Are you old enough to remember 1988? Canadians were grooving to George Michael, Tracy Chapman and Bryan Adams. They watched Miami Vice and Dallas and were just tuning in to a new comedy show called The Kids in the Hall. Movies of the year included Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Rain Man and David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers.
The big political debate was whether Canadians should support the free-trade deal the Conservative government of then-prime minister Brian Mulroney had negotiated with the United States. High up on the list of anxieties about the deal was the possibility that it would destroy Canada's ability to protect its own movies, music and TV despite the cultural exemption it included. Would Adams, the Kids and Cronenberg continue to thrive or would it soon be all Dallas all the time?
The answer is complicated – a bit of this, a bit of that, a bit of up, a bit of down – but by and large the cultural exemption proved sturdy enough to maintain Canada's long-standing protection and subsidy of its cultural industries. As another Conservative government signs on to yet another trade deal – this time it's the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership – the question arises again, but this time the landscape has changed.
The text of the current deal has not been made public yet, but as cultural executives quietly peruse summaries or read the smoke signals emitting from the recently concluded negotiations, one big difference is readily apparent: Nobody cares enough about their issues these days to launch a national debate about them. Sure, Canadians are worried what will happen to the auto-parts and dairy industries, but how the deal might affect their access to culture is barely mentioned in polls or news reports.
Maybe that's because Canadians have got comfortable with the idea of ever-expanding trade deals and worry less about free trade generally; maybe it's because most consumers see culture mainly in global rather than national terms. And maybe it's because, after a decade under a Conservative government that simply does not have a cultural policy, the arts community and the cultural industries find it harder than ever to get their issues taken seriously.
The government's soothing summary of the pact indicates there is the equivalent of a cultural exemption in the deal since it maintains Canada's right to regulate and legislate in areas of public interest. The deal also seems to exempt cultural agencies such as the CBC and Telefilm Canada from a worrying chapter that requires Crown corporations to operate as profit-making businesses.
Another area where there has been some anxious speculation is that of copyright, about which the government says the deal is consistent with Canada's 2012 copyright law. Internet activists, however, suspect Canada may be forced to comply with tougher U.S. laws including prohibitions against picking the digital locks on content and longer terms of copyright after an artist's death. Not everyone would be unhappy about that: Writers and publishers appalled by the overly broad educational exemption included in the recent law would welcome a U.S. standard in that area of copyright.
Yes, the devil will be in the details, but what will matter more is the political will to defend culture. In that regard, the 1980s are instructive. The Mulroney Tories were initially seen by their critics, much like their current successors, as plundering partisans, taking their revenge on particular bugbears as they slashed the budget of Ottawa's National Arts Centre and appointed hostile candidates to the board of the CBC. But they turned out to be surprisingly active cultural nationalists in the end, with bold attempts to legislate Canadian control of both publishing and film distribution.
The Mulroney government, re-elected on a free-trade platform in 1988, eventually had to drop proposed legislation that would have brought more film distribution into Canadian hands – under pressure from Hollywood, which has always been aggressive about protecting and expanding its access to foreign markets. But according to a recent report from the Canadian Association of Film Distributors and Exporters, the government did manage to achieve what it wanted – merely that Canada be considered a distinct film market from the United States – through policy.
In other words, the government had a film-distribution policy and it pursued it.
The cultural exemptions in the TPP will only be as robust as the government that is defending them, and the current government sends very few positive signs that it understands the importance of cultural industries to the Canadian economy, let alone the Canadian psyche.
This week in Toronto, a bevy of film and television associations including the Toronto International Film Festival, the guilds that represent actors, writers and directors, and the Motion Picture Association that speaks for the Hollywood majors in Canada, invited candidates from the three big federal parties to a debate about the future of the screen industries. Andrew Cash of the NDP and Stéphane Dion of the Liberals showed up and discussed their parties' cultural platforms; the Conservative Rick Dykstra, a St. Catharines, Ont., MP and parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Heritage, agreed to the debate but cancelled two hours before it started, citing events in his riding. It's an absence that repeats the Tories' alarming pattern of skipping all-candidates meetings across the land, and the previous day he did find time to tout subsidies that will help the auto industries in his riding adapt to the TPP. For the current Conservatives, it's all cows and car parts, but never culture.