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book review

The Tangled Garden by Richard Stursberg.Handout

  • Title: The Tangled Garden: A Canadian Cultural Manifesto for the Digital Age
  • Author: Richard Stursberg with Stephen Armstrong
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: Lorimer
  • Pages: 224

Of the two Canadian video streaming services that launched in 2014, Shomi folded within two years while Crave soldiers on, currently attracting about 2.3 million subscribers – a third of the estimated number of Canadians who subscribe to Netflix. Still, there is one service that can boast of international dominance: The Montreal-based, Luxembourg-registered MindGeek claims 100 million daily viewers for its channels, including Pornhub, YouPorn and RedTube. “It is reassuring to know that there is at least one Canadian cultural success in the online world,” Richard Stursberg writes in The Tangled Garden: A Canadian Cultural Manifesto for the Digital Age.

That’s gallows humour for cultural-policy wonks. This crisp and witty survey of the construction of Canadian cultural protections in the postwar years and their decimation by digitization makes for bracing reading. Anyone who has followed these files, from the dropping number of Canadians reading Canadian books to the financial struggles of Canada’s newspapers and television broadcasters, knew things were bad, but Stursberg and his co-author, Stephen Armstrong, tote them up relentlessly. Canada is losing millions of dollars and thousands of jobs to Silicon Valley while perversely forcing regulated and taxed Canadian cultural industries to compete with the FAANGs – Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google – who aren’t covered by Canadian-content regulations and, for the most part, pay no corporate taxes here. Meanwhile, their digital products often escape the HST because Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and now Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have misleadingly labelled a reasonable taxation update a “Netflix tax.”

How did Canadian governments get this dumb? The book begins with a brief history of how Liberal and Conservative administrations in the 1970s and 1980s created what is called the walled garden in which subsidies and content regulations made room for domestic programming on the airwaves while tax rules encouraged Canadian advertisers to favour Canadian magazines. Stursberg, a former head of both Telefilm and the CBC’s English services, offers an insider account of how Brian Mulroney’s nationalistic communications minister Marcel Masse fought to get culture protections into the 1980s free-trade deal. It may be more detail than some readers need, but the gossipy account is amusing – Stursberg was one of Masse’s deputies – and a timely reminder of how government worked before all power was concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Freed from the constraints of the public service, Stursberg is scathing in his criticism of more recent governments and their culture ministers, in particular the unfortunate Mélanie Joly, Justin Trudeau’s original minister of Canadian Heritage, replaced by Pablo Rodriguez last year. She’s the one who launched a cultural policy review that wound up recommending little and signed the notorious Netflix deal, a status-quo commitment that includes no guarantees the shows created in Canada will not simply be U.S. “service” productions. When not busy bashing the CBC, Harper’s Conservatives had taken wrong-headed populist approaches: Stursberg explains how “pick-and-pay” cable packages have killed off smaller specialty services, leaving subscribers paying the same amount for fewer channels. Next up, the Liberals have suffered a surprising lassitude, an inability to grasp the problem and find solutions.

And there are solutions: Stursberg delivers a convincing manifesto calling for an approach that is both platform-agnostic (for example, Canadian newspapers should get tax credits the way Canadian TV and film production does) and content-agnostic (let broadcasters and newspapers decide whether they want dramas or lifestyle shows, book reviews or political columns). There are some blindingly obvious solutions that many in the field have advocated for a decade: Move tax rules and distribution subsidies created for print into the digital realm. Meanwhile, Stursberg points out that the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission could terminate its increasingly quaint “new media” exemption and start regulating online TV tomorrow. He notes that the European Union has successfully imposed a 30-per-cent new European content quota on the Netflix catalogue in its jurisdiction.

Canada could too, so why doesn’t it? Perhaps the answer lies in the area in which The Tangled Garden has the least to say: Stursberg takes for granted our need for culture. Cultural leaders often speak in platitudes about telling Canadian stories to Canadians, and Stursberg is little different, writing that those missing programming such as the televised Tragically Hip concert of 2016, Hockey Night in Canada, Rick Mercer Report and Trailer Park Boys are dropping out of a national conversation. You can hear the scoffing from the peanut gallery even as you read the words. Stursberg believes the government should abandon what he calls an industrial definition of Canadian content – made in Canada by Canadian citizens – in favour of the British cultural approach: programming visibly set in Britain and identifiably British. That’s consistent with his instinct that we need to nurture a culture distinctive from the United States, but a bit odd for someone who is calling for content-agnosticism.

And here, of course, we are wading into the weeds. When Stursberg was at the CBC, he annoyed many by pushing for a populist broadcaster that was visibly Canadian rather than distinctively public – a Canadian NBC or CBS rather than a Canadian PBS. The problem is that defining what is Canadian always makes English Canadians nervous; it feels potentially exclusionary and blind to multicultural realities.

Does the why of culture even matter? It does. If the Liberals have not rebutted Harper’s mendacious “Netflix tax” label, it is because they have failed to find a political counternarrative. Joly seemed only to believe that digital is cool, and apparently what is cool can’t be regulated. Yet, the election of Donald Trump has reminded Canadians of how they differ from Americans while the complicity of Facebook and Google in undermining democracy has finally allowed governments to question tech triumphalism. These developments offer a political opening for a new kind of cultural nationalism. In that regard, The Tangled Garden is indispensable: It may not explain why we need Canadian culture, but it has conquered the how. Hey, Pablo Rodriguez, read this book.

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Editor’s note: (May 1, 2019) This story has been updated to add that MindGeek is legally registered in Luxembourg.