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Cabinet shuffles are a great occasion for tea-leaf reading, and last week’s provided particularly rich material for political tasseographers. What did the sometimes puzzling changes to Justin Trudeau’s cabinet foretell?

One of the more discussed moves was Pablo Rodriguez’s removal from Heritage to Transport. Where his Heritage predecessors had only got mired in controversy, Rodriguez successfully shepherded two pieces of media legislation through Parliament: the Online Streaming Act, which will require international streaming services to contribute to Canadian production, and the Online News Act, which will require Google and Facebook to compensate Canadian newspapers for linking to their articles. Walking over to Transport may not be a demotion, but it’s hardly much of a prize for these hard-won achievements.

The explanation may lie in the game of chicken now under way over the second of the new acts, Bill C-18, as Google and Facebook threaten to block Canadian news on their sites. The new Minister of Canadian Heritage, Pascale St-Onge, vows to hang tough on negotiations with the Big Tech bullies. Thankfully, she’s a former union president (of Quebec’s Fédération nationale des communications et de la culture, the province’s largest media union), so that promise may be more than mere political puffery. At any rate, Rodriguez has been allowed to pass a hot potato to a colleague – and perhaps that is his reward.

St-Onge, formerly the minister of Sport, is the fourth Quebecker to take on the Heritage portfolio since the Liberals formed government in 2015. She was preceded by Rodriguez, Steven Guilbeault, Rodriguez a first time and Mélanie Joly.

Canada has a long tradition of culture ministers drawn from Quebec. Most famously, Marcel Masse, as minister of communications for Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government in the 1980s, expanded the nationalistic cultural policies that the Liberals had initiated in the 1970s.

Prime ministers of many stripes clearly recognize that cultural politics matter more intensely in Quebec than in the rest of Canada and appoint accordingly. The Online Streaming Act, for example, is central to linguistic politics in Quebec. By requiring the streaming services to provide some original French-language Canadian content, the act should bolster the sparse French offerings that tend to leave Quebec viewers watching in English.

Nonetheless, it might be time for a rest-of-Canada candidate, because once St-Onge has dealt with Google and Facebook her next challenge is one that is mainly of interest in English Canada. The tough file the Minister of Canadian Heritage must address is that of copyright reform.

Despite many warnings, in 2012 the Conservative government added a broad exemption for education to Canadian copyright law. The result has been a bonanza for the educational sector but a disaster for Canadian educational publishing as schools and universities copy classroom materials at will, arguing this is now considered “fair dealing.” As schools copy books rather than buy them, and universities decline to pay licence fees, royalties have evaporated for the authors and publishers who produce Canadian kids’ chapter books or the essays in students’ course packs. Access Copyright, the organization that collects those royalties, is now in the midst of a painful restructuring that will reduce staff by a third.

But not in Quebec. There, the educational sector has agreed to continue licensing its copying through the Copibec agency. In a French-language classroom you can’t replace your Canadian text with American materials freely available online. French-language educators are more likely to understand they need a domestic publishing industry to provide materials tied to a Canadian curriculum, while in English Canada teachers may not recognize the problem until it’s too late. The authors whose works they have copied for free won’t be publishing more books.

The Liberals have promised repeatedly to fix this problem, most recently in the 2022 budget – it’s not hard; just remove a few words from the law – but somehow they never get around to it. Why the foot-dragging?

Coincidentally, another cabinet change might help get the job done. Publishing insiders have long suspected one roadblock was former justice minister David Lametti, known as a supporter of so-called users’ rights. As a law professor in his life before politics, he had vocally supported a 2004 court decision in favour of the right to photocopy legal decisions – a ruling that proved a dangerous precedent for general publishing. Now that he is gone from cabinet, perhaps the government will achieve a more balanced understanding of how publishing works as an industry.

Because it is an industry, no matter how small in comparison with the mighty education sector. Big Tech is not the only bully on St-Onge’s new block. Her next job is to convince Innovation, Science and Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne, whose department is the lead on the copyright file, that Canadian creators have suffered enough. Champagne, by the way, kept his job in the shuffle.

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