To support its cultural industries in the face of American dominance, Canada has for many decades depended on regulating television and radio broadcasters to share and finance Canadian stories and songs. Yet the barely regulated internet, a product of Silicon Valley’s maverick free-market mindset, now allows users to make and hoover up the content of their choosing. For people seeking stories and songs around the world, borders now barely exist.
The federal government has been trying since 2020 to wrangle together legislation that would force streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify to promote and finance the country’s cultural content just like old-guard broadcasters must. It finally received royal assent on April 27, but it wasn’t easy. What unfolded in the past few years far more resembled an agonizing battle than a nation-building exercise.
How can Canada preserve its culture in the streaming era? What counts as culture worth preserving? Who gets to decide how that should work? How much intervention is necessary? How Canadian is Canadian enough? There are no consensus answers to these questions. Just as the internet fractured the ways that culture is distributed, the groups that create all that culture have fractured, too.
In attempting to regulate an internet that grew up without regulation, Ottawa’s new Online Streaming Act, the erstwhile Bill C-11, has revealed a rift at the core of Canada’s artistic communities. Artists and workers in the sub-sectors that come together to make all this content have starkly different opinions on how policy should adapt to the streaming shift.
It’s not even yet clear what forcing streamers to support Canadian content would look like – that’s up to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Even that process will probably take another few years. But the passing of Bill C-11 is still sending fears flying over what could happen. It’s very difficult to find someone truly happy with the entire shape of the new legislation.
The Globe and Mail spoke with six artists and creators whose work could be affected by the Online Streaming Act, and whose views encompass many of the nuances in the debate that’s raged over it.
Some artists’ groups argue that the legislation’s language doesn’t go far enough in forcing American giants to support Canadian content as much as domestic counterparts. Others insist the new law opens the door to massive overreach, potentially creating upheaval for creators on YouTube and TikTok trying to get their videos to the masses. Many fear the services will be forced to rejig algorithms to disproportionately surface Canadian content here in ways that could have repercussions, perhaps entirely unintentionally, for how their content is seen elsewhere.
Domestic and foreign interest groups have spent much of the past few years working Ottawa’s backrooms and trotting spokespeople before federal committees to urge lawmakers to either strengthen or water down the new law. It seemed like for every group such as the Writers Guild of Canada that showed up to a Senate committee arguing that without cultural protections, “we are at risk of losing an entire generation of storytellers,” you could find an American streamer such as Netflix insisting that it’s already investing plenty in Canada and shouldn’t be beholden to a more “rigid” investment model.
The democratization of content online has prompted perhaps the thorniest of debates over the new streaming bill. Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez expressly said the legislation would not apply to user-generated content, such as everyday people’s TikTok videos. Yet when the Senate put forward an amendment deliberately clarifying this, the minister chose to quash it. Senators decided not to fight this change, taking the government at its word.
And yet the back-and-forth resulted in profound confusion. Even on Parliament Hill, both the author and Liberal-appointed independent Senator David Adams Richards and Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre have argued that the legislation’s language opens up the floodgates for algorithmic manipulation – a level of interference they insist would be no less than full-on government censorship.
Such is the tone of discourse in the digital age. The fight for Canadian content was once about establishing a national identity in the face of American and European hegemonies. But the Online Streaming Act has created a more multi-dimensional debate over content regulations than past generations could have possibly imagined.
At the core of this battle are two broad philosophical camps, each with many subdivisions of their own. One believes Canadian ideas should be protected at all costs, and that doing so protects Canada. The other insists Canadians deserve support in creating borderless content for a borderless audience to build an industry here at home.
Artists, creators, and their unions and lobby groups have fractured along philosophical, technical and geographic lines. Depending on whom you ask, the stipulations of the Online Streaming Act could either support or hurt Canadian stories, and either create or impede opportunities for Canadians whose work is streamed online.
The legislation has managed to infuriate many of the people whose work it is supposed to protect in different ways. It may spread more chaos than Canadian stories.
The following reflections from artists and creators have been edited and condensed from interviews conducted in the final days before Bill C-11 became law, when its wording was almost entirely finalized.
They showcase the significant uncertainty ahead as the CRTC spends the coming months or years interpreting the new law.
David Bussières, singer/songwriter/producer, member of the band Alfa Rococo, and director with SOCAN and Union des artistes, Montreal
Bussières is a spokesperson for Regroupement des artisans de la musique, which advocates for more equitable treatment of musicians in the digital economy. Broadcasting regulations have long ensured Quebeckers heard Quebec music wherever possible, bolstering that province’s artists, but today’s free market of streaming has made it much harder for Québécois musicians and storytellers.
A digital service provider such as Spotify, YouTube or Apple Music that operates in Canada has the moral obligation to contribute to the creation of new content through institutions such as Musicaction and FACTOR like other broadcasters do. It’s like a continuation of the regulations we have right now concerning the production of new Canadian content with traditional media like radio.
The second part is discoverability. Francophone music is, globally, considered a niche. Niche music is one of the biggest losers in the digital audio revolution. For most people, the songs that are pushed to them are already the most popular songs. For Quebeckers, our own music is not often recommended. When you open a digital service provider, the homepage should promote mainly, or in a better fashion, local Canadian and Quebec francophone music.
The algorithm should be able to recommend at least some local music so that people can be exposed – of course, they will never be obliged to listen to the music, but you cannot like or dislike something that you don’t know. They can later choose if they like it or not.
The greater adoption of our music by our citizens, the more we can generate streams, the more we can generate further exposure through recommendations through algorithms because the more you’re played, and the more you will be played. And then the more you get exposure on these platforms, the more you have chance to sell tickets.
That makes sure our artistic ecosystem is viable. Because the way we’re taking right now is the opposite.
Morghan Fortier, chief executive officer of Skyship Entertainment, which makes music videos and other programming for preschoolers and young audiences, Toronto
Super Simple Songs is one of the most popular Canadian YouTube channels for kids, with more than 38 million subscribers. Fortier comes from a traditional animation and production background. She believes in the importance of protecting Canadian regional content, but that the scope of the new law tries blanket too many disparate kinds of art and content creation, especially if services such as YouTube disproportionately promote content they deem Canadian.
Canada makes up less than 3 per cent of our views. Digital distribution is a global activity. It’s export, not import. Not to be dramatic, but the bill actually has an impact on anyone in the world producing content. Just like we’re working to get into the U.S. market, other content creators are working to get into the U.S. and the Canadian market. It’s the open internet. When you have a situation where content is being artificially promoted, something else is being artificially demoted. C-11 is coming up in trade conversations between the U.S. and Canada, so it’s not just me being hysterical about this point.
Digital distribution is a big spiderweb. The success we have on YouTube helps drive the listeners we get on Spotify, as an example. A sense of being everywhere helps drive the audience. Suddenly not having as much control as you have over YouTube because there’s a government mandate to artificially promote it – from a business perspective, there’s no ability to actually properly grow because you’re hobbled with this crutch of an artificial promotion.
If we’re looking for innovation, growth and sustainability, having an artificial promotion mandate would become really problematic. We would lose real and valuable information and understanding of our community.
Paul Healy, set decorator with 35 years experience whose work includes The Last of Us, Calgary
Current broadcast regulations have strict criteria for what defines a film or TV show as Canadian, including rules around producers, financing and the amount of work performed by Canadians. Healy is a member of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 212, whose broader union has taken the position that the definition of “Canadian” should be widened.
Even 20 years ago, when a production would come to town anywhere in Canada, half of them didn’t even look at our local people. They just brought their own people with them. But now you can have something like The Last of Us coming here, where easily 90 per cent of that crew on the ground in production was Canadian. A worldwide phenomenon being considered made-in-Canada? That seems like a good push forward. Movies I’ve made in the last five or 10 years are better than the movies the 20 years previous. And the main reason is: I’m surrounded by Canadians.
If you’ve got a production that’s 90-per-cent-or-better Canadian staff, all the way from the creative people down to the people moving things, isn’t that essentially a made-in-Canada product? It doesn’t necessarily need to be a Canadian story for that to take place. It’s still made in Canada. We want to attract outside money into our country. That’s what creates an industry.
The playing field has changed so much. Sure, American media overtake most of the world’s media, but at the end of the day, media are now a global industry. It’s not necessarily catered to a particular country – even if you make a Canadian-content show like Heartland, people might be watching that in Germany or Australia, and that’s great. But you can’t punish Disney Plus if people want to watch a Disney movie or Star Wars movie – to force a company like that to have a certain amount of Canadian products doesn’t make sense for the business model at all.
Darcy Michael, actor and comedian who broke out on TikTok, where he has 3.5 million followers, Vancouver
Speaking before a Senate committee, Michael described himself as a “married, gay stoner – you can’t get more Canadian.” But he’s worried that the Online Streaming Act could lead to regulation of videos such as his, leading to algorithmic manipulation could that could reduce his audience. If that happens, he says he may have to leave Canada. Michael blew up on TikTok after he says he spent years developing a TV show with Bell Media that went nowhere.
As an actor, as a comedian, as a writer, I think that what they’re doing with Bill C-11 for that side of the industry is years overdue. I strongly believe that Netflix and Apple and all of the streamers should be held accountable the same way CTV, CBC and everybody else is. But for user-generated content – that just weirds me out, man. It’s just too open to interpretation for abuse. You’re putting it in the hands of the CRTC, which I have a lot of opinions about. I’ll start with my cellphone bill.
There are a lot of gatekeepers getting circumvented by user-generated content. I tried so hard for so many years in this country to have a traditional career as an entertainer. I was lucky to have two seasons on Spun Out on CTV. Then we developed a sitcom based on my life and my comedy, and one person decided there wasn’t an appetite for it. So out of spite, I took the content to TikTok; now three and a half million people disagree. I’m an example of the bureaucracy that gets in the way of artists.
Before Tiktok, I was selling 200 tickets to a show. Now we’re selling out 1,000-seat theatres. And none of that would have been possible if I was just performing on CBC and CTV once a year for Just For Laughs.
I don’t think the CRTC is going to come out and say you have to prove that you’re making Canadian content right away, but they could. I’m going to Europe to film a 10-episode series for YouTube; the idea that might not necessarily be deemed Canadian content is insane to me, because I’m Canadian, I’m creating content, end of discussion. I just worry that the freedom of the internet in Canada is at risk.
Sugith Varughese, screenwriter and actor, currently performing in Transplant, Toronto
One contentious segment of the Online Streaming Act requires Canadian broadcasters to make “maximum use” of Canadian talent, but asks “foreign online undertakings” to instead make the “greatest practicable use” of Canadian workers. Varughese is one of many creatives who worry this won’t hold streamers accountable enough to use Canadian talent, which could significantly reduce working opportunities.
As a kid, CBC was telling stories that I recognized, and didn’t have to project myself into being James Bond or in a cowboy movie. But what I didn’t recognize was myself. When I started my career, the reason I did was because that was the only way I was going to become part of an industry I could see myself in: the Americans weren’t going to put me on TV, but Canadians did because they had to.
I’ve never understood the public’s desire not to have these requirements, because all it’s ever done is create a viable music industry and a viable television industry in this country, where people could actually stay in Canada and make a living telling stories or making music. We’re long overdue to put streamers on the same playing field level with the broadcasters.
The Act got watered down. Hopefully the government can at least impose requirements on the CRTC so that streamers are made to deliver on Canadian content. Asking for best efforts is not mandatory. If any of these streamers is taking profits out of the Canadian marketplace, it should be more of a requirement than a request. It’s like banking regulations: Let’s make sure that people who make money off the Canadian marketplace do it in an ethical and Canadian-centric manner.
Jean Yoon, actor and writer, best known for Kim’s Convenience, Toronto
A show that I was on, Kim’s Convenience, was one of the first that CBC put on Netflix. People saw it around the world, and it was fabulous for our show in terms of reach, but I, as a performer, did not benefit in any way. We need this bill, because that sort of situation is simply not sustainable.
A lot of people assume that Canadian content laws somehow determine what story is told and somehow police the content. But all it really does is affirms who is making key creative decisions – and that indirectly supports the telling of Canadian stories. It’s also possible for a Canadian team to create a piece that is really marketed first or intended for a non-Canadian audience.
I think Pierre Poilievre is distorting the bill and misleading Canadians. User-generated content is not going to fall under this bill. It is in all Canadians’ best interests that we have an environment in which Canadian actors, directors, writers, musicians and artists can create their work with adequate funding and get it in front of the eyes of their fellow Canadians. That’s absolutely necessary for a vigorous and healthy democracy: for the people of a nation to know each other.
Korea strongly invested in the notion of rebuilding itself after the devastation of the Korean war. There are stories, over and over again, about how K-pop and K-drama fans are studying Korean and wanting to visit Korea. Why can’t we in Canada invest with the same enthusiasm and recognition that arts and culture is an expression of self-respect for a nation?