to the Canadian system while also upholding Mr. Trudeau’s pledge that there would be no “Netflix tax.” (Whether that might mean simply enforcing GST collection on your Netflix bill or actually asking foreign players to contribute to the Canada Media Fund underwritten by Canadian broadcasters was never quite clear.)
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Ms. Joly raised hopes when she initiated a much-needed review of Canadian cultural policy in 2016 – only to deliver scant improvements and no clear solution to the puzzle bedevilling many a culture minister these days: How do you move supports for national content over to the freewheeling, borderless world of the internet?
As Ms. Joly launched her review in April, 2016, she proclaimed that “everything was on the table,” creating both anxiety and expectations in the cultural community. It seemed a government was finally going to address Canada’s outdated cultural rules, including broadcasting regulations that seemed completely inadequate in the world of Google, YouTube and Netflix.
Her enthusiasm for the file seemed – at the time, and only more so in retrospect – rather naive. Her mandate letter only asked her to carry out the Liberals' simple, relatively modest election promises, including increasing funding to the CBC, Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board. But, taking up her portfolio, she repeatedly described herself as a digital native who accessed everything on her phone and seemed determined to prod the country’s cultural industries forward.
And yet, in a television interview timed to the launch of her review, she talked about an ecosystem that included streaming services popular with Canadians, naming Hulu as an example, even though it is not available in Canada. So she seemed to combine traditional Liberal nationalism with a trendy affection for digital globalization, while missing the finer points of the challenges the latter poses for Canada’s creative industries. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Creative Canada report, when released last September, suggested that she and her staff had failed to wrestle the problem to the ground. It contained various tweaks and a few worthy initiatives but no clear position on the cultural policy conundrum, whether that means dismantling cultural protections or somehow bringing foreign streaming services into the Canadian system.
The biggest embarrassment of the review was the so-called Netflix deal, a $500-million commitment to Canadian programming from the American streaming service that Ms. Joly unveiled alongside the report. It was touted as the way of the future but revealed, on further examination, to offer no more money than Netflix had previously boasted it was spending in Canada and defined Canadian content so vaguely that it seemed to include U.S. shows shot here. Worse yet, the deal was tone deaf to the cultural concerns of Ms. Joly’s home province, making no distinction between French-language and English-language content and leaving open the possibility that all Quebec would get from Netflix was dubbed programming.
More recently, Ms. Joly has announced a review of the Broadcasting Act, which is where the rubber hits the road on this file: It establishes the principle of broadcasters’ obligation to provide Canadian content. She appointed an impressive expert committee to review the issue, but political pundits might have predicted she would not survive to see its report – since the deadline was judiciously timed to fall after the 2019 federal election.
If Ms. Joly proved overly ambitious in her approach to the portfolio, Mr. Rodriguez, for all his impressive credentials, may prove to be insufficiently so. Canada desperately needs new cultural policy, but the new minister may be expected to keep the file quiet in the run-up to the election. Mr. Trudeau has only learned what many a Canadian political leader at both federal and provincial levels has before him: The small-budget culture portfolio may look like a pleasant backwater, but there are alligators lurking just beneath the surface.