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opinion

Lilly Singh made herself into a star through her YouTube channel.Handout

Growing up in the 90s, I still remember the lineup for after-school TV: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Saved By The Bell and the Canadian classics Student Bodies and Degrassi. Though I spent hours watching these shows, there were no characters on screen who looked like me or who I could identify with. That stuck with me, and so 10 years ago this year, I started a YouTube channel.

Canadians watch a lot of YouTube, but many have no idea how people build real businesses from making videos on the internet. We are used to the model of traditional media, where content is either commissioned or acquired – such as all those deals coming out of TIFF that net millions. But on YouTube, virtually anyone with a camera and something to say can participate and earn money. You don’t need to wait for someone to invite you in and make space for you.

Take me, for example. I am the daughter of Indian immigrants, a proud member of the LGBTQ+ community and, according to the headlines, Canada’s biggest YouTube star. I am just one of the many Canadians who come from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in mainstream media and used YouTube to build a career on screen.

Now the opportunity for YouTube creators to be heard may be at risk. The federal government is finalizing legislation for streaming services that may affect what content is shown to viewers in Canada. This is based on the desire that streaming services work more like the radio and broadcast systems of the past 50 years. But creators know that YouTube is different. As a free and open platform, YouTube allows anyone to participate.

Earlier this year, a review panel recommended streaming services be required to prioritize Canadian content, including through “discoverability” obligations. If YouTube is lumped in with other streaming services and required to follow the same rules, it sets a precedent for other countries to prioritize their own local creators. This kind of protectionist approach misses the point of the open internet, where people can find and watch what they want, no matter who made it or where it’s from.

But Lilly, you might ask, why is it important for Canadians to tell their stories around the world? Shouldn’t we prioritize telling our stories to other Canadians? Well, when you are in the minority, it can really help to have a place where your stories ring true to other people like you – where you can build a community. For Canadian creators who don’t fit the mainstream mould, the openness of YouTube provides the opportunity to find their niche among billions of people.

Those global audiences help us build sustainable businesses. For instance, when someone from England watches one of my videos, I earn money from U.K.-based advertisers. This model allows for any YouTube creator to attract revenue from any corner of the world.

That’s why creators who have built their careers on the internet need to be consulted in these decisions. In trying to do what seems like a good thing – highlighting great Canadian-made content – you can unintentionally destroy a thriving creative ecosystem.

Our stories, our popularity and our success would be impossible without access to a global, open platform. When Ryerson University asked Canadian creators about this for a report released last year, 61 per cent said that they believed their channels would be impacted negatively if promotion of content to domestic audiences were to reduce visibility to international audiences. And when we say “channels,” we mean our businesses, our careers, our intellectual property. The same report also asked Canadian YouTube viewers their opinions, and 84 per cent strongly or somewhat disagreed that the Canadian government should play a role in regulating the platform’s content.

These days when I watch YouTube, I see more and more diverse, up-and-coming Canadian creators. What worries me is that they won’t be afforded the same opportunities for growth that I had. Dancer and choreographer Brandon Owusu was discovered by various artists, including Drake and French Montana, through his routines on YouTube. Amanda Rach Lee’s passion for calligraphy and art helped connect her to enthusiasts across the globe and led to the creation of her own line of journals and stationery. These are just a few of more than 160,000 Canadian YouTube creators who are educating and entertaining audiences worldwide.

YouTube’s open platform has created a voice for so many Canadians who don’t see themselves or their passions reflected in mainstream media. And the system works – Canadian creators are successful, and viewers from around the world are tuning in. As creators, it’s important our continued success is made possible. Canadian policy-makers may not understand the uniqueness of YouTube as a platform, but there’s still time to protect what makes it different and the businesses we have built through hard work and creativity. Why change something that already works? I know that without access to an open platform, my story may have never reached beyond the border. Let’s make sure even more Canadians are heard.

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