Once upon a time, when the Harper government ruled the land, it launched a review of foreign-ownership rules in the Canadian book industry. In those years, as publishers merged and bookstores closed, there were pressing questions to answer. Would Canadian writers suffer or profit if more foreign publishers were allowed to establish themselves in Canada? Why block foreigners from owning Canadian bookstores when many Canadians buy from Amazon anyway?
Years went by and gradually the cultural journalists, exhausted by the platitudinous and evasive answers on any question they ever posed to the Department of Canadian Heritage, just stopped asking when the 2010 book-industry review might be released. The Harper government felt uncomfortable with the cultural portfolio – unless its activities could be directly tied to Canadian history – and the book-industry review is just one example in which its solution was to do as little as possible.
If the newly elected Liberals honour all their campaign promises – a big "if" with any political party – the Government of Canada will now invest an extra $1.35-billion in arts and culture by 2020. But do the Liberals understand that what Canada really needs is coherent cultural policy?
The promised money will restore some funding to the CBC, Telefilm Canada and the National Film Board; it will reinstate programs that promoted Canadian art abroad and it will double the budget of the Canada Council. The Liberals have also promised that spending on social infrastructure (which accounts for one third of the $16-billion infrastructure commitment) will include culture, while increases to youth-employment funds will include jobs in the heritage sector.
Some of these items are no-brainers. The fastest way to invigorate arts production in Canada is to simply hand over money to the Canada Council, an efficient, independent organization that spends most of its budget on direct grants to artists and arts groups. The cultural programs offered by the Department of Foreign Affairs were useful tools that helped open foreign markets to Canadian creators and should never have been cut.
On the other hand, the amounts promised to the NFB and Telefilm – $95-million in total over the next four budgets – are tiny and don't recognize that the two institutions should not be lumped together. The NFB has undertaken a smart and largely successful move into the digital realm, and if better funded could realize its plans to establish itself as a global media brand while continuing to digitize its collection so that it's easily accessible online. Telefilm, on the other hand, still struggles to define what Canadian film might mean to Canada and Canadians.
Only the Liberals' commitment to the CBC, which promises a review of the appointment process to ensure independent and expert board members, hints at fixing problems rather than simply giving more money. The Tories, who always preferred politics over policy, did a few things right – they also felt it was safe to top up Canada Council funding – and a few things very visibly wrong, such as disproportionately deep cuts to the CBC. But mainly, the way they ignored culture leaves the Liberals with a series of long-unanswered policy questions – from the book industry and the CBC to broadcasting and the Internet – that now need to be addressed.
For example, the CBC doesn't just need a stronger board, it needs a mandate review that will better define what role is expected of a national public broadcaster in a multimedia, global environment. And it's not just the public broadcaster that needs clearer direction: Canada's commercial broadcasters operate under a series of protections and requirements – including Canadian-content rules and the stipulation they be Canadian-owned – that are a mismatch with an environment in which television and the Internet are merging.
Perhaps in a less politicized environment, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) will now begin to define solutions to that conundrum, rather than just tossing out contradictory crowd-pleasers such as the recent decision to exempt Super Bowl telecasts from the regulations that allow Canadian broadcasters to drop their own ads into competing U.S. signals.
The mismatch in broadcasting, however, will require a deeper fix than the CRTC can offer: The government needs to step in here and rewrite the nearly 25-year-old Broadcasting Act and consider merging it with its almost equally elderly Telecommunications Act to recognize that the two areas are no longer distinct. The next step would be moving telecommunications functions that were hived off to Industry Canada in 1996 back into the Heritage portfolio to recognize that phone and Internet providers are becoming cultural distributors and to invite them to start participating in the ecosystem accordingly.
Perhaps the Liberals could just start by renaming the Department of Canadian Heritage, so narrowly labelled by the Chrétien government back in 1996. Canada sure could use a minister of culture.