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Arts CBC head under fire after comparing Netflix to the British Raj, warns of ‘cultural imperialism’

Ms. Tait’s comments in part reflect decades of Canadian cultural protectionist policy.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The president of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has likened Netflix to the British Raj, arguing Canada needs to be wary of the negative effects of cultural imperialism that could result from an onslaught of foreign-owned media services.

“I was thinking about the British Empire and how, if you were there and you were the viceroy of India, you would feel that you were doing only good for the people of India. Or similar, if you were in French Africa, you would think, ‘I’m educating them, I’m bringing their resources to the world, and I’m helping them,’” Catherine Tait said Thursday during the opening panel of the annual television industry conference PrimeTime in Ottawa. “There was a time when cultural imperialism was absolutely accepted.”

Acknowledging that the sort of “cultural sharing” represented by viewers enjoying TV shows from around the world is a reason to be “very grateful to Netflix,” Ms. Tait cautioned the audience of producers and broadcasters to “fast-forward to what happens after imperialism – and the damage that can do to local communities. So, all I would say is, let us be mindful of how it is we as Canadians respond to global companies coming into our country.”

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She made the comments at the close of a sometimes heated panel at which Stéphane Cardin, Netflix’s director of public policy for Canada, noted the streaming service had already committed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on production in Canada without being required to do so by regulation. Critics have noted Netflix’s domestic spending does not necessarily mean the stories it tells have what Mr. Cardin referred to as a Canadian “authorial voice.”

Netflix declined to comment on Ms. Tait’s remarks.

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But after a video of the panel caught attention online later in the day, critics complained of her apparent tone-deaf reference to a colonial regime that subjugated millions of Indians.

And an Indigenous producer who attended the panel told The Globe and Mail that Ms. Tait’s comments reflect that “the chickens are coming home to roost.”

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“There is no Indigenous [programming] strategy from these people who are complaining about others coming in," said Jim Compton, the president of film company Wabung Anung and a founder of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. “CBC has been paying lip service to us for years.”

Ms. Tait’s comments in part reflect decades of Canadian cultural protectionist policy. The domestic broadcasting system, from the predecessor of CBC Radio to the modern cable companies, was built in part as a bulwark against American influence. Netflix is estimated to have more than six million subscribers in Canada.

In a brief interview with The Globe on Thursday afternoon, Ms. Tait acknowledged her comments may have been “hamfisted,” but she felt there may be “lessons from history” that could help shape the policy response of governments that are grappling with the growing power of U.S. tech giants such as Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google.

“It could be the French, it could be Belgians, it could be Germans – we’re not alone in this,” she said. “All of us are feeling the same concern about this sense of being watched over.”

In making her comments, Ms. Tait risked offending a cultural behemoth that is becoming a more important partner for CBC and other Canadian broadcasters. CBC has noted its acclaimed miniseries Alias Grace could not have been made without the participation of Netflix, which made the show available to a global audience after its Canadian premiere. CBC’s Korean culture-clash comedy Kim’s Convenience has been embraced in the United States after appearing there on Netflix, as has Schitt’s Creek.

Ms. Tait’s comparison to the Raj came after she had already expressed frustration with the marketing success of Netflix, noting that “it was very painful” to read a recent Vanity Fair article about Schitt’s Creek that thanked the streaming service, even though the show originated with and was supported for years by CBC.

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