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Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez delivers opening remarks to the National Culture Summit, at the National Arts Centre, in Ottawa, on May 3.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

At the National Arts Centre in Ottawa Tuesday, Minister of Canadian Heritage Pablo Rodriguez made a startling revelation: He asked for this job.

In his opening speech to a three-day national cultural summit, Rodriguez said that after the last election he told Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to put him back in Heritage, the portfolio he held briefly in 2018-19. He must have known that whoever led Heritage would have to stickhandle several controversial pieces of legislation intended to regulate the internet, but he signed up for the tricky assignment nonetheless.

“I care about the arts. I care about culture. I care about heritage. I care about Canadian stories. But, how we find and share our stories is changing,” he told assembled cultural workers, as he segued into a speech about digital imperatives.

Even as it discusses sustainability in a cultural sector battered by the pandemic, the gathering of arts groups being held this week seems mainly intended to rally the troops around Rodriguez’s key political task: the government’s proposed internet regulation. In particular, the government needs support for Bill C-11, which would update the Broadcasting Act to bring foreign streaming services into the Canadian system. Trouble is, Rodriguez may not be addressing the right people.

Whether federal or provincial, Canadian politicians tend to regard the small-budget culture portfolios as pleasant backwaters – until the crocodiles start chomping off their legs.

It’s toonies compared to Health, Education or Defence, but the potential for flare-ups is huge, something Rodriguez knows because he comes from Quebec. There, politicians take the European view that culture is important, and anything important is potentially controversial.

Specifically, the Liberal government has retabled its legislation to modernize the Broadcasting Act, a bill that was much delayed in the previous Parliament by the Conservatives pandering to alarmist interpretations of its implications for citizens’ social media posts, and then died with the election call. (The government clarified that the bill only covers professional content.)

Then there is the recently introduced Bill C-18 which, following Australia’s example, would force Google and Facebook to negotiate sharing ad revenues with struggling Canadian news organizations whose content they link to. The Liberals are also proposing to draft a bill addressing online harms such as hate speech, terrorist content and child pornography, a delicate project that is still in the consultation phase.

“We need to act … because what happens online influences what happens everywhere else: on our stages, in festivals, in our museums and public libraries. In our streets and communities here in Canada and around the world,” Rodriguez said.

The emphasis is clear: that material cultural and live performance follow the virtual and the digital. It’s an odd hierarchy to be asserting to an arts gathering emerging from a pandemic where everything went virtual – only to reveal how much the physical and the actual matter to the human psyche.

The question in Ottawa this week is whether visual artists, theatre performers or museum administrators are really the best people to be advocating for some much-needed internet regulation. The cultural sector is large and its concerns are various as panelists made clear once they took the floor. The television production industry desperately wants Bill C-11 and broadcasters would welcome a level playing field when it comes to competing with foreign streaming services.

But in the performing arts, where musicians and actors have lost their jobs during the pandemic, they are talking about universal basic income, and they aren’t likely to be satisfied by the government’s grand opening-night gesture. The Prime Minister appeared at the summit Monday evening to announce a plan to help the musical Come From Away get back on its feet in 2024. Several participants pushed Rodriguez hard on the idea of basic incomes and drew him in to a speculative discussion about the possibility in the summit’s final session.

Meanwhile, the publishing industry wants a fix for the educational exemption in the 2012 Copyright Act, a loophole the size of a Mack truck that the government has promised to close. And the museum sector has huge concerns about sustainability after closures that battered smaller institutions. Talk of digital capacity may be helpful here, but only if it comes with money to build it.

As he asked his audience in his opening speech to imagine the bleakness of a day without culture, a day without books, magazines, TV or films, no trips to the library, theatre or museum, Rodriguez acknowledged that at this gathering he was preaching to the converted.

When it comes to internet regulation, however, cultural workers can’t be addressed as a single, committed congregation. Meanwhile, a whole host of opponents from big tech lobbyists to libertarian trolls sit waiting to pounce and denounce. Rodriguez’s tenure at Heritage is riding on this trio of digital bills and it’s going to take a subtler reading of his audience to sell them to Canadians.

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